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Rabbi Alan Lurie

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The Power of Holy Arguments

Posted: 11/28/11 11:06 AM ET

As most of my fellow bloggers have experienced, there are readers who seem to scan our writing in eager search for something to disagree with -- often ignoring what is actually written. My last blog, "What Does it Mean That The Jews are God's 'Chosen People," which I wrote in an attempt to be clear up harmful misconceptions, illustrated this phenomenon.

In the blog I noted that "chosenness" is in no way a mark of superiority or specialness, but is a call to care for on another and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I noted that this concept does not rely on the accuracy of the Bible, but instead on how later generations interpreted it. And finally I noted that all humans are "chosen" for something, and that Judaism has seen its purpose as standing for social justice, while recognizing that it has often fallen well short of this mark.

Now, to be sure this is a nuanced topic that is difficult to communicate in a 1,200-word blog, and my writing could certainly be clearer and deeper. And of course there is much that one may disagree with and question. But of the over 800 comments it received, very few, it seemed to me, asked respectful, pertinent questions, or sought to understand what I was trying to communicate. The vast majority appeared determined to say why my views are at best misguided, and at worst dangerous -- often in direct contradiction to what I actually wrote.

The phenomenon of looking for something to disagree with has little to do with me or my blog, of course. The history of humanity has, in general, been one of polarized conflict. We admire those with strong views who are not afraid to attack and condemn their opponents, and we get excited by battles, whether physical or verbal, between determined adversaries. And, obviously, the Internet is filled with angry, contentious negativity on all sorts of topics, as are the airwaves and often the streets.

There are several possible reasons for this urge to find fault and to disagree:

Emotional Reward: Let's be honest; it feels good to take an extreme negative position. In it we can experience simple clarity and unrestrained passion, and revel in the luscious self-indulgence of victimhood or righteous indignation.

Laziness: It's easier to be against something than to be for something. Being against something requires no creative thinking or constructive action -- it just seeks to tear down, while pretending to participate in growth.

Protecting Self Perception: There is a misconception that disagreeing makes one look intelligent and educated. There are those who listen to music or read a book eager to find a mistake so that they can demonstrate their discernment. While this kind of scrutiny is needed, the individual usually misses the intent and beauty that is right in front of him.

Narcissism: There are those who seem to have very limited ability to understand that others have a different perceptions of the world than they, and can't see that any other viewpoint besides their own might be valid. Therefore, any other opinion must be misguided or wrong.

Fear: As humans we are reluctant to challenge our core beliefs out of fear that what we believe may not be true, leaving us feeling uncertain and afraid. So we immediately condemn or try to silence anyone who may imply that we are wrong. We may also be afraid of being conned or losing our own voice to another who appears to be stronger than us.

These are all basic human tendencies, which, in themselves, are not bad, but are simply stages of emotional, intellectual and spiritual development. But we must work to mature beyond these if the world is to successfully move to the next level of evolution.

This does not mean that there should not be disagreements, that there is no such thing as good or bad, right or wrong, and that all is the same. Such a position is simply an abdication of responsibility, often stemming, I think, from the desire to appear sophisticated, compassionate, and open-minded in order to hide from one's inner judgments of others and feelings of superiority. Ironically, this is as extreme in its total rejection of the possibility of absolute truth as those who insist that they own the One Truth.

In fact we can, and ought to, have strenuous disagreements, because there is right and wrong, and we must identify wrongdoing so that it can be addressed and corrected. When approached consciously, instead of with the knee-jerk need to argue and be right, though, arguments can lead to tremendous growth.

Judaism has a tradition of this type of disagreements, and provides a model. Called a "machloket," such "holy arguments" are found throughout the Talmud, and continue to this day in Jewish academia. The machloket has two principle guidelines:

1. The Search for Truth: Participants must recognize that the purpose of the disagreement is to help reveal the truth. In this way, each seeks to speak from the highest, most noble self and not from the clawing of the ego's desire to win. This orientation is essential, leading to moments when the "opponent" suddenly realizes that the other has insight that they had lacked.

2. Respect for the Other: The disagreement must never descend to personal attacks or sarcasm. Each must enter with the recognition that the other is a fellow human being who also struggles to find meaning. This leads to great empathy and deep listening, in which each can actually experience what it feels like to be the other. This experience elevates both, and is deeply healing. (This is the reason that we love art, literature, and music -- so that we can experience the interior of another. What a relief to get out of ourselves for a moment!)

These two rules can lead to profound and lasting growth, expanding our vision of the world, increasing our knowledge, creating deep relationships, and most importantly, loosening the pull of the need to be right. Instead of rushing through what the other says in order to get to our rebuttal, we can be attentive to finding new ideas and experiences that are useful. This turns the desire to find what is wrong on its head, as we instead seek what is true, regardless of the source.

The machloket proposes that the "winner" is the one whose view is most expanded by contact with the other. Imagine a political debate in which these are the rules; in which one "enemy" turns to the other and simply says, "You are right, and I was mistaken." Such a gracious acknowledgment could send ripples that change the world.