Rabbi Sacks on Community Conflict

JInsider (March 2010)

[The Jewish people is] a fractious, fissile people, always given to divisions and disunity. How do we deal with that? The answer is, that Judaism contains the most powerful tool of conflict resolution ever known. The only trouble is, we don’t use it. What is it? We never believed that Jews, or anyone else, all have to think the same thing. We know we’re argumentative.

We know that the 11th chapter of Bereishit describes a world in which, vayehi kol ha’artz safar achat u’devarim achadim, the builders of the Tower of Babel spoke one language and all had the same idea. And God came and confused their language. We have never sought to impose unity on the world. We have never even sought to impose uniformity on Jews.

How then do we deal with difference? It’s very interesting. Judaism is the only religion, the only culture in the world, all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments. In the Bible, Abraham argues with God, Moses argues with God, so does Jeremiah, so does Jonah, so does Job. In the Mishnah, Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that, and the Mishnah doesn’t tell us who is right and who’s wrong. It preserves both views. Even a rejected view. The view of the school of Shammai is still reported. We argue.

How then do we stay as one? By the sheer force of the argument itself. We stay, we converse, we disagree, but we never split apart. The Sages coined the most beautiful idea. They called it machlochet lesheim shamayim - Argument for the Sake of Heaven. And the Talmud dramatises it. It says Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that. The Rabbis, inquired, “who is right?” And Heaven replied, “eilu v’eilu divrei elokim chayim” - they are both the words of the living God. God enjoys an argument.

So the Talmud says this “afilo av u’beno, afilo rav v’talmido” when a father and son or a Rabbi and a disciple sit together, they become enemies to one another, that they argue. “Ve’einu zazim misham ad sh’ne’a’sim ohavim zeh b’zeh” - but they do not part from there until they become lovers of one another. Why? Because, et ahav basufa - if you stay within the argument, there is love at the end.

In other words, Judaism believes that the argument itself is the total conversation of the Jewish people in dialogue with God. And so long as we can keep arguing with one another, never leaving the table, but engaged in the collaborative pursuit of truth, that is what holds the Jewish people together. Unity without uniformity. The willingness to keep talking, even with those with whom we disagree.