Peaceful Debate

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Jewish history is replete with vigorous debate but something is amiss when disagreement breeds animosity. Sixteen years ago we witnessed the result of such hatred, with Yitzchak Rabin’s tragic assassination. In response, R. Shlomo Aviner published a collection of his essays–most originally published before the assassination–calling for peaceful debate, titled Rosh Ha-Memshalah: Pirkei Kevod Malkhus Yisrael Ve-Eretz Yisrael (The Prime Minister: Chapters on the Honor for the Government and Land of Israel, Sifriat Chavah, Beit El 1996). R. Aviner’s heartfelt entreaty to his fellow Jews is worthy of review in this introspective time of year.

The years immediately prior to and after the founding of the state of Israel were filled with animus between the competing politico-military factions. On two separate occasions, including the sinking of the Altalena, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook published letters calling on Jewish activists to cease from hatred and internecine violence. He beseeched his brothers and sisters to recognize that they may not be the sole proprietors of truth and to refrain from violently forcing their views on others (Li-Nesivos Yisrael, vol. 1 pp. 106, 128). These serve as the model on which R. Aviner acts.

Four themes underlie these passionate, if often repetitive, essays: 1) We are all in this together, as one people. There is no “us” and “them”. We must recognize that if we hurt someone else, another political faction, we are damaging ourselves. 2) Our disputants also think they are doing what is best for the country. Even if we disagree vehemently, we are battling ideas and not people. Yes, protest and debate the ideas but never the people. 3) Respect the office (of Prime Minister) regardless of who holds it. He is a symbol of the people, which always commands respect. If you don’t like who holds the office, campaign for one of his opponents. 4) The Redemption takes time, with surges and halts. Don’t despair because the historical drama which we are experiencing needs to play out at its own pace.

R. Aviner also addresses related halakhic questions. Political debates must be conducted strictly within the laws of slander, to which he devotes the longest essay of the book (pp. 61-82; see this post). In particular, we must not exaggerate our disputants’ positions, such as claiming that they wish to give away the entire country. Dismissive terms like erev rav and rodef (pursuer) are incorrect and counterproductive. These people wish to save the country, even if we strongly believe that their methods are wong. The prayer for the state of Israel must be recited unaltered, despite our disappointment in the country’s leaders. Jewish law applies to political disputes, demanding a cool head on a hot topic.

All of these ideas were published prior to Rabin’s assassination, as demonstrated by the month and year provided for each essay. R. Aviner is arguing that the Religious Zionist community did not entirely neglect its duty to educate against this assassination. While irresponsible voices were certainly heard prior to the tragedy, contrary teachings were also promulgated. In a discussion of who shares the blame, R. Aviner argues that you would be wrong–sinful–to blame an entire community for the actions of an individual or even many individuals (pp. 139-143). However, we must all work to atone for the assassination by spreading love and unity throughout our nation.

Sixteen years after Rabin’s assassination, we still need these lessons. We have not yet learned how to debate politics respectfully and honestly. Baseless hatred caused the destruction of the Temple and, as we can plainly see, continues to plague our nation and prevent its complete redemption. I pray that we finally learn to love each other and see the messianic fruit of our efforts.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

24 comments

  1. And what if another Reform movement arises within Orthodoxy under the guise of halakha? Should we merely calmly “refute” their halkhic proofs?

  2. I would argue that fighting people whom you believe are destroying a country with love is immoral and perverse.

  3. What changes were proposed for the prayer for the state that R. Aviner was opposing?

  4. “And what if another Reform movement arises within Orthodoxy under the guise of halakha? Should we merely calmly “refute” their halkhic proofs?”

    You mean like what should have been done the first time? That might have, you know, worked. Since what was done in reaction to Reform did not work at all.

  5. Eh, it is a matter of simple calculus – what is more destructive to the country – internal strife or the policies of the other side. Sometimes the values and policies of the other side are so abhorrent and rotten, even if with the best of intentions, that they need to be forcefully rejected and excoriated, even at the price of a deep internecine rift.

  6. Small correction. Rav Tzvi Yehudah’s collection of essays is called L’netivot Yisrael, or L’netivos if you prefer; not L’netivus. There’s a holam over the vav.

  7. But it was Menachem Begin who lived it – some real mussar for those of us in the Torah world.
    KT

  8. Sam: And what if another Reform movement arises within Orthodoxy under the guise of halakha? Should we merely calmly “refute” their halkhic proofs?

    Then argue vigorously against their ideas without demonizing the people.

    Joel Salomon: What changes were proposed for the prayer for the state that R. Aviner was opposing?

    Adding in a line asking for leaders who are God-fearing. Nothing inherently objectionable, absent the confrontational context. And, according to R. Aviner, only the Chief Rabbinate can change the prayer.

    Morris: Eh, it is a matter of simple calculus – what is more destructive to the country – internal strife or the policies of the other side

    I think this attitude is precisely the problem. The ends do not justify the means.

  9. Good post, Gil. Good timing, too. This week’s parsha discusses the brit that was made in Arvot Moav. How was this brit different than Brit Sinai? One way is the idea of “Arvut” in this brit. This was not alluded to in the Brit Sinai. Kol Yisroel Areivim Ze Lezah. Moshe said today you become an “Am”. We are all in this together.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  10. Very beautiful piece.
    One point: It is possible and even needed at times to speak out very strongly against views that fly in the face of Torah. No lesser of an oheiv yisrael that Rav Kook ZT”L used extremely strong language when speaking about views he saw as dangerous to the Jewish people. See for example Igrot Hareiyah 14, where he refers to a certain very famous secular zionist thinker as a “rasha” and even says he is “to’eivat nafshi”. Additionally,in letter 875 he refers to a group in Agudat yisrael that was against any sort of settlement of eretz yisrael as practicing “Poisonous piousness” (loose translation).
    It is important at times to stand up and strongly stand for the truth, while never even considering harming another Jew.

  11. All of the “a time for hate” people – you may have a point. But then how does anything change? I would think that virtually everyone who speaks in hateful, aggressive ways about people whom they think are dangerously wrong thinks that they are doing so properly. Yet this is responsible for a lot what Gil was trying to address, so clearly the time for hate isn’t working out so well. How to move away from that?

  12. Anonymous on September 7, 2012 at 12:42 pm
    Perhaps the best test to use is “am I enjoying this?”, If the answer is yes, one might stop and think about their motivations.
    KT

  13. Tsvi — Everyone is human and get angry, including great leaders. Just because Rav XXX got angry and made an intemperate remark does not mean that was meant that makes it acceptable.

    The truth is that as soon as you call someone a “Rasha” or “to’eivat nafshi” you are stopping the conversation and cutting off any possibility of compromise.

    And, as we have seen with our own eyes, the jump from aggressive verbal aggression to physical violence is all to easy and abrupt.

  14. IH-In most contexts , usage of the term “Rasha” is overheated rhetoric. Yet, Halacha and Hashkafa both have terms that need not be apologized for when they are appropriately used in the course of advancing , defending and critiqing a particular POV. I would go so far as to say that the language of both Halacha and Hashkafa are replete with such terms and that the improper avoidance of the usage of such terms as a means of inducing a mood of pluralism and achdus is a PC means of demonizing a legitimate and centuries honored POV. IOW, Assur, Mutar, lchatchilah, dbieved, apikorusus, machtie es harabim, kefirah, etc, are terms that should never be viewed as inappropriate terms for discussion.

  15. In one of te volumes of the Sichos of R A Nevenzal, R Nevenzal spoke out during the period before the withdrawawl from Sinai against a “milchemet achim.”

  16. In most contexts , usage of the term “Rasha” is overheated rhetoric. Yet, Halacha and Hashkafa both have terms that need not be apologized for when they are appropriately used in the course of advancing , defending and critiqing a particular POV.

    What are the criteria used to decide those times? Even recent history shows that what is perceived as overheated rhetoric by some is perceived as halacha by others.

  17. The ends do not justify the means.

    In the event that the result of not employing those means takes a worse toll on the nation than employing those means, then the above statement is morally unjustified.

  18. joel rich on September 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm
    Perhaps the best test to use is “am I enjoying this?”, If the answer is yes, one might stop and think about their motivations.

    I second this.

    Of course this criterion cannot easily be applied by third parties.

  19. Interesting that your twi examples are the Altelena and Rabin’s assassination. Could it be Rabin’s assassination was Divine retribution for his role in the sinking of the Altelena? He did have Jewish blood on his hands…

    And let’s not forget how the Left exploited Rabin’s death and used it to completely silence and vilify the Right.

    Silence is not always golden. It’s important to stand up and speak the truth loud and clear.
    Maybe for

  20. Could it be Rabin’s assassination was Divine retribution for his role in the sinking of the Altelena?

    Why do people assume that if someone was murdered, it was Divine retribution, but if they die of natural causes like everyone else does, it must be unrelated to their deeds? If I had to choose one of the two situations as being caused by Divine retribution, I would say the second is more likely!

  21. Joel said
    “Perhaps the best test to use is “am I enjoying this?”, If the answer is yes, one might stop and think about their motivations.”

    Right on – and reminiscent of Rav Chaim’s mouse mashal about the diffeent types of kanaim. (Both the housewife and the cat want to be rid of the mouse; but the difference is that the housewife prefers if it was not there in the first place, while the cat wants it to be there so that he can get rid of it.)

    MOAG has an interesting aside about whom Rav Chaim was referring to when he said the mashal…

  22. In most contexts , usage of the term “Rasha” is overheated rhetoric. Yet, Halacha and Hashkafa both have terms that need not be apologized for when they are appropriately used in the course of advancing , defending and critiqing a particular POV.

    IH wrote in response to my above post?

    “What are the criteria used to decide those times? Even recent history shows that what is perceived as overheated rhetoric by some is perceived as halacha by others.”

    First of all, the criteria have always been used in the course of what is called the Milchamtah Shel Torah. Secondly, what is one person’s “overheated rhetoric” may very well be “perceived as halacha by others”. If that is so, why should the use of such terms be determined by what is considered PC, as opposed to whether the same is being used as a means of reaching Chosamo Shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu?

  23. I disagree that “am I enjoying it” is useful. First of all, many times people engaging in this kind of rhetoric are feeling many things, including genuine righteous anger. So they may not realize that they are, part of them, actually enjoying it. Secondly, if someone is thoughtful enough to make a personal accounting and truly plumb their own soul and see if they are “enjoying” it, they are already more thoughtful than the average troublemaker and not really the problem.

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