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Debate and Decision in the Jewish State

Argument is the Jewish people’s comfort zone. How we make decisions will shape our society almost as much as the content of the decisions themselves.
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

Argument is the Jewish people’s comfort zone. Our tradition exalts it. The Talmud, with its plethora of disputes and conflicting interpretations, is not a legal code as much as it is a record – and a model – of Jewish conversation. The idea that in any halakhic dispute both opinions – even if contradictory – “are words of the living God” is more than a concept by which the Talmud validates competing positions. At its best, it is a moral aspiration – which sees legitimacy in the counter-argument, which embraces ambivalence as a value, and which has a certain passion for complexity and disagreement. As the Maharal of Prague saw it, Judaism considers the very existence of opposite views as evidence of the unfathomable unity of the Divine, since both the claim and the counter-claim must ultimately spring from the same divine origin. In his words:

A dispute for God’s sake prevails even when it involves opposites because He, may he be exalted and blessed, unites the two opposites. Although they are divided and opposed, from God’s perspective they are nevertheless united since God, who is one, is the cause of both opposites. (1)

Any religious tradition capable of embracing diversity of opinion in this way must, of necessity, demand humility about the human capacity to monopolize truth. Whereas religion has so often assumed title over the truth, a Jewish tradition that cherishes debate suggests that we do not often get to drag God onto the battlefield, convinced in the purity of our cause. Rather, the knowledge that there is a truth more varied and unreachable than any one school of thought can encapsulate acts as a restraint on our ideological zeal and as a reminder that even our most vicious opponents in argument may grasp something that evades us.

Admittedly, this concept of embracing diversity is, in itself, only one strand in an even more diverse tradition. And, like any philosophy, it can be dangerous when taken to extremes (there are, after all, views that are patently illegitimate and must be forcefully rejected). But it is nevertheless a critically important component of our heritage that we diminish at our peril.

This idea has deep theological roots in Judaism, but also simpler cultural manifestations. Jews like to argue. We like to pick apart a topic. We tend not to nod in polite agreement with a position with which we take issue. And a healthy Jewish society considers vigorous debate, I think, not as a sign of disunity but of vitality, and of the multifaceted and never-ending search for meaning.

In this sense, I do not bemoan, as some do, the intensity of the discourse in Israel and across the Jewish world. We need not hope for consensus on the issues we debate. Jewish unity is not about finding common, uniform agreement – it is about creating a community of shared conversation. The problem is not that we argue, but it can be in the way that we argue and in the obstacles that our enthusiasm for argument can place before the very real need to take decisions.

The Talmudic model offers us guidance here not only because it provides an example of disagreement that respects the integrity of conflicting opinions, but also because it does not consider the legitimacy of opposing views as an excuse for indecision. In the end, the halakha is still determined. What gives the Talmudic discourse such profound moral force is that even after the practical decision was taken, the duality was allowed to linger, the defeated view was embraced, and its proponents validated, even if their position was not followed.

The character of Israel as a sovereign state (just like the character of individuals) is shaped largely by the quality of the decisions it makes and the manner in which it makes them. We cannot afford to allow the genuine complexity of our predicament to prevent decision making, or to take decisions in ways that delegitimize or demonize those within society that are harmed by them.

In key areas of Jewish sovereign life, major decisions are still ahead of us. Many are decisions of immense difficulty, made all the more complex by the passion they inspire, and the risks they entail to our physical and spiritual well-being. On issues of peace and security, for example, we remain deeply torn over the settlement enterprise and over whether and under what conditions far-reaching territorial compromise with the Palestinians is a greater necessity than it is a threat. On issues of Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic State we continue to grope for a balanced formula and remain a state without a unifying constitution. On issues of social justice, we have not yet settled on an economic system that balances free enterprise with social welfare.

In all these areas, and others, we can identify the real dilemmas and delicate nuances at stake, and opposing views can alternate in their predominance, but the gavel has still not fallen. And in each of these cases, the greatest challenge for Israel may not lie in the gravity of the decisions we have to take, but in our reluctance or inability to take them.

Some decisions we will not be able to take alone (as in the case of reaching a conflict-ending peace agreement). Others are rendered almost out of reach, as long as there is a governmental system and coalition dynamic that makes a Prime Minister’s political survival a virtual daily struggle, that tends to reward indecision with political longevity, and can actually deter strategic action. But there are many decisions we can take, even today. And we must ensure that our Jewish inclination to debate ardently does not displace our duty to decide well.

If we want our decisions to resonate with Jewish values and strengthen, rather than weaken us as a society, we need to find ways to genuinely embrace and uphold the legitimacy of those who lose the argument. We need to respect and validate the opposing view and see it as part of the fabric of a rich and vibrant Jewish society, not as a threat to that society.

In the case of Gilad Shalit, one could feel this dynamic at play. After years of debate, a decision was taken, but many seemed able to acknowledge and feel the pain of those deeply opposed or harmed by it. For the many decisions that await us as a people, the challenge will be whether we can expand and deepen this sensitivity. If we evacuate settlements, for example, can we find a way to embrace and respect the loss and mourning of those among us for whom this is a national and personal tragedy, in a way that too many failed to do during the Gaza disengagement? If we decide to use force against our enemies, can we hear and contain the views of those within us who consider the act rash or unwise, without rushing to doubt their loyalty or their patriotism?

It is in our capacity to make decisions but in this inclusive and humble, decisive and yet respectful way that the Jewish character and strength of the state will be tested. We are not in exile any more. If we want to shape our future we must take difficult decisions. But how we make those decisions will shape the moral fiber of our society and its prospects, almost as much as the content of the decisions themselves.

(1) Judah Loew b. Bezalel, Derekh Hayyim (Jerusalem, Ryzman 1971), p. 258-9. For a contemporary exploration of this and related ideas see, Alick Isaacs, A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion and Politics (Indiana University Press, 2011).

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