“The Tradition Of The Argumentative Jew”

Leon Wieseltier praises it:

Learning to live with disagreement … is a way of learning to live with each other. Etymologically, the term machloket refers to separation and division, but the culture of machloket is not in itself separatist and divisive. This is in part because all the parties to any particular disagreement share certain metaphysical and historical assumptions about the foundations of their identity. But beyond those general axioms, the really remarkable feature of the Jewish tradition of machloket is that it is itself a basis for community.

The community of contention, the contentious community, is not as paradoxical as it may seem.

The parties to a disagreement are members of the disagreement; they belong to the group that wrestles together with the same perplexity, and they wrestle together for the sake of the larger community to which they all belong, the community that needs to know how Jews should behave and live. A quarrel is evidence of coexistence. The rabbinical tradition is full of rival authorities and rival schools—it owes a lot of its excitement to those grand and even bitter altercations—but the rivalries play themselves out within the unified framework of the shared search. There is dissent without dissension, and yet things change. Intellectual discord, if it is practiced with methodological integrity, is compatible with social peace.

The absence of the God’s-eye view of an issue, and the consequent recognition of the limitations of all individual perspectives, has a humbling effect. A universe of controversy is a universe of tolerance. Machloket is not schism, and the difference is crucial. Though disagreement may lead to sectarianism, most disagreement in the history of this ever-thinking people has been contained, and has been brilliantly developed, on this side of sectarianism. I do not mean to exaggerate the loveliness of the system: There has been heresy and there has been heterodoxy, and Jews have persecuted other Jews for their opinions. Intellectual integrity is always a risk to community, because some minds may think themselves, rightly or wrongly, beyond the limits. But the tradition of Jewish debate, especially legal debate, is striking for how rich it remains within the limits. Whether or not heresy and heterodoxy are forms of heroism, it is important to acknowledge that fidelity, and the internal growth of a tradition inside its carefully examined boundaries, may also be heroic.