Is Judaism Pluralistic? And what is the difference between disagreements and war?

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum is the director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Institutes for Educational and Rabbinical Emissaries

בירנבוים 682x1024.b197b0Throughout history, Judaism has been characterized by machloket – halachic disputes and disagreements.  The Jewish world has always comprised a myriad of diverse opinions: Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel and many other worldviews of all hues and colors.  Similarly, Torah learning is founded upon endless deliberation and dialogue: parents and children, teachers and students engage in constant debate, each expressing a distinct opinion as part of the Torah learning process.  “A parent and a child, or a teacher and his disciple who study Torah and become rivals in their learning, do not leave until their love for each other returns.” (Talmud Bavli, Kidushin 30:2)

The study of Torah is, by definition, a learning process involving dispute and controversy, rather than one aiming to achieve peace or harmony.  It highlights the differences that exist between different parties, and only at the end of the learning process, after tensions have run high and each of the learners has expressed his take on the issue – only then can peace be achieved.  However, this peace is contingent on the ability of all parties to listen to each other, be attentive to the other and engage in dialogue.  Sometimes the learning process itself – the controversies, debates and conflicting claims it entails – are more important than the conclusion itself. 

Interestingly, neither the Torah nor Jewish thought idealize unanimity or uniformity of thought; on the contrary – philosophical dispute and debate are constantly encouraged.  Perhaps this is so because Judaism is a religion of deliberation and contemplation, rather than one of dogmas, wars or conflicts.  Differences of opinion are desirable, as they serve to uncover both the individual’s truth as well as the collective one.  Controversial discussions and debates have numerous benefits, all of which are significant. The Jewish people believe in a culture of controversy, one which encourages diverse opinions to be voiced respectfully and empathetically without waging personal wars.  This notion is expressed in the Aruch HaShulachan: “This precisely is what makes our holy and pure Torah so glorious.  For the entire Torah is called a Song, and what makes a song great is its multiple voices; and the fact that each voice is distinctly heard, is also what makes the song so melodious and pleasant to the ear” (from the introduction to Aruch HaShulchan on Choshen Mishpat).

There are two ways to solve disputes and conflicts.  Either by exercising authority, or by engaging in persuasive dialogue.  Those who try solve problems by means of force, do not, in fact, acknowledge the other party’s right to hold a different opinion and voice it.  The use of force usually solves nothing, but simply postpones the problem to a future date and may even perpetuate the situation. 

On the other hand, one who tries to solve complex situations by engaging in dialogue and expressing deep conviction, attempts to persuade his opponent by showing mutual respect.  The only way to resolve wars is by respecting the views of the opponent.  This does not mean to say that all people must think alike.  People are entitled to have their own opinions, and disagree with others.  One is allowed have a machloket with another party and dispute other opinions, but this should never result in war.  Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook phrases this ever so perfectly:

“Some err in thinking that world peace can only be founded upon homogeneity of opinions and a uniformity of traits.  For this reason, when these people see Torah scholars engaging in debate and deliberation which lead to greater diversity of opinion and numerous methodologies and interpretations, they come to think that this causes dispute which is the opposite of peace.  But this is not so!  For real peace is founded upon pluralistic peace which is one that incorporates all parties and worldviews, fine-tunes them and gives each its appropriate place.  Only by bringing together all the pieces, all the seemingly controversial views and the conflicting parts – only then can real truth and justice come to light” (commentary on the words: “Torah scholars enhance peace in the world”).

Every individual brings into the world a special trait or value, unique to him only, and it is this that makes the Creation truly whole.  Wholeness is not achieved by blending all of mankind and blurring all distinctions; rather, the world must contain all the colors of the rainbow, the entire spectrum of differences and traits, each of which contributes something unique and complements the other components. 

I am pained by the fact that in today’s Jewish world there are hardly any true halachic debates or Torah deliberations.  Instead, people are engaged in conflicts and wars, showing no respect for each other.  People don’t really listen and there is no real attempt to engage in well-meaning and constructive debate and dialogue.  Rabbi Aharon Milevski of blessed memory, who was a disciple of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski and Rabbi Kook, and served as the chief rabbi of Uruguay for many years – a position I was fortunate enough to hold myself – said during a farewell party held for him by the community that “Little people make wars; great people engage in debates.” 

May we be so fortunate as to revive true and constructive machloket and bring all wars to an end.

Shabbat Shalom!


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