The mid-19th century in Germany is, to my mind, the most unappreciated period in Jewish history. The reason is simple: modern Judaism as we know it was born then and there. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Spinoza’s revolutionary thought in the mid-17th century certainly paved the way for new thinking (see Chapter VIII of my book). Mendelssohn’s attempts in the late 18thcentury to reconcile faith and reason lay the
groundwork within the Jewish community. The early reforms of Israel Jacobson, along with the responses of the Parisian Sanhedrin to Napoleon in the first decade of the 19th century mark the irreversible first steps of putting theory into practice.
But modernity hits its stride in Judaism in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1817 the Hamburg Temple embraces reform of Judaism as its raison-de-entre. In 1819 Leopold Zunz establishes the pioneering Society for the Culture and Science of Judaism, which advocates for the academic study of our sacred texts and religious heritage. The same year a leading traditionalist rabbi, Moses Sofer, castigates this approach in his broadside Eleh Divrei Habrit. The grounds for the great debate have been set.
The debate truly unfolds over a ten year period (1836-1846) between three giants of modern Judaism who were contemporaries, and actually knew and liked each other (until their disagreements drove them apart). Rabbi Abraham Geiger began arguing that Judaism has always evolved and should continue to change with the times. He called for radical shifts to meet the demands of modernity, including the critical study of Torah, the elimination of outdated prayers and customs, and the equal treatment of men and women. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while acknowledging the need to engage in secular learning in the new age, contended that Judaism’s truths and law was eternal and not subject to evolution. Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, an advocate of “moderate reform” famously stormed out of an 1845 conference in Frankfort over the elimination of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.
Rabbis Geiger, Hirsch, and Frankel became known, respectfully, as the “fathers” of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism. The spectrum of modern denominational Judaism was born in that time and place. Chapter IX of my book chronicles this remarkable debate. While the central locale of the debate would soon shift to America it was these three German Jewish leaders, through their sermons, books, and organizational activities who set the stage. Though hardly household names in the Jewish community today we owe a debt of gratitude to their great debate. I once taught a course about them called “The Three Tenors of Modern Judaism.” Their magnificent voices created the opera we sing today.
The first Jewish debate never ceases to amaze me. I am of course referring to the great debate between Abraham and God as recorded in Chapter 18 of Genesis. While Abraham’s epic story is remarkable, there is nothing in the prior (or subsequent) biblical narrative to indicate that the patriarch will challenge so boldly the God who commands his life so thoroughly. This is the quintessential man of faith, after all, who unquestioningly sets forth to a new land and submits even to the command to sacrifice his beloved son with nary a word of objection.
So when quite suddenly “Abraham came forward” (18:23) and dares God to morally justify the collective punishment of Sodom-well that is astonishing! “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he pointedly asks in the same verse. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” he passionately exclaims two verses later. Abraham holds his ground as the debate goes back and forth concerning the minimum number of innocent people it would take to save the city.
The abrupt and apparently truncated conclusion to the debate (see 18:33) shifts the enigma of Abraham to the enigma of God. Does the Judge of all the earth in fact act justly? Do some innocent perish with the wicked? Were the wicked beyond repentance and mercy? Were the ordinary citizens of Sodom equally evil?
Who, then, won this debate? Certainly Abraham leaves quite a legacy. Abraham could easily have looked the other way. He could have idly stood by. Instead he decides to stand up to God no less, his guide and protector. In the words of Naomi Rosenblatt, this story is about “the power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world.” In the words of Elie Wiesel “the Jew opts for Abraham-who questions- and for God-who is questioned…knowing that he may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of His creation.”
The Sages coined an expression for challenging God in the spirit of Abraham, “hutzpah k’lape shmaya- boldness (even nerviness) toward heaven.” This legacy of “holy hutzpah” finds expression throughout Jewish literature, but especially in Eastern European Hasidic tales like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit Got-Lawsuit with God,” and in another tale where he tells a simple tailor who challenged the Almighty in prayer, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to save all of Israel!”
Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate….
My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Abraham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Geiger, Herzl… heroes of every era of Jewish history are engaged in great debates. Moreover the Talmudis replete with debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. Indeed it is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression,makhloket l’shem shamayim-an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” (5:20) Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.
Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God, that is). In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Bet Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God.” Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.
Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint will usually prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because…[they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as…advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, making space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments, “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without makhloket…the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.”
What your mother taught you is true: you can disagree without being disagreeable. A true debater must respectfully listen to the opposing viewpoint in order to articulate a response. A true debate is a conversation, not a yelling match. Would we only remember the next time we get into a Jewish debate that despite our differences we are actually on the same team, that because of our differences we will emerge more enlightened, that our arguments are for the sake of heaven, and that in the very act of debate we are echoing the divine!