One of the most pathetic (in the original sense of evoking pathos) passages in the Talmud is one (Bava Metzia 84a) which relates the story of two of the great ones among the rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish).
Reish Lakish’s origins were a little unclear—he may have begun as a gladiator among the Romans, or possibly a brigand. Whichever, he had met Rabbi Yohanan one day when Yohanan was bathing in the river and Reish Lakish was attracted by his beauty. Rabbi Yohanan convinced him to become a Torah scholar with the promise that he would be able to marry Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than he was.
So far, it’s basically television drama. But Reish Lakish goes for it, and he and Rabbi Yohanan become study partners—havruta—and Reish Lakish, despite his late start, become a great and fearless scholar, unafraid to state his opinions and argue for them.
After many years of their partnership, one day while they were studying, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can be in a state where they can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “A robber understands his trade.”
A strange response from partners who had argued together for years. One wonders why Rabbi Yohanan suddenly takes to insult. Or perhaps, it wasn’t the first time—perhaps it was only the first time that Reish Lakish took it to heart, because the insult was personal. Either way, what happened was clear: Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument not by appealing to reason, but by hurting his opponent.
Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and answered, “And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.” [The word "rav"—or "rabbi" means "master," as in the sense of master of one's trade, like a "master's degree"]
So Reish Lakish was hurt. And his response was one that we can see anywhere: When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origin, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here by your sufferance, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”
Rabbi Yohanan, rather than responding to the distance that he created with his words, deepens them, by indulging himself in feeling insulted, and boasts that he (Yohanan) had brought Reish Lakish to divine service. Yohanan’s indulging himself in feeling that he is insulted is so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to him and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.
The end of the story: Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, “Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: “There is a Baraita which supports you.”
Yohanan complained, “Are you as the son of Lakisha? when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
The metaphor is clear, and is particularly poignant now, while the Jewish community is busily trying to force out significant sections of itself—through censure, and censorship, and yes, through insult. The very same people who lament the loss of young Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, who complain that this generation isn’t as connected to Israel, are busily telling those very same people, we don’t want you if you can’t shut up and do as we tell you—especially about things that may have quite a bit of room for dispute within the tradition—even about political problems.
It isn’t simply that there is no uniformity of opinion—there never was. There were always Jews who were owners and Jews who were workers, who were on opposite sides of the labor disputes; Jews who were part of the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union; Jews who lived in shtetls, and those who went to the cities; mitnagdim and hasidim; kabbalists and rationalists, and so on—we always disagreed, and sometimes on very large and difficult matters.
But what we must learn is that lesson that ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan: insult is an attempt to silence your partner in the search for truth—but silencing your bar-plugta, the person who argues with you, is dangerous. One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with you—it is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.
Truth—especially big truths—cannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrong—well, that way lies only death, and madness.
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