On Civil Discourse

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—havrutaand 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 timeperhaps 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 “ravor “rabbi”  means “master,” as in the sense of master of one’s trade, like a “master’s degree”]