Conversation & Debate

An overview of the Jewish national sport: arguing.

“Polemo asked Rabbi [Yehudah the Patriarch]: If a person has two heads, on which one does he put his tefillin [the leather boxes and straps worn at morning prayers]? Rabbi responded: You can either go into exile or accept upon yourself a ban of excommunication” (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 37a). 

Although Jews have excelled in many different sports, only one sport truly has a claim as being the Jewish national sport. Soccer? Dreidel? No. The Jewish national sport is…arguing! The rules to the sport are pretty slim: within a specific range, almost any opinion can be raised. One might read the story of Polemo and conclude that in Judaism there are a few topics about which you can’t ask questions. With a change of emphasis, that statement is quite accurate–there are only a few topics about which you can’t ask questions. Polemo (whose name is Greek for “I wage war”) just went a little too far.

Jewish texts, insofar as they seem to have personalities, are almost always either engaged in argument or perceived to be so. Some texts, such as the Mishnah, use the explicit language of dispute (“… these are the words of Rabbi Y. But Rabbi Z says…”) as their primary mode of expression. The Bible retells stories of disputes (such as the rebellion of Korah against Moses and Aaron), includes stories that contradict each other (the first chapter of Genesis says plants precede people but the second chapter says people precede plants), and dares to include writings that are at odds with the tone of most of the rest of the Bible. For instance, how could Jeremiah say that “[God] did not speak with your ancestors…about matters of offering and sacrifice” [7:22] in light of the book of Leviticus, which predominately deals with sacrifices?

In the Babylonian Talmud, argumentation is raised to an art form, with multi-tiered levels of hypothetical argument where it might seem as if the Talmud is just “picking fights.” A typical paragraph may look something like this: “This approach makes sense according to Rabbi V who asserts that Rabbi W thinks X in case Y, but could Rabbi V maintain this opinion about Rabbi W in case Z….” Ironically, from a rhetorical point of view, the reduction of arguments to the proverbial hair-splitting differences serves to point out the broad areas of agreement that were shared by the rabbis and their disciples. Arguments about what we might see as trivial details presume that they agreed about the larger areas of practice and of process.

On the other hand, the interpretation of texts also led to–or at least became the excuse for–conflicts between different groups of Jews. Texts that are accepted as sacred or authoritative among one group of Jews but not another can certainly lead to divisions. Alternatively, one can see the divergent attitudes toward the texts as reflecting other social divisions among the groups of Jews. Certainly some kinds of interpretations of texts at least served as markers of a divided community. When early Christians, for example, read the prophetic book of Isaiah and its references to the “Suffering Servant” as proof of the truth of Christian teachings, this kind of “Christological” reading eventually became a pretty clear mark that someone was outside of the Jewish community.

In the 13th century, speculations and interpretations about the meaning of the number of words and numerical values associated with words in the prayer book led rabbis of the Hasidei Ashkenaz (German pietist) movement to condemn people who used even slightly different versions of prayers. And in modern times, differing methodologies of reading the biblical text, such as source criticism or identifying hidden codes in the Bible, are considered reasonable approaches by fairly distinct and separate populations of Jews.

Nevertheless, the general trend throughout Jewish history is to value debate and not to stifle it, and the history of Jewish texts supports that trend.

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