Valuing Debate and Conversation

Jewish tradition, informed by the precedent of the Talmud, prefers to promote discussion rather than correctness.

As a student, I never understood why my teachers would sometimes let students (including myself) go on and on expressing ideas which were clearly incorrect. As a teacher, I’ve learned that the days of “Teaching is talking and learning is listening” are over; a progressive teacher understands that “Teaching is listening and learning is talking.”  How happy I was to realize that the underlying message of much of the Talmud aligns perfectly with “progressive teaching.”  The surprising conclusion of the Talmud forces a re-evaluation of the place of open discussion in Judaism.

In the years following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the sages who convened around the coastal town of Yavneh had to determine what aspects of the Temple’s worship could be observed without a Temple. For example, when Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) landed on the Sabbath, should the shofar (ram’s horn) be blown?

The Mishnah (the primary book of Jewish legal opinions and sources) reports:

When the festival of the New Year occurs on Shabbat, they would blow shofar in the Temple but not in the outlying areas. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established that they would blow in every place in which there is a Rabbinic court. (Rosh Hashanah 4:1)

The first statement of the Mishnah is puzzling. If blowing shofar is melakhah (the category of work forbidden on the Sabbath), then why is it not forbidden inside the Temple? And if blowing shofar is not melakhah, why would it be forbidden outside of the Temple? Clearly, any solution to this problem will need some other kind of understanding of blowing shofar.

Nevertheless, the Gemara (the commentary/interpretation of the Mishnah by the sages of the 3rd-6th centuries CE) continues:

From where in the Torah does this law come?  Said R. Levi bar Lachma said R. Hama bar Haninah:  One verse says “a day of complete rest commemorated with the blowing of the shofar”(Leviticus 23:24), and one verse says “it will be for you a day of blowing the shofar”(Numbers 29:1).  There is no problem.  The [first] one is when the festival occurs on Shabbat.  The [second] one is when the festival occurs on a weekday. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29b)

The Gemara asks a typical question: What is the biblical basis for the law that one does not blow the shofar on Shabbat outside of the Temple? R. Hama bar Haninah is quoted, providing a clever reading of the Torah. Since the rabbis assume that the Torah is perfect, and perfection implies that no words are wasted, the two verses quoted above from Leviticus and Numbers, which appear to say the same thing, cannot, indeed, be saying the same thing. According to Hama bar Haninah, the verse from Leviticus which uses the language שבתון זכרון תרועה–shabbaton zikhron teru’ah (a day of complete rest commemorated with the blowing of the shofar)–should be understood as “on the Shabbat, a remembrance of the blowing,” or as Rashi explains, “and not a real blowing; rather, they recite verses about the blowing of shofar.” This is a very clever reading of the verse from Leviticus.

Basically, R. Hama bar Haninah’s approach is that, based on a midrash on the Torah, blowing shofar is permitted on weekdays, but forbidden on the Sabbath. But, as the Gemara asks next:

Said Rava:  If it [i.e. the prohibition to blow shofar on shabbat] is based on the Torah, how did we blow shofar in the Temple?…

Of course we knew this. At our first look at the Mishnah, we knew that any approach that argued that blowing shofar was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath would not explain the Mishnah; if shofar-blowing is forbidden on the Sabbath, how were they permitted to blow shofar in the Temple. As clever as R. Hama bar Hanina’s reading is, it is inadequate to the task of explaining the Mishnah. So why did the Gemara even include his midrash if it was so plainly and obviously incorrect?

The answer to this question reveals one of the underlying truths of rabbinic Judaism.  More important than the conclusion is the process. The message of the Gemara is not that a correct understanding is irrelevant, or that there aren’t correct (and incorrect) understandings; to the contrary, careful thinking and evidence-based argument are crucial. But they are not as important as allowing diverse views to be expressed. When we examine and discuss the logic of the Mishnah, we make sure that diverse opinions, divergent opinions, and even clearly false opinions are given voice. To shut off the creativity of a Hama bar Haninah in this case might indicate that all that matters is the final word. To indulge that creativity, even when it is clearly wrong, sets the opposite precedent, and encourages creative thinkers to take intellectual risks for the sake of Torah. If the conversation of Torah she’b’al peh–“Oral Law”–is to proceed, we must foster and encourage our risk-takers.

Rava does end up revealing how the Mishnah makes sense. Rava quotes his teacher Rabbah, who argues that the prohibition against blowing shofar outside of the Temple was a rabbinic prohibition (and not a biblical prohibition, as Hama bar Haninah argued), which simply did not apply to the Temple.

The Talmud now turns to the second part of the Mishnah: “After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established that they would blow in every place in which there is a Rabbinic court.” The Mishnah’s language “established” is bland and undramatic. The Talmud fills in the details:

After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established [that they would blow shofar (when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat) in any place in which there was a rabbinic court].  Our rabbis taught: Once, Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat and all of the cities (Rashi comments: around Yavneh) were gathering (Rashi explains this was in order to hear the shofar-blowing from the representatives of the rabbinic court, just as they were used to doing in Jerusalem). Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said to B’nei Beteira: Let’s blow shofar.  They said to him:  Let’s discuss/vote [first]. He said to them:  Let’s blow shofar and afterwards we will vote. After they blew shofar, they said to him: Let’s vote.  He said to them: The horn has already been heard in Yavneh and there is no returning after the fact.

From the first part of the Gemara, we learned that the rabbis had ordained that shofar blowing was to be forbidden on Shabbat outside of the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, is every place to be considered “outside,” or could there be an exception? Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s approach was to make a substitution; instead of a fixed Holy Place in Jerusalem, Judaism would find a new center in the study of Jewish texts—“any place where the rabbinic court” was would be the new center. Rather than abrogating the earlier rabbinic decree, Yohanan ben Zakkai applied it in a new way.

But what happened to the process? When the cautious B’nei Beteira urge discussing the radical move, Yohanan tricks them. Once the shofar has been blown, the crucial precedent has been set, and there is no more place for discussion. Yohanan ben Zakkai understood that Judaism needed a new way; B’nei Beteira may not have had that insight. But why were B’nei Beteira’s concerns not “given a voice” like the Talmud later gave voice to Hama bar Hanina?

Or is our understanding of the “meta-message” of the Talmud incorrect. After all, once the Temple was destroyed, what did it matter why they were allowed to blow the shofar on Shabbat? The Gemara’s question is academic. Is discussion and risk-taking only tolerated when dealing with abstract, intellectual issues? Should we silence those who dissent when they just “don’t understand” the flow of history as we do?

No. When one looks at the Talmud, and at Jewish civilization as a whole, it is clear that the process—open discussion—is central, and that this story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is the exception. Indeed, the Mishnah’s bland language–“Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established…”–may be a way of covering up the embarrassing breach of the rabbinic commitment to a life of dialogue. But what the Mishnah disguises, the Talmud reveals; the editors of the Talmud were aware, apparently, that the heritage of a Judaism centered on Torah study, which Yohanan ben Zakkai worked to create, is not diminished by acknowledging the precipitous actions which the great sage took in order to establish it. But for us to imitate Yohanan’s treatment of B’nei Beteira, would indeed diminish our heritage.

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