In the tendentious and acrimonious debates that polarize us today, Western culture, in general, and Western Jewish culture, in particular, have forgotten their roots. For it was these two cultures (Greek and Jewish) that discovered one of the most precious legacies to human kind, which have aided their progress and has been present in every single relevant cultural and scientific development for the past two thousand years. I am speaking of the discovery of dialectic, which is the art of discussing openly the most difficult subjects upon which there seems to be no possible consensus.
In the Greek world, we owe the discovery of this art to Socrates and its development to Plato and Aristotle. Early Athenian democracy was a cutthroat environment in which persuading the public of the convenience or truth of your opinion was often not just a matter of political gain but of survival. “Teachers of wisdom”, thus, arose who claimed to be able to teach young politicians the art of convincing everyone to the utter truth of your claims; deceit and illusion were valid tools of bringing someone to your side, which was invariably right. Against this bleak and yet familiar backdrop, arose Socrates and his heirs who were dead set in reaching the theory that best explained reality and not just the one that they favored. The method they devised to do so was beautifully simple. First, catalogue the opinions concerning a topic that are held to be true either by the masses, the experts or tradition: these common held beliefs were called endoxa in Greek. The second step was to analyze each of these endoxa impartially and fairly: with one person arguing passionately for the virtues of the endoxa and another person trying to poke holes into its claim to truth. Thoroughly, methodically, and fairly some endoxa would survive the process while some would be discarded. This often does not yield bona fide philosophical Truth, much to Socrates’ interlocutors’ chagrin, but it reduces the options that can aspire to be that truth to a much leaner, stronger list, which at a practical level, can facilitate encounters if not consensus among people who started the conversation in opposite ends of the spectrum.
Within the Jewish context, dialectics emerge as a reaction to the end of the age of Prophecy. Biblical prophets, once they had been able to convince the people that they were true prophets, could speak with that incredible certainty that allowed them to open most of their statements with the verbal bludgeon: “Thus spake the Lord”. But when the prophetic age came to a close and Biblical interpretation and debate took center stage, our people had to develop a way of settling arguments about the meaning of Torah so that it would not become “two torot”. And where the Greek sages developed rigid rules of discourse to advance their dialectics, the Jewish sages placed a premium on civility and the ethics of discourse so that the unity of the people would not be challenged by their disagreements. Even the cantankerous houses of Hillel and Shammai with their innumerable disagreements, did not stop eating at each other´s homes and marrying among each other. The value of having a study partner to challenge one’s opinions and perfect one’s discourse was seen by Rabbinic culture not only as a privilege but as a condition of life itself: “chevrutah o mitutah” (partnership or death).
As modern Jews we are the children of both the Rabbis and Socrates and we should not neglect our double heritage. From the Greeks we should learn the value of following strict rules of discourse that sometimes force us to advocate for opinions we disagree with or to criticize cherished beliefs. Putting ourselves in this dialectical position of discomfort is a sure way to advance and perfect our own belief systems but also develop a more compassionate view of others. From our Rabbinic past we should internalize the fact that, once the arguments subside and the clatter and the din die out, we still need to live together in community with other Americans, with other Jews. This powerful and often ignored truth will be a guardrail in our passionate discussions that, when effective, will make us more civil and less hurtful and cavalier in our affirmations. And even when it fails and we hurt our dialectical contenders, the notion that we need to share a common space will be a balm for our grievances and the kindling for the necessary amends.email print