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Opinion What the Talmud can teach us about how to argue with each other

A religious scholar reads from the Talmud in Jerusalem in August 2004.
A religious scholar reads from the Talmud in Jerusalem in August 2004. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
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Daniella Greenbaum Davis is a Spectator USA columnist and a senior contributor for the Federalist.

Lately, it feels as though Americans can agree on only one thing: We don’t disagree very well. What’s needed is a crash course in debate, a manual for how to rationally, practically and productively disagree with one another. Fortunately, we Jews have one. It’s called the Talmud.

I’m always grateful for the lessons I’ve gleaned from this text dissecting Jewish law and tradition, but with Passover around the corner, I’m especially appreciative. Having family and friends who are well-versed in the art of arguing makes things easier at the Seder table after four ritually mandated glasses of wine.

Google will tell you that the Talmud comprises 2,711 pages, but that number is misleading. Talmud pages are large and wide and subdivided into pages within pages — so closer to 6,000 pages would be more like it.

Packed into this dense and challenging text is a bit of everything: legal commentary, mental gymnastics and bizarre, sometimes mystical, anecdotes. Some pages discuss life-or-death matters. There is a famous debate about what to do if you and a friend find yourselves in the middle of a desert with only enough water for one of you to survive. The sages discuss whether it is ethically correct for the person who brought the water to share it with his friend — leading to both of their deaths — or keep the water for himself, saving his own life and condemning his friend to die.

Other pages are preoccupied with odd minutiae, such as finding the precise definition of an idiot. There’s something for everyone. Each page has one thing in common: All feature polite, meticulous and creative styles of argument.

The Talmud is filled with interlocutors who find themselves on opposing sides of a debate. Yet these opponents don’t work as enemies or make ad hominem attacks; they come off as collegial sparring partners, testing ideas for weaknesses and inconsistencies, aiming not to win but to find truth.

In today’s impolite society, when a person says or tweets something absurd or nonsensical, the widespread instinct seems to be to pounce: to dismiss it, condemn it and sometimes even to silence it. In the Talmud, the response is quite different. Even crazy ideas stir the lofty arguers of the Talmud to look inward, wondering whether they might be missing something.

The Talmud features two overarching schools of thought that are almost constantly in conflict: Beit Shammai, or the house of Shammai, and Beit Hillel, or the house of Hillel. These two academies were named for the 1st-century scholars who inspired them. In the hundreds of debates between the two schools, the rabbis of the Talmud almost always side with Beit Hillel. But the debates are mostly resolved in the traditional fashion: Both viewpoints are aired and examined, and eventually a defect in an argument is discovered.

There is, at times, a more fantastical solution. The Talmud tells the story of a three-year debate between the two houses. After all that time, the rabbis — mere mortals — are no closer to deciding the law. It’s time to call in backup. A voice descends from the heavens and declares that both opinions are the word of God; however, the divine voice also declares that the law is in accordance with the opinion of the house of Hillel.

If God’s answer stumped you, you’re not alone. The compilers of the Talmud were likewise confused. They ask: “Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the Halakha [Jewish law] established in accordance with their opinion?”

The answer could form the manual on disagreement that the United States could use right now.

The Talmud explains that the house of Hillel had its teaching established as law because, in the context of the debate, its members were patient and decent and kind, and because they remained so even when they were being challenged. Moreover, at the house of Hillel, educators taught students both their own teachings and the teachings of the house of Shammai. And when they were teaching a dispute, they went so far as to teach the Shammai teachings first, out of deference.

Students in Jewish day schools around the country study a dual curriculum. Along with math and science and English and history, they study the Bible and the Talmud. It means that every day, in addition to learning equations and historical facts, they are learning how to argue and how to seek value in the other side’s ideas. Rabbi Hillel is known for turning many a phrase. One of them is “If not now, when?” It doesn’t need to be through learning the Talmud, but educators in high schools and colleges would do well to introduce a crash course in arguing. If we want to fix what’s badly broken in the national discourse, the time is now.

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