Israel: Two Categories of Debate


There is a teaching that says that there are two different kinds of arguments, two categories of debate.  The Ethics of our Ancestors, Pirkei Avot, teaches that some debates are for the sake of heaven and other debates are not for the sake of heaven. The rabbis asked, “What does it mean for an argument to be for the sake of heaven?”

A debate for the sake of heaven has everlasting value.  It is an argument in which the two sides respect and value each other, where they do not allow their disagreement to mask their humanity.  It is an argument to find some deeper meaning and common ground, not an argument for one side to overpower and control the other.

A debate not for the sake of heaven does not have value.  It is an argument where the two sides do not respect each other, where they do not see legitimacy in the other side of the disagreement, where they do not respect the intellect or humanity of their opposition. The argument is not about facts and figures but about emotions and entrenchment. A debate not for the sake of heaven is one in which the sides wish to overpower and dominate each other.

Hillel and Shammai, two of the great rabbis of the first century, are said to have had debates for the sake of heaven.  Although these two teachers rarely agreed with each other and built two competing schools, their arguments served a greater purpose. To show their respect for the other person and his ideas, they taught the others views.

Unfortunately the world in which we live gives rise to many debates that are not for the sake of heaven. These debates are social, political and religious in which we feel like we are having a completely different conversation than the other side.  Conversations about Israel.

no matter how well intentioned, often turn into debates not for the sake of heaven.  When we talk about Israel, it can be very difficult to find common ground. Disagreements can become polarizing.  We only speak about extremes and opposites.

It can be difficult to turn our conversations about Israel toward finding common ground, but when we do, we have great power and opportunities. During my time in Israel I have had opportunities to engage in truly meaningful dialogue. I sat around tables with people who I disagree with and engaged in meaningful dialogue about Israel while we disagreed in healthy and positive ways.

During my first year in Rabbinical school, I took part in an immersive weekend program in the Palestinian territories.  Over the course of that weekend, I met with individuals who lived there. I heard their stories and perspectives and gained a greater sense of understanding.  Only then did I feel like we were able to engage in meaningful dialogue together and discuss contentious issues from a places of empathy and humanity. Though we may not have agreed on many issues around Israel, our dialogue was for the sake of heaven.

When I was in Israel in November, my group met with a Rabbi who lives in one of the Israeli settlements.  Before we delved into the contentious issues that we knew we would disagree on, we spent some time getting to know each other, learning together, and eating together.  We then had a very challenging conversation about the Rabbis place and role in Israeli society. We disagreed on many issues, but we all worked hard to keep the conversation civil.  Although the conversation was not going to change any of us in that moment, it opened up different possibilities for all of us.

In all my time in Israel, or in the United States talking about Israel, I have many positive memories.  However, the moments that left the strongest and most lasting impact, were the challenging dialogues and honest disagreements.  During these moments I sat with people I disagreed with and saw their humanity. I hope that when we talk about Israel our debates will be for the sake of heaven.

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