Argument For The Sake Of Heaven. How do we participate in constructive argumentation?

Page 6 features art by JAS member Beth Grossman:

Sh’ma Now editor Susan Berrin:

“The election is over; the inauguration has passed. We face four years of an administration that will challenge us in extraordinary ways. One of the responses I thought might be helpful is to examine what Jewish thought and wisdom teaches about constructive argumentation, the Jewish sensibility of “Machlochet l’Shem Shamayim”—“Argument for the Sake of Heaven.” This issue of Sh’ma Now gives you—our readers— a place to explore how we might approach Americans and Jews who we generally don’t speak with. How do we build dialogue with people with whom we can’t imagine sharing any language? Why is it important to understand what inspired supporters of candidates we so completely disagree with? This month, I‘ve curated an issue to be a resource for engaging others.

  • Chanan Weissman introduces readers to the idea of machlochet l’shem shamayim (argument for the sake of heaven) and examines Jewish historical precedents for valuing constructive argumentation. The relationship between the houses of Hillel and Shammai is the best-known example. Was that a historic anomaly? How do we recreate the fabric of that type of disputation today? Is every opinion worthy of respect — and, if not, what are the boundaries of conversation? What does Jewish wisdom teach us about elevating the mechanism and orchestration for disputation? Read more
  • Rabbi Daniel Roth reflects on the emotional skill set necessary for healthy argumentation, including empathy, patience, humility, trust, tentativeness, and chesed (loving kindness), among others.  What additional emotional skills would be important to develop in order to practice machlochet l’shem shamayim—especially in conversations on topics such as Israel or American politics that break down almost immediately? Read more
  • Rabbi Melissa Weintraub urges us to consider political opponents more expansively, without assigning to them our binary reactions. She writes, “As if we must choose: Fight or dialogue, agitate or heal, condemn or introspect, rally the base or reach out to the other. As if seeking to understand one’s political opponents necessitates suspending moral judgment. As if noticing the neglect for the grievances of the rural heartland obliges us to obscure the suffering of immigrants, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and the urban poor.” After the election and the inauguration, as we imagine the next four years of a Trump administration, are you imagining reaching out to know the segments of our society that feel foreign to you? How are you balancing that with protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, who may be even more marginalized in the coming years? Read more
  • Joseph Levin-Manning writes about triggers (something that reminds a person of a past traumatic experience) and trigger warnings (alerts to an individual that something disturbing — an unsettling piece of information or experience — is about to follow). Recently, discussions about creating safe spaces in classroom settings and at conferences have led to larger questions about freedom of speech. Levin-Manning guides you through the complex arguments for and against “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Who defines the boundaries of an argument? How are decisions about the substance and the tactics of argument made? Read more
  • In our simulated Talmud page, NiSh’ma, three writers explore the verse from the Talmud, “Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Shammai and Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Hillel.” (Yevamot 14a) Rabbi Andrea London writes, “Not every opinion is worthy of our respect — certainly, not the torrent of bigoted and
    hateful speech that was unleashed in the past election cycle….But, like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we must find our
    higher purpose and engage in vigorous debate across the many divides in our nation to
    build a society in which all people live with dignity.” What are the limits of free speech and how do you handle situations when you come across vile language and hate-filled speech? Read more
  • Consider and Converse is our robust guide to the issue and framework for discussion and learning. Take a look at the open-ended questions and bring them to your Shabbat table for discussion. What does Jewish wisdom teach us about creating constructive arguments?”

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