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Why Jews Argue

A rabbi once got so sick that he couldn’t make it to shul for Shabbos. The next day, the shul president visited the rabbi’s house. 

“I’m here on behalf of the board to wish you a refuah shleima,” he said. 

“Really?” said the rabbi, “That’s so nice.” 

“Well, yes,” said the president, “It passed by a vote of 7 to 4.”

This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, is mostly about judges and the laws of damages and injury. One of the rules we learn is that when the judges make decisions, they should follow the majority rule – “acharei rabim l’hatos” (you shall incline after the majority).

For anybody living in Western Civilization, the concept of majority rule is so familiar to us – almost like the air we breathe – that we may even take it for granted. But there is a lot more to the Torah concept of majority rule. Indeed, it is fundamentally different from the way it is understood and practiced by the society around us. 

If we understand this, we will also understand why Jews have a reputation for arguing. What? Do you think we don’t have a reputation for arguing? Oh yeah, we do! You know what they say. If nine out of ten people agree on something… the tenth must be Jewish.

If you have ever walked into a study hall of any Yeshiva and watched the students sitting across from each other, you might think they are fighting. Everyone is screaming at each other. But this has been the preferred form of studying for thousands of years. A lecture from the teacher is a small part of yeshiva education. In the advanced grades especially, most of the day is spent with a study partner preparing for or reviewing the teacher’s lesson. 

And let me ask you, in yeshiva, who is the best study partner if you really want to learn? Somebody who thinks just like you… or someone who disagrees with everything you say?

The Gemara tells us how Rabbi Yochanan convinced a Jewish bandit named Reish Lakish to give up his life of crime and become a Torah scholar. Reish Lakish quickly excelled in his studies, and, in time, the two became more colleagues than teacher and student. Indeed, they became study partners and being that they came from absolutely opposite backgrounds, they never agreed on anything. When R’ Yochanon would give his opinion, Reish Lakish would bring proofs from the Torah to argue the opposite. 

Once, the argument became so heated that they had a falling out. Reish Lakish died soon after before they could reconcile. The other sages saw that Rabbi Yochanon was lonely and becoming depressed, so they found him a new study partner. For every ruling that Rabbi Yochanon gave, his new chavrusa would not only agree, but he would also offer supporting arguments. Rabbi Yochanon despised this and eventually died of a broken heart.

But it’s very important to understand that Jews don’t argue for the heck of it. We argue because from the arguing comes a more extraordinary kind of peace – the harmonization of opposites.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936), known as the Rogatchover Gaon, offered the following analysis of the concept of majority rule. We all know that the majority rules. But how exactly does it work? What are the mechanics? Surprise, surprise- there are different ways of viewing it. One way of viewing it is that the dissenting opinion is forced by Torah to defer to the majority opinion. So even though they had argued the opposite, once the ruling is made and they are in the minority, they have to throw their support behind the majority. 

Another way of looking at it is that “you shall incline after the majority” means that after the ruling is made, it is actually a mitzvah for the minority to go back and review the case until they come to the conclusion of the majority. Why? Because we must come to a consensus, but we want that consensus to include the greatest possible diversity. When one of the minority judges has to go back and review the whole case, he uses the same brain that led him to his previous decision to now lead him to the majority’s decision. His conclusion may not prevail, but his way of thinking is preserved and made part of the majority decision.

When diversity comes to unanimity in the end, we have the truest kind of shalom, completeness, and wholeness. We need to come to an agreement, but the bigger the argument, the bigger the agreement. That doesn’t mean argument for the sake of argument. It means an argument that arises naturally because the people involved genuinely view things differently. 

In other words, the goal isn’t to reach an agreement as quickly and easily as possible; that wouldn’t be true peace. True peace is when there are various perspectives – a variety that gives rise to discord – and these all come together. Indeed, for this very reason, in a Beis Din, a father and a son or a teacher and a student can only be counted for one vote, for the whole purpose of convening a multitude is to have a variety of perspectives. That is true peace.

Incidentally, this will help us understand the traditional Jewish greeting of “Shalom Aleichem.” It seems funny. Two Jews meet. One says, “Shalom Aleichem (Peace upon you)” and immediately, the other one says the exact opposite! “No! Aleichem Shalom! (Upon you peace).”

Another interesting thing is that “aleichem” is plural – “upon you all,” really – and yet it is said even when meeting one person. We could just as easily say, “alecha” which is singular for “upon you.”

But the explanation is readily understood in light of everything we have said. First of all, the use of the plural… The whole point is to emphasize that as soon as two Jews meet, we already have plurality – two people with two different ways of looking at things. And that is true peace. Peace comes from diversity, not uniformity. So we emphasize the plurality by saying “aleichem” plural rather than “alecha” in the singular.

That’s also why the one who responds reverses the order. If he were to repeat back what the first Jew said – “Shalom Aleichem” “Shalom Aleichem” – that wouldn’t be shalom. Real shalom has to come from two different perspectives, better yet, polar opposites.

Furthermore, the response of “Aleichem Shalom” adds a deeper dimension of peace even than “Shalom Aleichem.” “Shalom Aleichem” implies, “May peace infuse our plurality.” That’s like the first perspective on majority rule, where the minority defers to the majority. The peace is “imposed” from above to below so to speak, because the minority doesn’t really agree, they just concede that the majority has won. 

But “Aleichem Shalom” implies, “From our plurality is peace.” That’s like the second perspective on majority rule, where those in the minority each preserve their unique way of thinking and bring it over to the majority. Even though they do not determine the conclusion, the perspectives of the minority are still essential to the conclusion’s wholeness and shalom. The more diverse the plurality, the bigger the peace.

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