Who Won the Debate?

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28 Nov 2007

(In memory of Rabbi Neria, on the twelfth anniversary of his death.)

We were in the eleventh grade, students at Yeshivat Kfar Haroeh, headed by Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria. During the years when we were together, we learned a lot about Torah and the fear of heaven, and also about such subjects as Torah and labor, Torah and Zionism, and Torah and Eretz Yisrael. We also learned a lot from our teacher about listening to those who were different from us and learning even from people whose opinions were very far from our own.

One day one of the students suggested that we organize a symposium, a public debate. The rest of us accepted the idea enthusiastically and began to plan the event. We wanted to have a meeting in front of all the students between Rabbi Neria and a “thinking person” from the political left. The idea was to invite a man who would present non-religious and secular ideas on important subjects related to current events. Rabbi Neria would reply to all of the claims and explain the position of the Torah.

It did not take long to find a suitable speaker, named Abba Kovner. He was a very famous man who lived on a kibbutz near the yeshiva, and he had fought together with the partisans in Europe. He had the reputation of being a good speaker who could explain his opinions very clearly. We all gathered in the dining room, quite excited. We sat, eager for Rabbi Neria to “win” the debate. And then the symposium began. Abba Kovner was excellent. He spoke clearly and enthusiastically, presenting good reasons for his opinions. Anybody who would have left the room at that point might well have been convinced by the secular arguments of Abba Kovner. We all waited to hear how Rabbi Neria would respond in language that was as strong as that of his opponent. But to our shock and consternation, Rabbi Neria was “weak.” He smiled, he spoke quietly and in a mild tone. He spoke about the subjects that had been brought up but only in a general way, in principle, without any of the fighting spirit we all wanted to hear.

We returned to class deeply disappointed. We had been eager to win, and we felt defeat instead. Soon afterward, we were told to gather together to meet Rabbi Neria. We all came, without knowing why he wanted to see us. The rabbi came to the point immediately: “I have been told that some of the students are disappointed, that they wanted to see a victory.” And then he added a sentence that I was only able to understand years later: “But he was our guest, and it is necessary to be nice to a guest!” At first I could not believe what I had heard. What did this have to do with anything? As a guest, give him a glass of tea, but win the argument anyway! And then Rabbi Neria continued, “After all, here is what we could have told him…” And to my amazement the rabbi repeated from memory all of the claims made by Abba Kovner against the Torah and against our approach to Judaism, and showed how to demolish each and every one of them. We were all glued to our seats, drinking in every word of his. We were left with our mouths wide open, and we saw how all of Kovner’s arguments were meaningless as compared to the eternal truth that the rabbi showed us. But now I was thoroughly confused. Rabbi Neria had such good replies, why didn’t he say them in the debate? Just because Abba Kovner was our guest?

It was only years later that I understood the words of Rabbi Neria. One should not meet another Jew only in order to have a conquest. No good can come from such an approach, and it will certainly not convince anybody or bring him closer to our beliefs. We are not ashamed of our way, but we want to meet other people and hear their outlook, not only to hear loud applause for what we say in reply. Victory is not measured by success in a debate but rather at a level of eternity. We must ask: In what I did, have I helped the nation of Yisrael to get closer to our final destiny? And as far as this was concerned, I understood that Rabbi Neria and his approach had scored a great victory indeed.

Source: “Meorot Neria”. Email yikhat1@smile.net.il with reactions and Suggestions for Stories. Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il). Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to dan@zomet.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.