Why Can’t We Argue Civilly?

08 Sep 2015

1096px-Carl_Schleicher_Eine_Streitfrage_aus_dem_TalmudOrthodox Judaism emphasizes Talmud study. Some people love the analysis and debate format of the Talmud but other people prefer studying the final decisions of the Talmud. They don’t enjoy the argument and discussion in the Talmud, and they most certainly do not love the layer upon layer of subsequent debate about the arguments in the Talmud. They simply want the sausage without seeing how it is made.

I happen to enjoy the Talmud’s version of the Socratic method. I especially love the intensity of later commentaries arguing vociferously over small details with broad ramifications.

From a historical perspective, Talmudic argument until the modern era was very different than modern argument. It is not uncommon to read an argument between people from different times and different places who did not know each other and may have never even heard of each other. They argued in slow motion. Their weapons were ink, quill, paper, and snail-mail. This is especially true of the Medieval commentators.

Modernity has gifted us with lightning quick communication. We can argue faster and more often than ever before. Given the opportunity, our People will never pass up an opportunity to argue. The Internet has also democratized communication a bit. People who had no voice in the old world, can have a voice in the new world. The thing about democratized communication is that without the social filters that prevented average people from being heard, it can be challenging for us to distinguish between distinguished voices and voices that perhaps should be extinguished. Internet debate also encourages rhetoric and exaggeration, because levelheaded reasoned debate doesn’t play well online.

This is all relevant every day, but this week it’s more relevant than usual. A new Beit Din was established to handle difficult Agunah cases. The Beit Din relies on minority or discarded halachic opinions to unchain women who are still technically married to recalcitrant husbands. This is a certainly a worthy cause and I fully support any attempt to try and build support for the Beit Din.

The problem is that any attempt to resolve the Agunah issue must be consensus based. If even one prominent rabbi disagrees with the tactics of the Beit Din, then the entire enterprise is useless because no one will want to marry the unchained woman for fear that a child will be considered a mamzer or their marriage would be considered “in sin.”

This week, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the most prominent and learned rabbi in the Modern Orthodox world and four major co-signers, wrote a letter to his colleagues and students urging them not to rely on this new Beit Din. The letter did not make a legal argument. Instead the letter appealed to the lack of rabbinic experience and expertise on these matters, coupled with the gravity of potential sin in these cases.

Much of the vocal response to this letter has been embarrassing.

People are calling Rabbi Schachter a bully, power-hungry, and arrogant. His letter has been called an “unsubstantiated attack” and “scare tactics” as well.

Here’s the thing; none of that is true.

Clearly, reasonable rabbis can disagree on the effectiveness of the new Beit Din’s tactics. Rabbi Schachter has every right to advise the people who rely on him for religious instruction and guidance, he may even have an obligation to do so. His letter was to his constituents.

It is completely inappropriate for anyone to attack Rabbi Schachter’s character or motivation for his opinions. It is especially inappropriate for people with no knowledge of the issues, arguments, and precedent to attack Rabbi Schachter’s character or motivation for his opinions. The most one could say about Rabbi Schachter right now is that he is a conservative halachic jurist.

To one who knows Rabbi Schachter’s character and heart, the rhetoric is even more ridiculous. This is a man who cries nearly every time he speaks in public about issues like Agunah. This is a man who is reduced to tears every time he spends hours on the phone working on an agunah case. This is a man who pulls himself out of the study hall to protest recalcitrant husbands. This is a man who is considered by some Haredi Beit Dins to be too permissive with regard to Agunah and has been “excommunicated” and slandered as a result.

The personal attacks need to stop. The personal attacks that plainly contradict reality are simply embarrassing.

I don’t know enough to argue the issues of the new Beit Din on the merits of precedent and policy. But I know enough to know I don’t know enough. I also know enough to know that the only valid criticism in this discussion is analysis of legal principles. (It feels awfully similar to the lack of honest debate about the Kosher Switch. See: Both Sides on the Kosher Switch Debate)

When it comes to philosophy, religious meaning, interpretation of stories, and social issues I think experience and expertise are important but not determinative. But when it comes to Jewish law, our community would be best advised to argue, debate, and discuss the issues among people at any level, but in the end, to defer to the experts. If you’re not going to defer to the experts, at least respect the experts. Remember that there is a proper way to argue. There is a historically consistent way to argue vociferously. Internet shouting matches, click-baity headlines, and hyperventilating are not the way we are supposed to debate important issues. Rabbi Schachter deserves better. We all deserve better.

This article was originally published on Rabbi Fink’s blog, Fink or Swim. You can follow Rabbi Fink on Facebook here.

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