skip to primary navigationskip to content

Disagree, for God's Sake! Jewish Philosophy, Truth and the Future of Dialogue

Disagree, for God's Sake! Jewish Philosophy, Truth and the Future of Dialogue

Professor Robert Gibbs
Polonsky Visiting Research Fellow
Celebration for the new Polonsky-Coexist Lectureship in Jewish Studies, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge, 24 February 2011

It is a great honour to be here tonight, as the Polonsky Visiting Research Fellow and to speak in celebration of the creation of the Polonsky-Coexist Lectureship in Jewish Studies. I have rarely been known as someone who was a nit-picker, but I am afraid tonight I may garner a new reputation. My goal, if you will, is to accentuate the hyphen in the lectureship, the punctuation you cannot easily hear, but holds Polonsky and Coexist in a relationship. Indeed, without that hyphen you would not be in room with me tonight. What does a hyphen mean? (In a longer paper, I once did devote almost a half hour to the dash, but let me move along).

It is always dangerous to ask academics to disagree--because of course, that is our basic proclivity. And, in some very important ways, the university exists for the sake of that disagreement. Among the three of us here, I expect that you will find many disagreements, and perhaps the first would be about the nature of the first term in our subtitle: "Jewish Philosophy." Many of you may know that this is a highly contested term. Institutionally, well there are some of us in Philosophy Departments; some in Departments of Religious Studies; some in Jewish Studies Faculties; some in Law Faculties; some in Departments of Jewish Thought. And if the universities don't know where we properly belong, it is also the case that there are critics of the combination of terms (without any hyphen or punctuation). Within the Jewish community of scholars there is a long tradition of regarding philosophy as foreign to Judaism itself. And in many philosophy departments, the insertion of any adjective before philosophy proves whatever it is, it isn't philosophy. Just Philosophy not English Philosophy, nor Feminist Philosophy, nor certainly Christian Philosophy. For the last 20 years, the field of modern Jewish Philosophy has grown, perhaps in relation to the suffering of the Shoah. In Toronto we have five faculty devoted to the field, at places like University of Virginia, McGill, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, University of Chicago, NYU, Boston University, and of course Bar Ilan, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv there are scholars. But they are also at places you may not know as well: Texas A&M, Colgate, Florida State, Rice, Buffalo, Kansas, the Vreie University in Amsterdam, Tours, Sassari, Michigan State, Université de Montreal.

But what did I mean in the title with the word Disagree? Surely these opening puzzles about my field and its location are a superficial kind of disagreement--hardly for God's sake. So let me begin again with a famous text from the Mishnah, from the Sayings of the Fathers, from which our title comes:


#1 Any disagreement that is for God's sake, it will yield something that lasts. Any disagreement that is not for God's sake, it will not yield something that lasts. What is a disagreement for God's sake? The disagreements of Hillel and Shammai. What is a disagreement not for God's sake? Korach and his congregation.

There is a basic difference between disagreements for God's sake (literally in the name of Heaven) and those that aren't. Some of you probably know the story of Korach told in Numbers 16. It is a bitter tale, because Korach led a large group against the authorities (Moses and Aaron) and claimed equal authority. The outcome was that the earth swallowed up the rebels. But the good disagreements are a vast repertoire of texts where Hillel and Shammai, and then their respective schools, disagree on many important matters of learning and law. Indeed, in a separate Mishnaic text, there are not only lists of their disagreements, but lists by later sages where the two took switched sides from their norm. One could reasonably argue that not only Jewish law, but the very survival of the community depended on their disagreements.

I wish to focus now on what it means to build a tradition on disagreements. Many colleagues in the university would be more inclined to that repudiated position of Korach: that no one should have precedence, and that communities should be organized democratically. Indeed, our liberal societies seem to place a high value on agreement achieved through equal rights and a rejection of hierarchy. But I believe that even our society depends on disagreement more than you might think. Consider Parliament. In a one-party system, or in a system with no parliament, the opponents of the ruling party might well be exiled, imprisoned, or simply murdered. Our modern democracies protect the minority opinion. Indeed, they cherish it. Last year's opposition is this year's ruling party. (And because of elections, last year's ruling party may well come back to power and amend legislation currently likely to pass). Or consider the tradition of Common Law. Those of you who study law will have spent much time reading dissenting opinions. Indeed, the value of the jurisprudence is not tightly linked to the ruling in a given case. Why recall the dissenting opinions?

But, and here theology is not innocent, the need for these institutions for dissent and active disagreement, often arose because religion has seemed to insist on consensus, on orthodoxy and uniformity of opinion. Whatever we make of the Mishnah, for many in this room, the notion that disagreement is for God's sake may well seem paradoxical. And yet, for Jewish tradition it is not merely tolerated; it is central.

Let me turn to a different text from the Mishnah, from Eduyot, which offers a study of precedents or legal testimonies, comprising unusual rulings cited in specific sages' names. (In Chapter 5 we have those catalogues from different sages of the reversal of the normal polarities of Hillel and Shammai's schools, to say nothing of many other positions cited in their names throughout the tractate.) But my attention is drawn to a clarification of disagreement, and the focus is on remembering and reciting minority opinions.

1:4 And why are the opinions of Shammai and Hillel remembered to be set aside? To teach the following generations that a man does not persist in his opinion, for behold the fathers of the world did not persist in their opinion.

1:5 And why are the opinions of a single one remembered amongst the majority, when there is no halachah except according to the opinions of the majority? If a court prefers the opinion of the individual, he provides precedent. No court can set aside the opinion of a fellow court, unless it is greater than it in wisdom and number. If it was greater in wisdom but not in number or in number but not in wisdom--it cannot set aside the other's opinion (unless it is greater than it in wisdom and in number).

1:6 R. Judah said, "if thus, then why remember the words of a single person among the many to set it aside? so that if a man says "Thus have I received a tradition", They say to him: "According to the opinions of this guy you heard it."

This is quite a rich text, and I don't think we can get to the bottom of it in our time tonight, but I hope we can take a few things from it for understanding what gets established in the arguments of Hillen and Shammai, that is, what makes them for God's sake. Perhaps the key thing to notice in the first text we had opposed a disagreement within the Biblical narrative that did not go well, and this in contrast to one in the period of the Rabbis that went well. The latter period was one that worked carefully with texts and with precedents. One of  the things, then, that we learn by recalling the disagreements is that you also don't abandon the community when you don't get your way. If the Parliament does not exile the opposition, neither does the opposition emigrate. But there is a two-way street in remembering these disagreements: on the one hand, they teach us that we need to remain even when things don't go as we would like, but on the other hand, they teach us that it is OK to disagree, that even the dissenters will be remembered.

The second problem in this text is more troubling: a single sages' opinion is retained, even though majority rules. Why remember it ? The legal theory is complex enough, but the first option is that a later court could use that single person as a justification for setting aside the majority ruling. Beyond legal theory, this points to the value of divergent and even stubbornly individualistic thinking, because at a later date justice may require that specific dissenting precedent. The individual might later represent the truth, in a way that the community could recognize only then. Each learned mind is valued and has the potential to contribute and fashion a dominant opinion.

But just when it seems that dissent has this liberal meaning, one sage is identified with a contrary ruling: Rabbi Judah says we remember it so that if the same opinion comes up later, the court rejects it because that opinion has been already considered. Let me just note that here again the Mishnah offers two contrary views of the value of retaining the dissent of a single jurist. Even in retaining dissenting views, the interpretation of that institution provides contrary opinions.

I wish now to think with you about the heritage of this practice and institutions of disagreeing for God's sake. The Mishnah is a product of the late 2nd/early-3rd century and offers a logic of disagreement by juridifying these issues. But for many philosophers this is not a suitable lens for thought. While we honour individual philosophers; the truth depends on the coherence and comprehensiveness of a thought--it depends on the validity of the philosophy. For much of the 20th century, a logic of propositions and monological arguments seemed most appropriate for Jewish Philosophy. Several of us, however, became fascinated by the logic of talmud, in part because disagreement was vital, and in part because the challenges of justice, of change, and especially of loss. I first read this text with Peter Ochs, when he was a visiting fellow at the Princeton Center for Theological Inquiry. The question then arose whether the rabbinic model of thinking could become a guide to contemporary Jewish philosophy?

Part of our inspiration comes from the engagement of Jewish thinkers in the 20th century with traditional Jewish texts. Certainly for me, Levinas' talmudic readings (which I first read with Steven Schwarzschild) were where I discovered rabbinic texts as a resource for philosophy. In addition, there was the work of Rosenzweig and Buber, together as Biblical translators and separately as interpreters of Judaism. The mishnaic text we started with contrasted disagreement of rebels in Biblical narrative with disagreement amongst rabbinic sages. Dare we overlook the difference between the biblical texts and the rabbinic ones? Is there an evolution or at least a change, and did not the mishnaic text ask us to notice that?

Again, the question for us is not simply historical. Rather, the question at this point is philosophical: If there is a shift from Biblical (written torah) to rabbinic (oral torah) on the place of disagreement, how can Jewish Philosophy for the 21st Century take its bearing?  I will not take you too far along the path here, because it is complex, but I can refer to a debate between Buber and Levinas. Levinas criticized Buber for focusing on the Bible as though he did not need to read it through the rabbinic commentaries (an imitation of a Catholic critique of Protestant sola scriptura),  while Levinas chose to comment on talmudic texts, and even in synagogue, on Rashi's commentaries of the weekly lectionary from the Bible. With Levinas we seem to have a clear demand to translate not the Biblical logic, but rather the rabbinic one.

But for Buber, the Biblical text itself was fissured and dialogical. Indeed, the give and take and the retention of minority views guided the inner secret of Biblical narrative. The task of reading the Bible was not only to separate the historical strands and identify the local agenda and vision. Rather, the question is whether the words can call to us. The account of failed dialogues in the Bible guide many of Buber's interpretations, and point to a real similarity with Levinas' account of rabbinic texts.

Let me make the case yet stronger: Hermann Cohen also engaged directly with traditional texts, especially in his final work Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism. He makes a much bolder claim: the repetition of the Torah (Deuteronomy) is the birth of reason in the Jewish tradition. For, much as the mishnah is built on the disagreements of Hillel and Shammai, the Torah itself is constructed around the repetition of the national narrative (including the revelation at Sinai) and the repetition of the laws. Moses' speeches that 'conclude' the five books of the Torah, adjust and alter the account that is told in an objective third person voice in the first four books. This is an explicit retention of a variation--exceeding the numerous 'editorial' repetitions, beginning, of course at the beginning with two narratives of the beginning. Buber and Rosenzweig made a rich witticism that they were moving from Q (Quelle--source) to R (Rabbenu--our teacher), and so were looking at received text as a constructed and intentionally divergent text, in order to allow the reader or listener to discover meaning as they read. But Cohen's position exceeds that, because it offers an account of rationality itself emerging with the inclusion of Deuteronomy.

Religion  84-85/ The books of Moses contain a double form, that has always been recognized by the tradition, in so far as the fifth book was designated as “the Repetition of the Torah” (Mishneh torah). Through this repetition the naiveté appears broken;  because manifestly it must contain reflection about that which the preceding books had brought forth in naïve presentation. From this higher viewpoint Deuteronomy is excessively interesting, so that one may designate this as an especially good fortune of the written teaching. All the reflections that arise against the originality of the national production of religion, are considered in this reflection of the repetition. ... The opposition of national originality and divine revelation is not a first-order concern, rather that is the problem of the revelation in general as a communication from God to the human.

In a different context, I would pause here to show you the disruption of both a naive reading but also a challenge to a mythic thought about divine revelation. Indeed, Cohen's viewpoint in a nutshell is that a rich reading of Jewish textual sources (from Biblical, through rabbinic, up through medieval and early modern philosophy) produces a rational religion--which is the deeper meaning of revelation. I am not sure that even the three of us would agree with Cohen's story, but what certainly lasts is the insight into the way that a repetition both retains and re-reads the earlier text. To take the easiest case: there is a repetition of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy. I hope most of you know that there are discrepancies of some weight between them. In Exodus, the Sabbath command is to remember the Sabbath, the reason is that God created Heaven and Earth in six days; in Deuteronomy the command is to keep it, in remembrance from the exodus from Egypt and from slavery. It is just this tension, this disagreement that is for God's sake and lasts--and it promotes a thinking and an awareness of the value of disagreement.

Many of you are aware of the mission of the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, and some may have engaged in the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. I would not annex Scriptural Reasoning to contemporary Jewish Philosophy, but both Scriptural Reasoning and the Programme positively reflect the insights and the imperative I am exploring here. First, to Scriptural Reasoning. Shared reading of scriptures from the three Abrahamic traditions rests on an assumption that each person will hold one tradition as bearing truth, but that each will also read with others in the expectation of learning from the other people and from the other traditions. Agreement is not the goal, but friendship and understanding are. Comparing the theology of Christianity with the wisdom found in Islamic and Jewish sources is not simply trying to develop a decoding method to reach a common ground (as though the imperative were Agree). On the contrary, by focusing on the three distinctive scriptures (written in three languages and three scripts--and none originally in our beloved English with Roman characters!), we learn different but sometimes parallel and sometimes intersecting concerns and ways of construing the sources of wisdom. The promise of scriptural reasoning, to cite a phrase, lies in the practice where disagreeing seeks to produce something that will last--fellowship and insight. How different this is from much interfaith dialogue.

Professor Ford, if I may quote from you:

How might this situation of radical differences with regard to analogous categories be coped with wisely? Christian participants in Scriptural reasoning have not found it helpful to concentrate on arriving at doctrinal agreement with Jews and Muslims on the Trinity, christology and eschatology (or at agreement on analogously distinctive Jewish or Muslim beliefs and practices). That is not only virtually inconceivable but may in most contexts be an unwise path, leading deep into the marshes created by centuries of misunderstandings and polemics. A well-worn path into interfaith cul de sacs is to focus on “secure disagreements” which complacently reinforce the identity of each with minimal mutual exploration, learning or challenge. Rather, what has been found fruitful is continual engagement with the scriptures that have contributed both to such doctrines and to the shaping of a whole way of life (with worship, ethics, institutions and so on). This can lead to conversation and understanding that do not ignore the disagreements but also do not get stuck in them. Ways of handling fundamental disputes can be worked out, essential to which is each tradition trying to discern and share its own wisdom of dispute. And intrinsic to that discernment is the wise interpretation of scripture. That is an urgent quest within each tradition and one that can benefit from both of the others.


Volume 22, Issue 3, pages 345–366, July 2006

But we are almost to the hyphen I promised you: because the Cambridge Interfaith Programme also depends on the same logic. The challenge of how to build something that will last requires intensive engagement within each tradition. To train people to disagree for God's sake is not merely to develop courses and research in disputation. A wise disagreer is someone who has expertise in her own tradition, in academic and religious traditions, and is conducting a significant inquiry in her own field. The more familiar Agreer, the comparativist or perennialist who is finding out mostly that every sort of wisdom is fundamentally one, is not the desired participant in this Inter-faith Programme. Nor is the dogmatic (or should I say dogmatistic) theologian, whose conviction excludes any place for truth to be reached in other traditions. Intensive and excellent in one field and trained in one tradition, but also extensive and open to the conversation, to the respect and the perseverance to nurture long and complex disagreements in fellowship.

To build the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, this faculty needs those who are capable of studying and teaching how to disagree for God's sake, and thus the vision has found advocates within these three Abrahamic communities. The very premise of the gift from the Coexist foundation was that both within the university and beyond, the profound and intensive study of these traditions could coexist in order to further peace and disagreement in fellowship. When the Polonsky Foundation joined, we received a hyphen. Jewish and Islamic support that was not a simple unification, but rather a commitment for a disagreement that would last--and would support the lectureship now held by my colleague, Daniel Weiss. He is a scholar in Jewish Philosophy, and you will be able to see when I yield the floor, how proficient and wise a disagreer he can be.

But I wish to return from this hyphen of building a disagreement that can last and will yield here in Cambridge fruit--to the academy more generally. A brief mention of my other colleague, Agata Bielik-Robson, Professor of Jewish Studies in Nottingham, also points to the place of diversity, even disagreement in university departments of theology and religious studies. I began by suggesting that it is hardly worth recommending to scholars that they disagree--we come by it almost naturally. But this points to a key feature of the institutionalization of disagreement. For just as the legislature and the courts are places where society preserves disagreements and protects the minority person and even their opinions, so the university is a particularly valued home for disagreement--if not for God's sake, then for the sake of the truth. While some might imagine only publishing and teaching the authorized and sanctioned truth; our universities thrive and prosper by examining multiple perspectives and many vanquished theories, positions, cultures and so forth. Protected by the high walls of academic freedom, the university is a haven for honest and rigorous disagreement. It is not a free for all, a simple anarchy of positions, but instead, is built in such a way that expertise is cultivated and appraised. The disagreements depend on the structures of departments, fields, faculties, and so forth. Each scholar is secured and not at risk for disagreeing with the majority viewpoint. How different this is from so many public institutions--and most of all from mass gatherings. Perhaps it is worth noting that both Hillel and Shammai were teachers; that as far as we know, they oversaw something resembling schools, and that study arose precisely through the efforts to understand the disagreements for God's sake. Whether you imagine the beit midrash as some sort of law school or as some sort of theological faculty, it is an institution for the study of and cultivation of disagreements. If we imagine the contemporary university as a similar institution for inquiry and disagreement, we are not at a great remove. The Future of Dialogue, at least in part, lies in the universities.

And as a philosopher, I am also eager to raise the question of the implications of these practices and institutions for defining what it is to know and what is truth. I think we can readily see that the pursuit of truth cannot be solitary. At its most obvious, this is a not a Cartesian model, where introspection can lead a single mind to the indubitable and apodictic truth. Moreover, there is an unambigous sense that truth is not captured in a present moment, but always is in some key way incomplete. If I were to say, with Cohen and perhaps with Derrida, that truth is not-yet, is a matter of the future, this would be also to say that there is no single research project, no clear path from here to there that would show the direct route to a truth that we will know, say in forty years. This is a future with a keen open-endedness, a not anticipatable future, a future which is not simply a present that we can wait to occur. The future of dialogue is also the future pertinent or required for dialogue--a future that is not merely a present that has not yet happened.

More complicated, however, is the relation to a theory like Habermas', where the social nature of enquiry is respected, but the focus is on the formation of consensus--a working toward agreement. From that perspective, the retention of disagreements either is a sign of a kind of pluralism that verges on relativism OR the goal of the disagreement is to find agreement. The concept that the future holds a convergence, that truth cannot be multiple in the long run,  animates much philosophy, even if the direct intuition of the truth is denied to any individual now. One can imagine that the slogan here would be Learn to Agree. I certainly don't want to discourage the hope that a consensus might obtain on many important issues, but I would hesitate to say that the nature of truth supports this viewpoint. For I would suggest that the  radical transcendence of God, of a truth that exceeds our minds and our world, secures the plurality of positions, and grants to each the authority to disagree, as well as to agree. The dignity of each thinker is what requires us not to go along or even to learn to abandon our ideas. But it also teaches us, as in the second Mishnah, not to abstain or withdraw nor to play to win at all costs. To respect the others is to know that our rejected opinions can also be retained. The finitude of our own thoughts (even about infinity) ensures the need to disagree--and to join the conversation.

Rosenzweig developed key aspects of this logic in his The Star of Redemption,  by focusing on the task of making true, or verifying. It is Rosenzweig who offers the deepest reflection on the ongoing task of disagreeing (in his theory, between Judaism and Christianity), as reflecting our humanity.

The truth must, therefore, be ver-ified, and just in this way, which one commonly disowns: that is, to leave alone the 'whole' truth and nonetheless to recognize the part one has as the eternal truth.  (Der Stern  437/393)

If the part each has is eternal, then one may not disown it, may not choose to not disagree. Truth is both imparted to each; and is partial in time. As eager as any philosopher is to claim to know it all, to think a system as well as systematically, the Jewish Philosopher can imagine a system, but must remain bound to the part of truth given to her or to him. It is perhaps this partiality that opens the gap not only between Jewish Philosophy and many other philosophers, but also between us and many Christian theologians. We will not disavow truth, but we will insist that each has only part, and on each part and more, on the dialogue between the parts, we hope to create something that will last.

RSS Feed Latest news

Internship opportunity at Coexist House

Oct 25, 2016

An exciting chance to work with CIP's sister project, Coexist House - a newly registered charity aiming to transform religious understanding, perspectives and practices and to build better, more peaceful, relationships across divides.


Sep 15, 2016

Once again, Michael Wakelin, Director of Programmes for Coexist House, is going to run the Macclesfield Half Marathon to raise money for this important project.

Am I My Brother's Keeper? Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis - booking now available online

Sep 05, 2016

Dr Georgette Bennett, head of the Multifaith Alliance and her colleague Mr Shadi Martini, Syrian refugee and humanitarian activist will be talking about responses to the current refugee crisis. Join us for what promises to be a thought-provoking presentation with information direct from the field.

Blog: Interview with The Revd Dr James Walters

Aug 18, 2016

Dr James Walters, chaplain and inter-faith advisor at the London School of Economics (LSE), discusses the challenges and opportunities posed by religious diversity on university campuses.

CIP Director to speak at upcoming conference

Aug 16, 2016

Join us in Cambridge in September to hear Dr Ankur Barua speak at a conference about the future of inter-faith dialogue, organised by the World Congress of Faiths.

View all news

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required