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Cambridge Interfaith Programme


Disagree, for God's Sake! Jewish Philosophy, Truth and the Future of Dialogue - Dr Daniel Weiss' response to Professor Robert Gibbs

Dr Daniel Weiss,
Polonsky-Coexist Lecturer in Jewish Studies
Celebration for the new Polonsky-Coexist Lectureship in Jewish Studies, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge, 24 February 2011

The text below followed an opening talk by Robert Gibbs, in which  he drew upon m. Eduyot 5:17 in order to discuss the notion of ‘disagreements for God’s sake’.

I would like to build upon Professor Gibbs’ discussion of the rabbinic embrace of ‘disagreement for God’s sake,’ a notion he teases out from a variety of texts from the Mishnah.  I will frame my response around a passage from the Babylonian Talmud in which the embrace of disagreement is raised to an even higher level.

Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Metzia 84a

Resh Lakish [R. Yohanan’s study partner] died, and R. Yohanan was plunged into deep grief.  The Rabbis said: ‘Who shall go and ease his mind?  Let Elazar the son of Padat go, whose traditions are very sharp.’  So he went and sat before him, and for every point [R. Yohanan] would make, he would say, ‘There is a tradition that supports you!’  He said to him, ‘Are you like the son of Lakish?!  The son of Lakish would raise twenty-four objections to every point that I would make, to which I would give twenty-four responses, and the matter would gain greater clarity.  But you simply say, “There is a tradition that supports you!”  Don’t I already know that I say good things?!’  [R. Yochanan] went on rending his garments, crying, ‘Where are you, son of  Lakish?!  Where are you, son of Lakish?!’  He went on crying until he became mad.  The Rabbis prayed for him and he died.

We can begin by noting certain striking elements contained in this text.  First, when the Rabbis send Elazar the son of Padat, their stated goal is to ease Rabbi Yohanan’s mind, to bring peace to his troubled heart.  So, they send him someone who is good at agreeing.  Thus, the Rabbis display an understandable mode of thought in which peace is linked to agreement.  Yet, this pairing does not, in fact, work out very well.  Instead, Rabbi Yohanan cries out for his deceased friend and study partner, whose distinguishing characteristic was that he knew how to disagree.  Here, not only is there no demand for agreement, but agreement is sharply rejected as undesirable.  The one who agreed, he found disagreeable, and the one who disagreed, he found agreeable.  Thus, it is not agreement that brings peace—rather, in order truly to ease his mind, he needed disagreement, and, in a tragic ending, he ultimately perishes from a lack of disagreement!

            And what is it that characterized his desired form of disagreement?  First of all, the disagreement serves to carry him beyond himself.  He already knows that he says good things, and simply agreeing does not lead anywhere new.   In contrast, the disagreement causes him to gain a greater depth of understanding both of his own position and that of his friendly opponent Resh Lakish.  Thus, it is precisely in the non-identity between the two positions that the matter itself can gain greater clarity.  Furthermore, there is no indication that R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish, after beginning with disagreement, ultimately wind up in agreement, or even that their positions come any ‘closer’ to one another.  Rather, it is in their continued non-agreement that their understanding of their subject matter and of one another can continue to deepen.  Finally, we should note that the desired form of disagreement is specifically a type that flourishes between two friends.  The Aramaic term for ‘study partnership,’ chevruta, comes from a root that means ‘friend.’  Thus, the talmudic passage need not be taken as indicating that ‘disagreement in general’ is a good thing.  There may be any number of types of disagreements that are undesirable and that undermine peace.  However, we are nevertheless left with an implied insistence that, in certain contexts of friendship, disagreement is even better than agreement.

            Now, turning back to questions of Jewish philosophy, truth, and the future of dialogue, we can draw out elements of the logic of this talmudic passage in order to construct a further typology of disagreements.  Professor Gibbs fruitfully pointed to the distinction between ‘disagreements for God’s sake’ and ‘disagreements that are not for God’s sake.’  The latter indicates a ‘bad’ type of disagreement: if we encounter such a disagreement, we can say that it represents a form of non-unity that ought to be healed and repaired.  In such an instance, a restoration of agreement would be an appropriate goal.  By contrast, in the case of ‘disagreements for God’s sake,’ we have learned that there need not be an imperative of agreement.  In such cases, disagreements can lead not to harmful discord, but rather to ethically and rationally generative modes of deeper mutual understanding. 

            Now, such cases of ‘disagreement for God’s sake’ can be welcomed, and this would already be an important step.  However, it still leaves open an important question: even if disagreement for God’s sake has a positive value, might it not still be the case that ‘agreement for God’s sake,’ if it were possible, would be better still?  That is to say, in welcoming disagreement, should we also be quietly hoping for ultimate agreement?  Here, in light of R. Yohanan’s story, I want to suggest, that, at least in certain cases, the answer is ‘no.’  Not only is there no immediate imperative to agree, but there may even be a positive imperative to disagree!  In such instances, disagreement may be not merely tolerable, but crucial and necessary, such that if we do arrive at agreement, this may indicate that something has gone wrong.  In this regard, ‘disagreement for God’s sake’ can turn out not only to be better than ‘disagreement that is not for God’s sake,’ but also even better than ‘agreement for God’s sake.’

            However, once we have raised the possibility of a positive imperative to disagree, then disagreement becomes something that is not a mere given, but rather a task.  A person could naturally think that disagreeing is quite easy, while coming to agreement is more difficult.  If disagreement has become a task and an imperative, though, this means that it is something that we must work on, something in which we must become trained and habituated.  Clearly, it is not an automatically inherent ability, since Elazar the son of Padat failed miserably in his attempt.  Instead, we must learn to disagree; we must learn how to come to disagreement.

            Because such an imperative to disagree can be a counterintuitive notion, however, we should also mark out some reasons why it is something desirable, rather than something undesirable.  As Professor Gibbs pointed out, Hermann Cohen viewed the apparent ‘disagreement’ between Exodus and Deuteronomy not as something requiring immediate harmonization; instead, this non-identity represents as “an especially good fortune.”  (RoR 73)  This attitude may be representative of Cohen’s thought more broadly, as he also argues for the crucial ethical importance of the non-identity between the I and the You, between myself and the other individual to whom I relate.  While there can be a strong temptation to view the other person in terms of one’s own mental categories, to relate to the other person in terms of what is shared in common between us, Cohen emphasizes that important ethical truth is to be found in preserving the otherness of the other person, in relating to the other a unique and different individual.  Far from hindering relationality, this non-identity and ‘non-agreement’ of the I and the You is precisely that which enables me to gain awareness of myself as a distinct ethical individual, so that I can relate to the You as a true other, and not simply as a reflection of my own sameness. 

            Returning to the context of the Cambridge Inter-faith Program, there may be crucial ways in which members of the different religious traditions can be brought to greater awareness and depth of understanding, both of themselves and of the others, precisely by virtue of the non-identity and non-agreement between the traditions.  In contrast, forms of religious engagement grounded on sameness or agreement, while important and fruitful in certain contexts, may also hinder another important form of learning and relationality.  If everybody agrees, or if agreement is the criterion for conversation, then there is no real friction that would enable true dialogue and reasoning between the different parties. 

However, if I as a Jew engage in dialogue with Christians and Muslims concerning, for example, our various approaches to interpreting sacred texts, then the differences and non-agreements that arise can help me become more aware that my own approach is neither automatic nor self-evident.  Without the self-awareness raised by the exercise of such friendly disagreement, my relation to my own ideas and commitments can easily become ‘flabby’ and lifeless, resulting in an unthinking and overly-narrow approach to my own tradition.  Here, then, we might find an echo Rabbi Yohanan’s anguished protest, “Don’t I already know that I say good things?!”  In this sense, there is a real need for engaged disagreement between committed members of the different traditionsNot only should one not give up their non-identical particularity for the sake of dialogue, but dialogue may be crucially dependent on maintaining such particularity in a mutually supportive manner.  There no need for me to say that the other person is ‘right,’ since it is precisely by not agreeing that I can more fully affirm the other person in their uniqueness and difference.  Furthermore, because such engagement requires continual upkeep and maintenance, I can give thanks for and take joy in those same disagreements and hope that they persist into the future.

The deeper knowledge that results specifically from engagement on the basis of non-identity can point towards the philosophical and epistemological value of disagreement.  However, in this model, such gains do not come about merely from the simple act of disagreeing.  A crucial additional factor is that of friendship, as in the case of chevruta.  Often, non-identity and non-agreement can lead to dispute and discord between members of different religious traditions.  The emphasis often placed on agreement thus has its roots, understandably, in a desire to avoid such harmful disharmony.  Yet, the very same content of disagreement, when resituated in a context of friendship, can transform itself from an obstacle to peace into a generating force for peace and for reciprocal support.  That is to say, one cannot determine whether a disagreement is ‘for God’s sake’ or ‘not for God’s sake’ simply by looking at the content of the disagreement ‘in itself.’  Rather, the ethical and epistemological status of the disagreement is fundamentally bound up with the specific form of relationality in which the disagreement is located.  In a relationship of enmity, one is likely to hear the other person’s disagreement and non-identity as something to be opposed or overcome, while in a relationship of friendship, that same disagreement can become an element to be cherished and preserved.  In this regard, we can see the importance of the twenty-four objections and the twenty-four responses in the talmudic passage: the disagreement is not simply a matter of stating a disagreement and leaving it at that.  Rather, true disagreement requires sustained back-and-forth engagement and relationship.   Thus, friendship is necessary for this type of deep disagreement, and at the same time the practice of disagreement deepens the friendship.  In this regard, by sustaining my non-agreement and non-affirmation of the other person’s propositions and statements, I can become better able to affirm the other person as a person and as my friend.

            Finally, having unpacked the potential value of a certain type of disagreement, we should address the question of how to distinguish between various forms of disagreement.  That is, there might be certain instances of disagreement in which it would be desirable to overcome the disagreement, even in a relationship of friendship.  That is to say, if we are seeking truth in any particular case of disagreement, how can we tell whether it is a ‘disagreement that is not for God’s sake’—so that we hope for eventual agreement, or a ‘disagreement for God’s sake’—so that we hope for the disagreement to persist?  Moses Mendelssohn, the great 18th century Jewish philosopher, implored, “Brothers, if you care for true piety, let us not feign agreement where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence.” (J 138)  However, the question remains: in which cases is diversity the godly outcome, and in which cases might agreement be the proper result?

I posit that we cannot know beforehand whether any given disagreement represents the first type or the second.  However, this lack of a priori knowledge need not be a fatal or detrimental lack, since it may be that the same basic approach is warranted in the case of either type of disagreement.  That is, if one approaches the disagreement in friendship, while holding in mind both the possibility that the proper eventual result may be agreement and the possibility that the desired result may be disagreement, then the character of the disagreement may reveal itself in the course of the conversation and dialogue, without a need to determine it ahead of time.  In both cases, though, the relationship of friendship remains epistemologically determinative, and the strength of the friendship and the mutual understanding will be deepened in either case.

            While certain aspects of this logic of inter-faith engagement can be seen on the surface of the talmudic text, the text is not sufficient on its own.  It remains necessary to actively and consciously construct a more fleshed-out account from out of the text, by struggling and re-engaging with the classical texts ourselves.  This, then, may represent a central task of Jewish philosophy in the 21st century.   The establishment of the Polonsky-Coexist lectureship thus marks a happy occasion—and one for which I am clearly grateful personally—that can, God willing, nurture an environment conducive both to Jewish philosophy itself, and, in the context of the Cambridge Inter-faith Program, to the possibility that Jewish philosophy might contribute, alongside other traditions, to new models, theories, and practices of inter-faith engagement, to disagreements grounded in friendship, and to friendships grounded in disagreement.





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