If there’s one thing you can learn from the Gemara, it’s how to discuss things like a mensch.
Let me start off by saying I know a volcano exploded in New Zealand with a lot of casualties a few days’ ago. Most people don’t know this, but the city of Auckland – New Zealand’s capital city – is built on a massive, active volcanic field.
That this hasn’t happened before is really just miraculous – and as we covered a while back in THIS post about the Grand Solar Minimum that started last year, the earthquakes and the volcanic explosions are due for a massive uptick all over the world in the next two decades – unless something ‘supernatural’ happens to sweeten them all.
I also know there was a terror attack in Jersey City, and that American anti-semitism also seems to be coming to a boil. At the end of this post, you’ll find a bunch of articles related to that topic, if you’d like to revisit them.
So, I’m not ignoring these things, just they aren’t my priority at the moment.
My priority is trying to figure out some more of the things that are keeping us all stuck, miserable and away from Hashem, because as soon as more of us break out of our inner galut, the outer galut – together with all its terrible issues and suffering – will get fixed, too.
Because the main – and actually only – thing keeping us in galut, and keeping all this suffering spinning around, is that we’re whitewashing and justifying our own bad middot, instead of trying to work on them.
‘My rabbi is better than yours’
So, with that intro, I thought I’d take a look at what I’m going to call ‘my rabbi is better than your rabbi’ syndrome, which is basically more of that ‘partisan politics’ that’s poisoning the whole world, just it’s dressed up in pious clothing.
One of the reasons that I loved Breslov so much, when I finally stumbled across it, was because Breslov puts a big emphasis on respecting other Rebbes, and other orthodox Jewish paths, even when they don’t always agree with the Breslov shita.
After years of one-dimensional Torah from people who only ever seemed to quote the same small handful of sources, the same small group of commentators, the same small group of rabbis that they found ‘acceptable’, I got to Breslov, and it was like the whole panoply of the Torah was restored to the discussion.
Breslov rabbis were as happy to quote the Vilna Gaon and Rav Shach as they were the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman.
Whoever had a good piece of Torah to teach, a good lesson to share, that commentator would be quoted and referenced, regardless of whether they were Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Litvak, Chassid, pro-zionist, anti-zionist – it didn’t matter! This was so refreshing to me, not least because I’ve learned that any system of ideas, or approach that has to be ‘green-housed’ to survive is just not very robust.
If an idea or approach can only thrive if it’s surrounded by an unquestioning echo-chamber that’s stuffed full of sycophants and yes-men, that’s extremely problematic – and it’s also extremely un-Jewish.
Because the Jewish way is NOT just to accept things in an unquestioning way, especially not big ideas about what God really wants from us. The Jewish way is to argue all over these subjects, and to really ‘wrestle with the truth’, because only in that way will our own biases and blind-spots get some light shone onto them.
God is way, way bigger than any human being can grasp.
God’s Torah is the blueprint for creation, it stands to reason that even the greatest of us is going to grasp only a part of what’s really going on.
That’s why there is such an emphasis put on Jewish unity, because it’s only once you’ve got the opinion of the 599,999 other Jews around the table that you’re going to be able to start even approaching the real truth, the real wisdom contained in the Torah.
The Sages in the Gemara recognized this, and that’s why you find so very many debates between the different rabbis who are discussing these profoundly deep ideas, and trying to tease out what the truth really might be.
The Talmud is literally full of thousands upon thousands of arguments.
And some of those discussions are really not politically correct at all. It is one rabbi explaining to another rabbi why they think they are wrong, and some of the wording is often quite harif.
For example, I just opened up the tractate of Gemara that happened to by lying on my coffee table, and got to this discussion in Shabbat 89a:
“One of the rabbis asked Rav Kahana: Have you ever heard what the meaning is of the name Mount Sinai?”
Rav Kahana tries to answer the question a couple of times, but the Rabbi he’s talking to is not impressed with his responses, and tells him:
“He told [Rav Kahana]: Why did you not frequent Rav Pappa and Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua, who delve into Aggadah? If you had, you would know the answer to my question!”
Gosh, how embarrassing for Rav Kahana, that he’s being publically exposed for not knowing everything in a forum that is going to be pored-over and learnt by millions of Jews over the next 2,000 years!
And he’s in good company, because also in Shabbat 89a, you find a whole discussion about Moshe Rabbenu – the biggest prophet the Jewish people ever had – who is also getting some mild censure from no-less than Hashem:
“The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Moses: “Moses, are you a fibber? Of course I gave the Torah to you!”
I’m bringing these sources from the Gemara to show that our Sages were never ‘above’ being questioned or challenged.
These arguments weave themselves throughout the whole Gemara, and lest you think that the only people who were allowed to challenge the Sages’ teachings were other Sages, the Gemara clearly shows that non-Jews –like the Sages of Athens, the daughter of Caesar – also argued with them, and were answered.
Even people from secular, criminal backgrounds, like Resh Lakish, the former robber-chief-turned-Gemara Sage were permitted and encouraged to challenge the teachings of their rabbis, in order to tease out the real truth.
It’s recorded in Bava Metzia 84 that Resh Lakish would challenge his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, 24 times on every point he made, until the matter was properly clarified. That’s why Rabbi Yochanan was so upset when Resh Lakish died, because being challenged about what you’re teaching is how you really get to the truth.
And as the truth is the seal of Hashem, engaging in these arguments is also how we get closer to God, and closer to understanding what God really wants from us.
Before we continue, let’s make a very important point:
While the Gemara totally encourages challenging the teachings of the Rabbis, it in no way encourages or condones personal insults, or approaching any of the Sages with anything less than total respect.
Sometimes, that can be a very fine line, and it has to be walked very carefully, and with a great deal of siyatta di shmeya. But, the Gemara makes it abundantly clear that you can respectfully disagree with a teaching, with a viewpoint, without that being a personal attack on the person whose view you are challenging.
Which brings me to the crux of this post.
The last few days, my husband and I have been having a back and forth with someone who read my post ‘The Emuna Reboot’, and got highly offended but what they felt was ‘lashon hara’. I’ve tweaked the article to remove the thing that was ‘offending’ them, but the whole discussion kind of sharpened up for me that there were many things about that old-school ‘emuna approach’ that really don’t seem to be correct.
And just like the Sages of the Gemara took issue with each other’s teachings (‘l’havdil….), this whole ‘discussion’ has also made it obvious to me that debating and questioning ideas and teachings about what ’emuna’ actually is, and how we truly acquire it, is actually the Jewish way.
It’s what God really wants from us.
Sadly, we live in a period of time where flying monkeys are shaping the parameters of debate, and where any time you come close to discussing a Torah idea or teaching, they try to shut you down by loudly screeching lashon hara!!!!
But let me ask you this: If even a Tzaddik of the caliber of Moshe Rabbenu had to defend his teachings (so to speak) in the Talmud, why should any of the enormous tzaddikim of subsequent generations be exempt from having their teachings scrutinized and clarified?
This isn’t about partisan politics, or about ‘my rebbe is bigger than your rebbe’ – or at least, it shouldn’t be.
God forbid, we should utter a word of personal attack against any individual, let alone a Jewish leader, God forbid a million times over. But, to not be able to challenge a teaching?
That’s what I’d like to see more of. Much less posturing, and much less arrogant MY chassidut / Jewish group / Rabbi / approach is the only one way of doing things!!!!
And much more hey, I don’t understand your approach, and X, Y and Z really doesn’t seem to be supported by Torah sources. Can we discuss this?
The last thing to say is that all this has made me so appreciate all the criticism, mud and insults that is being thrown at the Rav, and at Shuvu Banim, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Because at this stage, it’s very hard to be publically part of Shuvu Banim unless you are willing to do some serious work on acquiring emuna and humility, and dealing with people insulting you personally and challenging you harshly, every step of the way. I get dissed from my kids, I get challenged by my friends and neighbors, I get insulted on the internet – it’s all amazing stuff!
Because each time it happens, I have to take it back into hitbodedut and go through the process of peering into my blind spot, to find out where the truth lies. I’ve written about this before, but the truth is NEVER a 0-100% split.
Even the biggest psycho with the biggest vested interest always has something true that they’re sharing with you, that’s mixed up in all the lies and slanderous insults. One of my commentators wanted to know why I bother even reading insulting comments, or having these discussions with people.
The answer is, because they always teach me something about my own blind spot.
God is using everyone to give us messages about what we ourselves need to work on, change and fix, and I’m certainly not a level where I can even begin to pretend that I’m perfect and have nothing left to work on or fix.
I’m not infallible. I’m a flawed human being.
And the point is, that neither should what we’re being taught by our rabbis be above question. Even the biggest Tzaddik will fall seven times, there is no such thing as a person who doesn’t sin, who doesn’t err, or make a mistake.
If that holds for Moshe Rabbenu, and Rav Kahana of the Gemara, it certainly holds for everyone else.
So, to all those people who keep trying to close down the discussion by flinging abusive insults all over the place, let me ask you something:
What are you so afraid of? What are you scared is going to happen, if we actually look at these teachings and ideas and debate them on their own merits? Why are you so bound up in your way, your rabbi, your rebbe, your chassidut, your yeshiva being ‘right’, that you keep stomping on any suggestion of exploring their teachings outside of the ‘echo chamber’?
It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?