The Value of Disagreement
While I am not an overly emotional person, there are a couple of stories that get me every time. Now the Talmud is generally viewed as a dry and dense book filled with archaic debates and detailed descriptions of how to perform ancient rituals. And for the most part that’s exactly what it is, but it is because of this aspect that makes its stories all the more meaningful.
In the rabbinic mind, debate (as long as it is for a higher purpose) is not only a positive act, but a godly one. Without civil debate, we cannot come closer to the truth of any question or scenario - and therefore Torah study or the search for truth, is fundamentally rooted in argument and disagreement.
While the Rabbis are careful to note the potential pathologies of debate, they are explicit in their agreement that the overall benefits outweigh the negative. While the line is a very thin one and the dangers of a society centered on disagreement are always lurking - in the rabbinic mind there is simply no suitable alternative.
It is with this short premise in mind that we begin our story.
The two greatest Torah scholars in third century Babylon were a study pair by the name of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. Multiple statements throughout the Talmud attest to their partnership, respect, and even deep rooted love for one other. A lengthy passage in the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia in case you want to look it up) records a story which acts as a short summary of their friendship and rivalry, while delineating some major themes that are ubiquitous throughout the Talmud. Given that this story was written hundreds of years after the death of the pair, its historicity is both uncertain and unimportant - rather the importance is the everlasting lessons and warnings that are able to be learned from this short narrative.
The Babylonian Talmud notes that Resh Lakish was a bandit before becoming a Torah scholar. And he was a good one at that. He lived in nature amongst the beasts of the field and even spent his youth working and fighting as a gladiator. The combination of his strength, agility, and intellect allowed Resh Lakish to quickly become one of the greatest and most feared criminals of his time.
One day the two men met while bathing in a river when Resh Lakish mistakenly thought that Rabbi Yochanan was a female (apparently he was very good looking). Upon seeing the strength of Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan told him that his “Strength should be used towards Torah study” whereas Resh Lakish retorted with the comedic “Maybe your beauty should be used to get women!”
Upon seeing the energy and intellect of Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan promised his sister’s hand in marriage in exchange for Resh Lakish beginning to study Torah.
Resh Lakish acquiesced and he quickly became a reputable scholar whose arguments and opinions were only able to be matched by Rabbi Yochanan himself. One day these two men were debating the laws of purity. Now according to the Talmudic law of purity, an object is only susceptible to becoming impure if it is a finished object. In other words, only once it is fully manufactured and ready to be used can it ever become impure.
Well, the topic that they were debating happened to be weapons and a disagreement arose as to what state in the manufacturing process a weapon is actually considered complete. When Resh Lakish disagreed with Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion, Rabbi Yochanan got upset and replied with the seemingly benign ad hominem of, “A robber knows his trade.”
The comment obviously struck a chord with Resh Lakish because he responded by saying “How have you even helped me? There (when I was a robber) I was called master, and here I am called a master.” His comment deeply hurt the feelings of Rabbi Yochanan. The argument eventually escalated to the point where Rabbi Yochanan cursed his study partner, and eventually Resh Lakish died from the torment of his lost friendship.
Rabbi Yochanan immediately fell into a state of depression after the premature death of Resh Lakish and wasn’t able to concentrate on his studies. Upon seeing this, many of the other Rabbis understood that they needed to supply Rabbi Yochanan with a new study partner, one who could match his intellect and knowledge - to replace his old friend.
Eventually they found a man named Eliezer who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish texts. Surely this man who be able to fill the void left by Resh Lakish. Rabbi Yochanan agreed to study with him, but things quickly turned sour. Every time Rabbi Yochanan made a claim, Eliezer, using his vast knowledge, was able to provide an array of reasons as to why Rabbi Yochanan was correct. While this initially may have been very pleasant for Rabbi Yochanan, he soon began to resent the situation.
The narrative ends with Rabbi Yochanan crying out, and it is these words that have stuck with me since I first heard them several years ago.
“When I stated a law, Resh Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst all you say is, ‘A text has been taught which supports you.’
“Do I not know myself that my opinions are right!?”
“Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, 'Where are you, O Resh Lakisha, where are you, O Resh Lakisha;' and he cried thus until his mind went insane.“
It was at this moment that Rabbi Yochanan understood that while having your opinions and views attacked is unpleasant, the alternative is much, much worse.
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