Though his statue stands in Córdoba and his name adorns hospitals and schools, the books of Maimonides, the medieval Sephardic-Jewish philosopher also known as the Rambam, were once consigned to the flames. His elevation of reason throughout his oeuvre sparked widespread argument and indignation across Europe. The incendiary debate ended in the very real flames of the Inquisition, whose henchmen — by invitation of Maimonides’ foes — inspected the “Guide for the Perplexed” and found it deserving of eradication. The fiery finale of the Maimonidean Controversy — a series of ongoing disputes between “philosophers” and “traditionalists” that went on for more than a century — points to a debate that moved beyond theological disagreement to something more elemental.
But last month, a group of students took up those same sides and internalized those same arguments without the thousand-year-old anger, insult-laden correspondence, and flames that devour sensible disagreement.
In Potomac, Md., and Portland, Ore.; Sydney and Copenhagen; and some 400 other locations worldwide, 20,000 adult students spent an evening rehashing the Maimonidean controversy during a lesson of “Great Debates in Jewish History,” a new six-week course from the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) that delves into six fervid debates that divided the Jewish people throughout history. For 90 minutes, some cried faith, others reason, as the arguments of old sprang to life again.
How do we resurrect, in unity, issues that tore communities apart? Are we more civil than our predecessors; more sensible or restrained? Of course not. Any frank appraisal of our current landscape of debate will admit to a moment of reckless disagreement. Our communal and personal conversations have assumed the shape of the wider American political discourse in which the issues have become beside the point, where distrust trumps reason, and emotion tramples levelheadedness.
What, then, is the factor that allows students across the world to inhabit old debates but not become possessed by them? Time.
Debate is an intellectual exercise. Disagreement turns dangerous only when it seeps from the mind into the personal realm, spoiling areas unrelated to the issue at hand.
But time erodes personalized debate. The pangs of resentment and injured pride that produce ad hominem attacks are particular to a time and place. Transferred to a different time and place, those ingredients disintegrate and all that is left is the essence of the dispute — the divergent ways of understanding the world, or God, or humankind.
The ideas animating the Maimonidean Controversy have never truly left, but what made the debate so infamous has. Anyone wishing to take up that worthy topic is able to do so without occupying the emotional space of 13th-century sages.
So what about today’s highly charged political arena? Is it too much?
I received an email from a woman asking me to pray for her ill mother — a thoughtful email to be sure, if not for her closing explanation of why she was turning to me: her rabbi expressed political views she did not agree with; she no longer wanted his prayers. Ideological difference should not be cause for turning away from a decades-long personal relationship with a mentor, friend, or sister. Yet that is where we often find ourselves.
If we proceed down this road unchecked, we will find ourselves in the territory of past communities who were ravaged by their debates. Our children will dissect and diagnose our mistakes. But that post-mortem can be avoided if we invest into the present our knowledge of what happened to those before us.
Yes, debate is embedded in Jewish history and tradition. It is how we remain focused on what needs our attention and what needs reform. It is how we ensure that the ethos of Judaism stays vibrant, incisive, and meaningful.
But the intrusion of personal prejudice into debate directs the conversation away from the constructive center to the frivolous exterior. And there, on the inconsequential periphery, is where family and community relationships go to die.
The famed “houses” of Shammai and Hillel are paragons of compartmentalized disagreement.
“Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed,” the Talmud says, “Beit Shammai did not abstain from marrying the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying the families of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another…”
This is Judaism’s illustration of a “debate for the sake of Heaven”: We clash with our minds, but still link hands in friendship.
As a student of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Menachen Mendel Schneerson, I saw this delicate balance firsthand. The Rebbe held firm and unequivocal positions on a variety of issues. But his ability to not only tolerate but to respect, and to not only respect but to love, those who disagreed with him remains awe-inspiring.
If we are to restore vibrant, healthy debate into the Jewish world — if we want to fight like Shammai and Hillel, but also love like Shammai and Hillel — then we need to put distance between our intellectual disagreements and our personal relationships. With hindsight we have seen what happens to a Jewish world where the heart hijacks the mind. Let’s be wise enough to avoid the excesses of yesteryear and keep the debate at the study-house door.