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Arguing, the Primary Jewish Act

Snow falling on Cacti and Palms and Swimming Pools in Tucson, Arizona last Friday

Sermon Parshat Ki Tissa 5779, February 22, 2019

Congregation Beit Simcha

A Jewish friend of mine was telling me about his peculiar experience working for an organization that is run by the Quakers. It seems that the way that Quaker groups work is that each and every decision has to be made by consensus. If anyone disagrees, the whole group must wait until everyone comes to complete agreement. The only way around this is for the person who disagrees to publicly proclaim that he or she stands aside. Then the group can go ahead and make a unanimous, consensus decision. No wonder they call each other Friends!

You can imagine what a culture shock this was to a Jewish leader to encounter such a process. Transpose this to a Jewish setting and try to envision all the Jews in a group agreeing on any issue, let alone every issue. In Tevya’s words from Fiddler on the Roof: unheard of! Unthinkable! Absurd!

You know the stereotype: when you have two Jews you have three opinions, four synagogues, and five Jewish organizations. It is clear we have a kind of national genius for disagreement. Want to get into an argument in a Jewish setting? It’s easy—voice an opinion, any opinion at all. You are guaranteed that someone will disagree with you.

In the classic film “My Favorite Year” the protagonist tells his non-Jewish date, “Katherine, Jews know two things: suffering, and where to find great Chinese food.” But the truth is that even more than these staples of Jewish life, we also really know arguing. And we have been engaged in that process for many, many years. Our greatest sacred literary text, the Talmud, is essentially 63 huge volumes recording one very long argument about, more or less, everything. It is unheard of for a prominent sage to raise an issue in the Talmud and not to be immediately contradicted.

The renowned scholar of Jewish life, Leo Rosten defined pilpul, the most elaborate argumentation in the Talmud, as "unproductive hair-splitting that is employed not so much to radiate clarity ... as to display one's own cleverness..." And, always, to employ that technique in an argument.

This preference for contradiction not only seems to be in our very nature, it is also surely in our institutions. Perhaps the best current demonstration of this is the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In its 70-year history it has never had an actual majority of the 120 members belong to one political party. Never. Not once! Currently it has representatives of 15 different political parties as members—15!—and no single party holds more than 30 of the 120 seats. This guarantees more or less continual disagreement on nearly every issue. And the coming Israeli election in April promises more of the same: no party is favored to win more than the 36 that the new combination party of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid is polling. This is considered a huge thing, that one party might win as much as 30 percent of the vote and unseat Bibi Netanyahu. 30 percent of Jews agreeing constitutes a minor miracle, apparently.

I might add that in Israel, where consensus is required for the Knesset to serve out its full four-year term, not once in 70 years has a Knesset ever completed its full term before arguments and disagreements required a new, “early” election. Plenty of disagreement to go around. And if that’s true of the only Jewish nation in the world, how much more is it true of our own smaller organizations out here in the Diaspora?

This tendency is so well known that traditionally, in the coming Purim season in March we Jews even make fun of our incredible predilection for disagreement by creating another venue for public conflict. It is customary around college campuses for learned professors to engage in annual Latkeh vs Hamantashen debates in which scholarly arguments are dredged up to demonstrate the culinary preferability of one unhealthy traditional food over the other. Truly, argument for argument’s sake.

Why do you think there are so many Midrashim about people seeking harmony and good fellowship in their lives? Because the very nature of Jewish community is conflict and discord. The injunctions to love our neighbor as ourselves or to be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, are there not because we do this so well, but because we don’t do it well at all. I mean, you don’t spend a lot of time instructing people to do what they are already doing. The issue is that we Jews are, frankly, atrocious at getting along peaceably.

As one comedian, Bob Mankoff, put it, ‘When I was first dating my wife, who is not Jewish, we were having what I thought was an ordinary conversation and she said, "Why are you arguing with me?" I replied, "I'm not arguing, I'm Jewish." I thought that was clever. She didn't.’ And yet they married, no doubt continuing the argument for years to come. How Jewish.

So what is there in our very nature as Jews that makes us want to rebel? Why is that we instinctively, always, seek contrast and contradiction? Why can’t we just… get along?

Perhaps there is a clue in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tissa. By the way, could we possibly have had a better week than Rodeo Shabbat for this portion that highlights a cow? Anyway, in the Torah, things have been going too well for the Israelites of late. After 400 years of slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt in a short period of time they have been freed gloriously, had the sea parted for them, watched their enemies get washed away, had manna fall from heaven to eat and been welcomed into the covenant of God at Mt. Sinai by actually hearing God speak. They have food and water and freedom and leadership and organization. Their basic needs have been attended to. They have leisure time for the very first time in their lives.

So naturally the first thing they do is start trouble. They’ve already been complaining: the food was better in Egypt, they tell Moses. They complain about the water. When the Ten Commandments are given, the most dramatic and complete communication between God and humanity ever offered, the people hear God speak and ask Moses to lower the volume—it’s too loud, they say, turn it down… that’s also very Jewish.

Kvetching is normal, for Jews, and relatively benign. And argument is in our nature, as we have seen. But if it is left unchecked both lead to something worse.

Because all of that kvetching and argument it turns out was a mere prelude to the dramatic rebellion offered in this week’s parshah of Ki Tisa. While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai communing with God, leaving his brother Aaron in charge, the people break the first commandment that actually can be positively broken. The very first commandment is more of a statement, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt and slavery.” Nothing to break there. So naturally, the Israelites decide to break the next commandment, the prohibition on worshipping idols or graven images, and demand Aaron violate it on their behalf. Being Jewish himself, Aaron figures out a loophole: he makes not a graven image, something carved, but a molten image, formed by pouring gold into a mold. It’s a calf, and the people sacrifice to it and then, Western-style, whoop and holler and go into full-on party mode.

In a way, this echoes the Garden of Eden scenario, when Adam and Eve were given just one commandment--don’t eat the fruit of that specific tree!-- and then immediately break it. Here the Israelites, our ancestors, are given 10 Commandments and break the first one they can. It’s a talent, really.

You know the rest of the story. Moses comes down the mountain, sees the rebellion, smashes the first set of tablets carved by God, and punishes the rebels, suppressing the revolt. Eventually he’ll go back up the mountain and a new set of commandments will be carved, this time by him. But the enduring issue of that rebellious spirit remains with the Israelites, their leader Moses and their God. In fact, it still remains with us contemporary Israelites, the Jews, and all of our leaders—and, of course, with our God.

Whether it was the result of our oppression in Egyptian slavery or the long centuries of persecution following the ultimate Exile in Roman times, we Jews have retained that argumentative, even rebellious spirit. It’s not really debatable—although I’m sure someone will debate me on that, this being a Jewish congregation. But the need to contradict seems so ingrained now that realistically we have to see what it means, rather then how we might change it. Because, let’s face it, we ain’t gonna to stop arguing.

And perhaps we shouldn’t. That Jewish preference for argument and contrariness, that turbulent spirit, has served us well many times, and created great good in the world. It allowed Jews to question accepted orthodoxies, like Newtonian physics, and produce an Albert Einstein. It provided the spirit that motivated Sigmund Freud to uncover the unconscious mind, influenced Karl Marx to reinvent the concept of labor, spurred every labor organizer from Samuel Gomperts to Emma Goldman to work for the rights of the worker. It is that argumentative, rebellious spirit that led some of my own ancestors to rebel against the Czar in the 19th century, led Zionists across oceans and continents to create a new country in an ancient land. And it is the need we have to see things differently that helped create so many great Jewish economists, that pushes Jewish medical researchers to topple incorrect theories and probe new areas of healing, that drives Jewish internet entrepreneurs to create Facebook and Google and all those successful Israeli start-ups like Waze. It is even what drives Jews to become writers in fresh, new ways and styles, and sometimes win Nobel Prizes.

And in a moral sense, the need to question has long goaded Jews to fight injustice in every society in which we have lived, from the Jews of the Civil Rights movement to the Jews who brought case after case to the Supreme Court, and now sit on the Supreme Court, seeking greater honesty, transparency and justice. And that contrary nature has created a viewpoint that makes it practically obligatory to be Jewish if you wish to make a living as a comedian, the ultimate contrarian profession.

So perhaps the need to argue, to kvetch, even to rebel is not quite the calamity it is presented as in Ki Tissa. For after the Golden Calf what ultimately results is a new covenant, and a greater understanding of just what the people really need, a Ten Commandments written not by the hand of God but by the hand of humans. This turbulent Jewish nation will not keep on track solely because of the grand spectacle of divine redemption, not remain good because of witnessing miracles or hearing loud proclamations. We need the steadying hand of a practical code for life, the spiritually reassuring presence of regular ritual to keep us together.

The best statement on arguing comes, as it so often does, from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors: every controversy for the sake of heaven will bring reward, we are told. Every machloket l’sheim Shamayim, every difference that is motivated for ethical and moral reasons, for the purpose of serving God, will help make the world a better place. Of course it adds, every argument, every machloket that is not for the sake of heaven, that is, that is for the sake of ego or self-aggrandizement, will damage the world.

Not that I have to tell you this, but I guess the moral is: keep arguing. It’s Jewish, and it means we seek the highest level of truth attainable. But do it not to impress others with your intellectual brilliance or your ability to disagree. Argue instead for the purpose of truly improving the world, of improving justice, in order to make things better.

That is, go ahead, argue: but make it for heaven’s sake…

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