Shiur #28: Argumentation and Peace

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #28: Argumentation and Peace


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: "Talmidei chakhamim increase peace in the world, as it says (Yeshayahu 54:13) 'And all your children will be learned of Hashem, and great will be the peace of your children'—do not read 'banayikh' (your children), but rather 'bonayikh' (your builders)."

(Berakhot 64a)


According to our translation above, the gemara midrashically applies this verse to talmidei chakhamim by replacing "children" with "builders;" as scholars engage in constructive acts, talmidei chakhamim can be viewed as builders.  Professor Tzvi Groner once made a different suggestion to me which I subsequently found in the Rif of Rav Yoshiyahu Pinto (Ein Yaakov, Berakhot).  Perhaps "bonayikh" is not from the root of "binyan" (building) but from "bina," (understanding): those that learn Torah and achieve greater understanding bring peace to the world.  This clearly refers to the scholars.


            Rabbi Chanina's aggadic statement appears at the conclusion of several Talmudic tractates.  These exact words bring Yevamot, Nazir and Kareitot to a close, and are the penultimate words of Berakhot (which concludes by quoting a number of verses about peace).  On one level, this reflects the desire to end each tractate with an aggadic flourish.  Indeed, the Rambam usually ends each book of his Mishneh Torah with a broader ethical or philosophical idea, and he probably learned to do so from the Talmud.


            Furthermore, the specific choice of this aggada as a frequent conclusion reflects the immense value Judaism grants to peace.  Peace is also the theme of the closing blessing of the Amida, the last of the priestly blessings and the last request of birkat ha-mazon.  Peace usually appears at the end of a long list, as the crescendo of all blessings.


            Beyond the general points above, there may be specific reasons why these four tractates end with the theme of peace.  The Maharsha (Yevamot 122b) explains that Yevamot includes many unusual leniencies to prevent cases of agunot.  For example, the sages allow the testimony of one witness—even from among those who would normally be considered invalid—in order to establish the death of a husband at sea (Yevamot 88a).  This will prevent his wife from becoming an aguna, having to wait a lifetime for further evidence that never materializes.  A reader of this tractate might view these leniencies as a deviation from halakhic responsibility; therefore, it becomes imperative to point out that promoting human welfare represents a crucial goal of the halakhic system.  The concluding quotes about the value of shalom are intended to explain the internal halakhic ideals that motivate these legal rulings which enable women to remarry.  The sages ruled correctly when they utilized the resources within the halakhic system for the promotion of peace.


            The Maharsha offers a different reason for the placement of our aggadic statement at the end of Berakhot.  Tractate Berakhot deals mainly with various prayers and blessings.  These religious utterances enable the Jewish people to maintain a positive relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam after the destruction of the Temple.  Thus, the concluding message about peace refers to shalom between the Jewish people and Hashem; the sages facilitate such shalom by instituting tefillot and berakhot.


            Yet, for many of us, the term talmid chakham essentially conjures to mind the endeavor of learning Torah.  If the gemara indeed refers to this aspect of the sages' work, an obvious question emerges.  Every Talmudic page records a constant stream of debate and argument.  Indeed, rabbinic scholars debating halakhic and hashkafic points continue unabated in our own day.  If talmidei chakhamim constantly argue, then in what sense do they promote peace?

            Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Ein Aya, Berakhot) explains that this question works with a false assumption about the nature of peace.  Peace is not achieved when all opinions but one are obliterated; rather, peace emerges when there is a realization of the valid aspects of a myriad of positions.  The variety of positions enables us to see that each one has its time and place.  Thus, the verse utilizes the phrase "rav shelom banayikh" instead of gadol shelom banayikh, as peace stems more from multiplicity than from sameness.


            This idea should not be identified with the relativistic claim that all positions are equally valid: such a claim is patently false and not a realistic or helpful approach to promoting peace.  Instead, Rav Kook argues that the complexity of many issues means that each side has something of value to contribute.  I may be essentially right in my argument and still depend on debate to realize that one of my opponent's critiques hits the mark.  When under ideological attack, I should not end all constructive discourse by telling my opponent that we are both completely right or by blithely assuming that everything he says is ridiculous.  I must argue with the opponent, but that argument will lead me to realize the truth of some of his contentions.


            Of course, Rav Kook himself practiced this position.  While he thought the religious community was more correct than the secular Zionists, he also taught that the secular Zionist critique of the religious had elements of truth.  For example, he felt that they were justified in claiming that some distorted conceptions of fear of Heaven constrict life and inhibit vitality (Orot Ha-kodesh 3, p. 34). Along similar lines, the secular Jewish rejection of halakhic observance may reflect a failure of the religious to show that the many halakhic details reflect a sweeping poetic vision of the good (Orot, p. 121).  


            Rav Kook even did the same with non–Jewish philosophies that seem antithetical to Judaism.  Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic thought is usually not seen as congenial to a religious person; yet, Rav Kook located the element of truth in Schopenhauer's vision as well (Orot Ha-kodesh 2, p. 448).  The problem of Schopenhauer's doctrine of the will is not that it is completely false, but that its adherents see it as the totality of existence, when it is only a portion of the truth.


            Rav Kook's idea serves as powerful advice for today, particularly for those who, like myself, identify with what might be termed Centrist Orthodoxy, a group that hears strong criticism from both the right and the left.  Could it be that the critiques directed toward this community from their liberal and charedi brethren bear no validity?  The charedim's claim that Centrist Orthodox Jews lack intense commitment and the secularist critique of the ethical behavior of Orthodox Jews may both be overdone, but neither is completely false.  


            Realizing that one's rival or opponent in argument has something positive to contribute is an important step toward authentic Jewish unity.  Communal peace will not come from all Jews adopting the same position or from asserting that all positions are equally valid. Without relinquishing our essential ideals, we can appreciate the value of other voices.