What is the value of arguing? - book review

Can the authors’ scenarios help navigate divisive, confusing hot topics?

 PALESTINIANS PASS the security barrier in Aida refugee camp, in Bethlehem this past February. (photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)
PALESTINIANS PASS the security barrier in Aida refugee camp, in Bethlehem this past February.

As even beginner students know, arguing is central to the Babylonian Talmud. It’s rare to find a page without a disagreement between the rabbis. Often the rabbis conduct their disputes respectfully, but sometimes disturbing insults fly. In a few places in the Talmud, one rabbi expresses an opinion and another retorts, “It seems to me that he has no brain inside his skull” (Yevamot 9a, for instance).

“It seems to me that he has no brain inside his skull.”

Yevamot 9a

Considering that arguments often lead to insults (or worse), is arguing desirable? According to two gifted Israeli educators, Robbie Gringras and Abi Dauber Stern, it is. In Stories for the Sake of Argument: Stories to get you arguing with your family, friends and community. And that’s a good thing! Gringras and Dauber Stern suggest creative ways to revive the art of arguing. They believe that “no learning about Israel can happen without an argument. Israel is a living embodiment of several ongoing, interlocking arguments.”

The purpose of arguments

Sadly, many Israelis feel that political arguments serve no purpose. Divisions here are so sharp that those who feel that Israel should be doing more to make peace with the Palestinians rarely engage with those who feel that nothing would come of it. It is rare to hear Benjamin Netanyahu supporters, who see him as the ideal prime minister for the country today, debating with Israelis who see him as corrupt, hedonistic and egotistical. The same is true in the United States: supporters and opponents of Donald Trump often decide not to engage each other on this divisive topic.

To help begin the arguing, the authors present 24 scenarios or stories that they hope “will provoke you into an argument.” Almost all the stories have to do with Israel but, as the authors say, “Israel’s local arguments are the arguments of the world. Only louder.”

One scenario focuses on the question: should an Arab-Israeli who professes loyalty to the state be faulted for not singing “Hatikvah”? Sure, loyal citizens should sing their national anthem. But does that apply to Arab citizens when the anthem makes specific reference to the yearnings of “the Jewish soul”? Canadians have a similar problem. The official French lyrics of Canada’s national anthem read in part “ton bras sait porter l’épée; il sait porter la croix [Your arm knows how to bear the sword; it knows how to bear the cross].” Jews and other non-Christians often feel uncomfortable praising their country for knowing how to bear the cross.

Talmud [illustrative]_370 (credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)Talmud [illustrative]_370 (credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Aside from scenarios that directly mention conflict-ridden Israeli issues, the book also presents some “allegories,” stories that do not explicitly relate to Israeli issues but allude to them, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. One “allegory” describes the predicament of a schoolgirl who finds that her standard path for walking to school has been taken away by the building of an unscalable wall between her home and school in order to protect another building that was vandalized. Now it will take her an extra 30 minutes every day to walk to school. For those who fail to see the political parallel, the title of this chapter, “Security Barrier,” and the discussion that follows make it clear.

Two appendices, “Tips for leading a healthy argument with your family” and “Tips for leading a healthy argument with a group,” can turn this book into a valuable resource. Another appendix provides links to resources on the Internet that can help develop and disseminate “a new pedagogy of argument.”

The book provides no instructions about arriving at resolutions of arguments. But the Talmud is also built on the value of arguing without resolution. Later codes of Jewish law present conclusions without the arguments, but for the Talmud itself, resolutions are rare; presenting two (or more) sides of an issue usually suffices. Apparently, the editors of the Talmud felt that understanding the intellectual underpinnings of contradictory views was of value in itself.

Back in the 11th century, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (aka “Rif”) composed an abridged version of the Talmud that, among other innovations, removed all references to disagreements. This kinder and gentler Talmud had a short heyday as a popular text for Jewish study. But scholarly Jewish communities throughout the world generally stuck to the quarrelsome Talmud. Rif’s magnum opus turned, presumably against the author’s intent, into a text that simply provided one possible interpretation of the Talmud, to be contrasted with other interpretations, thus continuing the hallowed tradition of arguing.

What actually makes Talmudic arguments valuable is that the participants all have core knowledge and share values. In such situations, even heated arguments can be useful. Stories for the Sake of Argument directs most of its attention to provoking arguments within the family, around the dinner table. Families, it is to be hoped, are spaces with shared values (although presumably not much core knowledge can be assumed) so maybe they are appropriate places to encourage arguments.

A larger societal change that will get people with different values arguing productively is not likely to emerge from this book. But even if it helps on the micro level, it will have done something valuable.

Stories for the Sake of ArgumentBy Robbie Gringras and Abi Dauber SternFSA Publications211 pages; $26.50