Something to Argue About

Something to Argue About

By Michael Jacobs /

Michael Jacobs
Michael Jacobs

Clive Lawton jokingly used himself as the example of the ultimate Limmud speaker, the one everyone has to hear, during a training session for would-be Limmud Atlanta + Southeast leaders Sunday night, June 14.

But the way he entertained, delighted and educated revealed how the Englishman has helped spread the Limmud movement around the world in 30 years.

You can read about the Limmud lessons Lawton shared on Page 17, but he also offered insights about leadership and the Jewish people that apply beyond the annual Limmud retreat and its celebration of individual Jewish journeys.

We discussed the contrasting leadership styles of Moses (bold, heroic, decisive, my-way-or-the-goat-path certainty) and Aaron (populist, responsive, cautious, less principled) and what the conversation at the burning bush was all about.

Lawton talked about some of the ways we Jews have gotten off track.

“Loving folk and including folk is what the Jewish people should do, and we’re very bad at it,” he said.

We’re good at arguing, of course, but Lawton raised the idea that one of the ways assimilation erodes Jewish continuity is by distorting the way we argue.

One of Limmud’s core values is a belief in “arguments for the sake of heaven,” a phrase from the Mishnah. Those are good arguments, and they never end because both sides have merit.

It’s not a surprising viewpoint for a people whose historical name refers to wrestling with G-d and whose key religious text on how to live, the Talmud, focuses on the endless rabbinic disagreements over rules.

The other kind of arguments, the bad kind, don’t last because they’re all about winning. The two sides don’t begin with a belief in each other’s good intentions, and aside from the drive to win, the overwhelming desire is to bring the argument to an end.

Lawton showed that the need to get an argument over with is not very Jewish. Most of us, those who haven’t gotten a traditional yeshiva education, reflect the influence of secular society in our view of arguments as a way to reach a solution instead of appreciating the value of ongoing, respectful disagreement.

It’s only when we let our guard down — maybe because we’re among friends, maybe with the help of glass or two of wine or whiskey — that most of us seem to enjoy our arguments for their own sake.

I couldn’t help thinking of an episode of “Frasier” in which Frasier and his father watch a Jewish woman and her mother engage in a brutal, tear-filled argument, then hug and walk away happy. The Crane men try to replicate the argument and wind up miserable, unable to master arguing as a loving form of family interaction.

I wonder whether the magic of Jewish argument holds the key to countering the assimilative dangers of intermarriage. Camp, trips to Israel and day schools are wonderful, but maybe all we need is to overhaul our religious schools to concentrate on developing the Jewish art of arguing without needing to win.

The concept is so foreign to most non-Jews that a couple of Friday night family dinners in which full-on argument served as the main dish would break up the large majority of interfaith couples. Any non-Jew who could hold his or her own rather than being repelled would reveal a Jewish neshama (soul) regardless of upbringing and the past few generations of family history and would be a wonderful candidate to be part of the Jewish people’s future.

Of course, if you disagree with me, I’m happy to argue about it.

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