The Joys of Disagreeing

It’s an expression we’ve all heard. A discussion begins, a disagreement rears its head, and someone says “let’s agree to disagree.”

In other words: end of discussion.

The phrase, I suspect, is the result of an Anglo-Saxon attitude that finds something vaguely obscene in an open disagreement. It’s probably allied to the mentality that keeps Americans from using the word “toilet” to describe–well, a toilet. Disagreements are viewed as socially uncomfortable, and standing by your guns and defending them in an ongoing discussion is seen as, if not rude, certainly inappropriate.

The difficulty here is that terminating a discussion before the debate even gets started prevents analysis of the topic. You needn’t necessarily have to come to blows with your interlocutor in the course of the discussion, but the chance to air your opinion, hear the opposing view, and then try to sway the other person to your view is both intellectually satisfying and a means of furthering human knowledge in some small way.

The discussion may well end in a stalemate. It often does. But playing the game through to a stalemate isn’t the same as agreeing to a draw after the first move.

I suggested that this concept of agreeing to disagree is an Anglo-Saxon quirk. Other cultures don’t agree to disagree, particularly the more emotionally demonstrative ones. I haven’t polled my Latino and Italian friends on the subject, but, closer to home, I can affirm with full conviction that no Jew ever said “let’s agree to disagree.”

That’d be missing all the fun.

There’s usually no nastiness or hostility involved in the average Jewish discussion. We just value dissenting opinions. Although being right is important, we find it equally as important to understand the process by which right got to be right. In order to do that, you have to consider and appreciate the other side of the discussion, and not just dismiss it because it’s wrong.

This, of course, goes to the deepest depths of our tradition. The Talmud, the corpus of texts from which our entire legal system is derived, is nothing but a series of rabbinic discussions. Although there are times when nothing is contested, for the most part the Talmud has Rabbi One saying something and Rabbi Two disagreeing with him. Sometimes Rabbi Three gets in on the act. And sometimes even all the other rabbis (under the moniker of the Sages) gang up on the others. Very frequently, the Talmud doesn’t even tell us whom the halachah (the practical law) follows. That was often decided by subsequent commentators through analysis of the Talmudic discussion.

That means that there is no way of determining the law without the initial rabbinic disagreements. The opinions not adopted as law are not only fodder for debate; they often shed light on the canonical opinions. This light can be anything from the elucidation of the legal process itself to something as non-legal as a homiletic lesson. From this perspective, being right is almost beside the point, which explains why we have preserved thousands and thousands of non-canonical legal opinions over the course of thousands and thousands of years.

Agree to disagree? Never! Where would the Jewish people be if they didn’t disagree with each other?

We even have a word for rabbinic disagreements. And we can’t even agree on how to pronounce it, as it can be machloket, machlokes or even machloikes.

The concept is seasonally relevant as, at four points in the Haggadah (the liturgy for the Passover Seder), the compilers of that fascinating text chose to preserve rabbinic disagreements.

And do note that 4 is the magic number in the Haggadah.

The first machloket comes early on: the topic under disagreement is whether the third paragraph of the Sh’ma need be recited as part of the evening prayer service. The discussion centers on a Biblical verse and two interpretations of it. The discussion is left hanging: the Haggadah never up and says that, yes, we should recite the third paragraph of the Sh’ma at night, although we do. That’s beside the point: the story is about the disagreement and the different ways of understanding Deuteronomy 16:3. Rather than an answer, we get a lesson in exegesis and a pair of homiletic points. There’s a great deal to be learned from the discussion between Ben Zoma and the [other] Sages, even if it doesn’t end with an answer to the question it originally posed.

The second rabbinic disagreement in the Haggadah is one of those cases where two opinions are deemed valid, and therefore both opinions are followed in practice. The actual disagreement isn’t mentioned outright: the Haggadah doesn’t tell us that a debate between Rav and Shmuel is the reason why we start telling the story of the Exodus twice, once beginning with the Egyptian bondage, and then beginning again with our pre-Abrahamic idol-worshipping ancestors.

This is only one of the many disagreements between Rav and Shmuel that have come down to us. Rav and Shmuel agreeing to disagree is a disturbing thought.

The third disagreement in the Haggadah uses the rhetorical device of “one might think that…” Who, exactly, is this One – and where did he get his scatterbrained notion that the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus applies fourteen days before the Seder? This One is a sort of devil’s advocate, a means of creating dissent in order to show the logical process by which a conclusion (that the Seder be celebrated at night on the 15th of the month) is reached. The rhetorical One may be something of an idiot, but he makes it possible for the Haggadah to teach two important exegetical points.

Bringing One into the discussion goes far beyond merely not agreeing to disagree. This is dreaming up reasons to argue.

The last bone of rabbinic contention is by far the most spectacular: the mathematical elaboration of the number of plagues suffered by the Egyptians on land and at sea as argued by Rabbi Yose HaGlili, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. The lengthy discussion is accorded considerable pride of place, coming as it does at the conclusion of the narrative section of the Haggadah. (It segues into the hit tune of the seder, the “Dayeinu” litany, after which the Seder turns its attention to the obligatory eating of matzah and bitter herbs.)

The three-way discussion is the result of piling one exegesis on top of another in order to reach ever more fantastic totals of plagues. The rabbis begin with the with the ten Biblical plagues on land and end up with an opinion that claims that the Egyptians were visited by 250 plagues at the Sea. (The interim totals are 10/50, 40/200 and 50/250.) It’s kind of a “can you top this?” argument between the three players, and no attempt whatsoever is made to resolve the disagreement. It’s not “let’s agree to disagree” – it’s “let’s disagree ‘cause it’ll be fun and people will still be discussing it in two thousand years.”

(I might add that Rabbi Mark, working from the cantillation marks of one of the verses being interpreted, maintains that the Egyptians suffered 30 plagues on land and 150 plagues at the Sea. Told you it was fun.)

Readers who didn’t grow up hearing the Haggadah twice a year might well be wondering – what exactly are those 250 plagues at the Sea mentioned by Rabbi Akiva? How come nobody ever challenges Rabbi Akiva to name them?

The answer I’d suggest here is that Rabbi Akiva hadn’t the faintest idea what his 250 maritime plagues might be. Nor did Rabbi Eliezer know what his extra 230 were. The specific nature of these plagues is beside the point: the three rabbis are just tossing ideas around because rabbis enjoy tossing ideas around. When you boil the various viewpoints down to their homiletic residue, they all basically say the same thing: however bad the plague situation was in Egypt, it was [im]measurably worse when the Egyptians reached the Sea.

If you put it that way, it’s downright boring.

The “math” section of the Haggadah is interesting and, better still, invites further debate. If there’d been only one line about the plagues at the Sea being worse than the plagues on land, it would have blended into the rest of the Haggadah at a point when the company’s minds usually have started to wander. People may not remember the details, nor may they understand how the individual rabbis arrive at their totals, but they do remember that there’s some weird math about a whole mess of plagues–and then we wake up and sing “Dayeinu”.

I shudder to think what our religion would be if agree to disagree were one of the hermeneutical principles by which the halachah is derived. We thrive on argument–in a nice way. Perhaps one could even say that preserving non-canonical opinions teaches tolerance of other viewpoints, although there is rabbinic literature in which one authority calls his opponent an idiot. To my knowledge, however, no one comes to blows in the Talmud.

Some might think (see what I did there?) that there is an Ultimate Authority Who knows exactly what is supposed to be derived from Scripture. There would then be a right answer about the number of plagues at the Sea. Non-Jews might find it hard to believe, but we don’t have any such Authority. There is a famous story in tractate Bava Metzia (59a – 59b) in which Rabbi Eliezer (of 200 plagues fame) and the Sages disagree heatedly about whether an oven is ritually pure (Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion) or impure (the Sages’.)

Rabbi Eliezer not only fails to agree to disagree: he sticks to his guns to the extent of demanding and receiving supernatural proofs that the law should agree with him. Finally, he asks that a Voice from Heaven should tell the gathered sages that he is right, and the Heavenly Voice (bat kol) promptly does so. That ought to settle it.

Only it doesn’t. We don’t follow a bat kol because the law was given to the Rabbis to interpret. Based on that principle, the rabbis actually have (in legal matters) the ability to overrule God. Arguing with God goes back to Abraham: we won’t even agree to disagree with Him.

The next time someone tries to halt a disagreement by saying you should agree to disagree, recall that there’s a Near Eastern people that has survived for three millennia by doing the exact opposite.


[During one of the Sedarim this year, I realized that my total of four disagreements to go with the four sons and the four questions wasn’t entirely accurate. Towards the very end of the second half of the Seder, there is another instance of a rabbinic disagreement that causes us to follow two opinions, the question of what blessing is required at the conclusion of Hallel, the psalms of praise that wrap up the Haggadah. Let’s therefore say that there are four disagreements in the first part of the seder. Unless anyone would care to disagree with me.]

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