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Debates for the Sake of Heaven

In the last year, Americans have experienced some of the worst political discourse in its history, crude, crass, and demeaning, and many have felt ashamed by it. This week, with a few minor exceptions, a much smaller audience experienced the best of American democracy – enlightened and dignified, into the decisions and the people that will impact lives.

Addressed to the early rabbinic leaders, Avtalyon said, “Sages, be careful with your words,” for they will drive people to bad places, the next generation of rabbis will drink from those waters, and God’s name will be desecrated.” (Mishnah Avot 1:11) Whether in the religious or the general sphere of discourse, base and vulgar talk and personal attacks influence generations of leaders, and much can be lost.”

The distinction between the worst and the best was framed simply, yet succinctly, by our Sages: “Debates for the sake of Heaven will be sustained; debates not for the sake of Heaven will not be sustained. What are `debates for the sake of Heaven’? Like those of Hillel and Shammai. What are `debates not for the sake of Heaven’? Like those of Korach and his group.” (Mishnah Avot 5:17)

Judge Neil Gorsuch sat before US Senators constitutionally charged to “advise and consent” on his nomination for the US Supreme Court. The Democratic opposition scrutinized and challenged any decision that might indicate weakness and/or contradictions in his judicial philosophy, character or judgment. And the proceedings were public – open to a small live audience and televised to the American and world public.

Although the questioning and comments were pregnant with political agendas – indeed in “advise and consent” we find the nexus between the political and the ostensible non-political/legal arenas – the probing was enlightening. The nominee sat for hours fielding sharp and challenging questions and carefully explaining his decisions.

And that was the legacy of Hillel and Shammai. They and their Torah heirs produced over 4,000 Mishnayot (Rabbinic legal rulings) over two centuries, under cruel Roman occupation. Nearly all Mishnayot included respectful legal differences. In addition, thousands of other teachings (Baraitot) never made it into the Mishnah’s final version. But even these excluded views were reintroduced by the next generations of Rabbis into what became the more than 2,700 dense printed pages of the Babylonian Talmud. And these later Rabbis added their own substantial rulings. Those role models set a standard of high level, respectful legal debate and produced generations of great people and great minds.

“Debates for the sake of Heaven will be sustained; debates not for the sake of Heaven will not be sustained.”

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