As our world becomes more and more aggressive and a cordial discussion, disagreement, or debate becomes a rarity, especially in certain religious circles, here are some rules that may be of help.
I have had the merit to sit on many panels with people I did not agree with, including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, Christians, Moslems and atheists. I learned a lot from them even when I strongly disagreed with their views.
1. Act out of pure intentions
First and foremost, personal hate, which unfortunately sometimes exists between opponents, must never enter as a factor in the discussion. If it does, what will ensue will resemble more a feud than a respectable discussion. In order to reap the benefits of such dialogue, intentions must be pure. As it is stated: “Words that come from the heart enter the heart” (Sefer HaYashar, Shaar, 13). Ideas are transferred through the medium of a relationship. Therefore, the only effective way to communicate any point of view is with respect and integrity.
Never ever disagree when you are motivated by jealousy. Although you may not even be aware that this is the case and you have convinced yourself that your disagreement is pure, be aware that this is not always the case. Your opponent may only remain quiet out of respect for you, but one facial expression may be enough for your opponent to realize what motivates you.
2. Remain calm
Even when our intentions are pure, we must never lose patience and resort to shouting. Doing so, not only undermines our own personal credibility, but also calls into question the value of our arguments. The moment a discussion devolves into a shouting match, all hope for meaningful interaction is lost.
3. Understand the opponent’s position.
We must try to sincerely understand our opponents’ position. If we can succeed in this, we will be better equipped to discern where our opponent may have erred in his reasoning. If we truly attempt to understand our opponent, demonstrating the validity of our perspective will then prove that much easier. In fact, listening properly to an opponent’s claim can be extremely rewarding, even if solely for the sake of sharpening our own view. Sometimes the greatest insights are born from the “provocative” questions of an adversary. We may be surprised what we learn about ourselves.
4. Admit when you are wrong
We must always admit when we are wrong. We have a tendency to defend to death everything we say. But there is no point in defending a statement that we later realize to be false. It only hinders our overall presentation and efficacy. It is better to cut our losses, admit our mistake and move on. We may have lost that battle, but at least we’ll have a chance at winning the next.
5. Maintain your dignity and integrity
It is vital that we always maintain our dignity and integrity. Act rather than react. We cannot let ourselves be drawn into the fray of a discourteous debate. And above all else, we must always guarantee the dignity and integrity of our opponent even when strong words are required and your opponent has crossed the line and caused a desecration of God’s name.
We must never confuse hostility to one’s ideas with a hostility to the person himself.
6. Be open to other ideas
And above all, let us not forget what the famous Orthodox Jewish philosopher and kabbalist, Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew, 1520-1609) wrote. After quoting Averroes, one of the great Islamic philosophers and Aristotelian commentators, Maharal writes:
“It is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you not reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if your adversary does not intend merely to provoke you but rather to declare his beliefs… And even if such beliefs are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say to him: ‘Speak not and keep your words.’ Because if so, there will be no clarification of religion. Just the opposite, tell him to speak his mind and all what he wants to say so that he will not be able to claim that you silenced him. Anyone who prevents another from speaking only reveals the weakness of his own religion, and not as many think, that by avoiding discussion about religion you strengthen it.
This is not so. Rather, the denial of one who opposes your religion is the negation and weakening of your own religion… For the proper way to attain the truth is to hear other’s arguments which they hold sincerely…
Thus, it is wrong to reject an opponent’s ideas, instead draw him close to you and delve into his words.”
(Be’er HaGola, end of last chapter, translation by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm .z.l.)
This statement of the Maharal is in no way a concession. It is rather as Dr. Norman Lamm puts it, “a heroic assertion of self-confidence in his faith as a believing Jew, one ready to meet all challenges” (Torah Umadda, p. 58).
Religious Jews have nothing to lose when confronting the truth, and it may quite well be beneficial to hear the views of those who oppose traditional Judaism. It may only prove to be constructive to rethink and reformulate the traditional positions so as to make them more palatable and intellectually sophisticated.
As Logan Pearsall Smith once remarked: “For souls in growth, great quarrels are great emancipations” (Afterthoughts, 1993, 1).