Can disagreements be healthy?

Judaism celebrates diversity of opinion and disagreement, but how we disagree with one another matters. When disagreeing, we need to seek truth, not victory. It matters less about who is sharper or smarter, and more about who can see the bigger picture and acknowledge multiple sides of an issue. Our tradition teaches us to follow in the footsteps of Beit Hillel and engage in machloket l’shem shamayim (disagreement for the sake of Heaven). Beit Hillel was not interested in merely proving their existing views right; rather, they sought a complete understanding of the issue and perspectives different from their own. Good conflict resolution requires humility and the ability to honor different sides of an issue.

An expanded curriculum is available for this topic.

  1. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 5:17 states: “Every disagreement (machloket) that is for the sake of Heaven (l’shem shamayim) is destined to endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven is destined not to endure. Commenting on the first part of this mishna, Rabbi Ovadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro (also known as “Bartenura”) — an Italian rabbi who was born in the 1400s — wrote, “This means that the people engaged in the disagreement will endure, and will not be lost.” How do you interpret Bartenura’s explanation that “people engaged in the disagreement will endure and will not be lost”? What does it mean for a disagreement to endure?
  2. In this famous passage, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) explains why Jewish law follows the opinion of Beit Hillel rather than their opponents, Beit Shammai:“Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.”Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, they studied not only their own rulings but also those of Beit Shammai, and they taught the words of Beit Shammai before their own.”
    • Why do you think Beit Hillel studied the views of Beit Shammai who they disagreed with? What is the purpose of disagreement for Beit Hillel?
    • What does this add to your understanding of what it means to engage in a machloket l’shem shamayim?
  3. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the following about the “argument not for the sake of heaven,” which he called, “argument for the sake of victory”: “In such a conflict, what is at stake is not truth but power, and the result is that both sides suffer. If you win, I lose. But if I win, I also lose, because in diminishing you, I diminish myself… Argument for the sake of power is a lose-lose scenario. The opposite is the case when the argument is for the sake of truth. If I win, I win. But if I lose I also win — because being defeated by the truth is the only form of defeat that is also a victory.” Explain the statement beginning, “But if I win, I also lose.” Explain the statement beginning, “But if I lose I also win.” Now, think of a time when you “won but also lost” or “lost but also won.” What did you learn from that experience?
  1. Watch the video with your students. Ask students to work with a partner to create their own dialogue about a controversial topic following the format in the video. The first part of the dialogue should reflect machloket she’ayno l’shem shamayim, and the second part should demonstrate machloket l’shem shamayim. Then, ask each pair to present their dialogue to the rest of the class.
  2. Hold a debate in your class that models a machloket l’shem shamayim:
    • Choose a topic that will be controversial and engaging for your students.
    • Tell your students that the goal of this exercise is to simulate a machloket l’shem shamayim. Set ground rules as a class for the debate based on the texts in this lesson.
    • Facilitate the debate using the following format.
    • Ask students to vote anonymously for who they thought won the debate.
  3. Engage your students in a dialectical thinking exercise about any controversial topic. Then, lead a discussion about the exercise using the accompanying prompts. Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and arrive at a conclusion that reconciles seemingly contradictory information. You can apply this exercise to policy issues in political elections, issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or controversial issues in current events.
  1. Read this short piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Truth emerges from disagreement and debate.” Rabbi Sacks argues that schools and universities should aim to be environments “where you give a respectful hearing to views opposed to your own, knowing that your views too will be listened to respectfully.” Do you relate to Rabbi Sacks’ argument? What does this Rabbi Sacks’ perspective mean to you?
  2. The Talmud (Yevamot 14b) states, “Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from Beit Shammai. This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: ‘Love truth and peace’ (Zechariah 8:19).” Who is someone in your life whose views are different from your own, but who you still have a good relationship with? What enables both of you to overcome your disagreements?
  3. Think of a recent conflict that you had with a friend, family member, teacher or someone else. Were you able to resolve it? How? If not, why did it get stuck? What would you do differently next time?

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