It has been recently argued in the News that to criticize stridency and passionate argument in the classroom is to criticize a uniquely Jewish mode of argument. It is undoubtedly true that the Jewish conversational standards I was raised with are at odds with Yale’s WASP-y norms of politeness. In Jewish spaces, I interrupt and am interrupted, jumping to poke holes in weak arguments. This is a different way of communicating than the patient, wait-your-turn conversations we have in section and over meals, and we should turn a critical eye to where those norms come from. However, to limit the understanding of what “Talmudic” debate is to aggressive argumentation is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Jewish conversation.
The locus for the interrupting argumentation that is so characteristically Jewish is Talmud study, which is traditionally done in pairs called “chavruta.” When I study with a chavruta, we often yell and interrupt in our attempt to understand the sparse and confusing text of the ancient document, as Jews have done for thousands of years. Talmud is traditionally studied in a “beit midrash,” a study hall, which is characterized by its hubbub, the sounds of many voices animatedly — and often aggressively — seeking meaning. What differentiates chavruta from discussion section, though, is relationship.
“Chavruta” describes not merely a mode of study but the relationship in which it is instantiated. “She’s my chavruta” is a sentence that implies a deep and sustained friendship; people sometimes study with the same chavruta for most of their lives. What makes it possible for me to yell at my chavruta when we study is our underlying friendship, her awareness that my aggression is about the text and not about her and my own trust that she will not read my challenges as a reflection of a belligerent or rude character. Without these factors, a chavruta session is just shouting.
The Talmud itself reflects on the way in which a chavruta relationship can be shattered. In tractate Bava Metzia, we encounter the origin story of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, a chavruta whose disputes are recorded on thousands of Talmudic pages. Rabbi Yohanan, a scholar, convinces the highwayman Reish Lakish to turn away from his banditry and instead use his “strength for Torah study.” Rabbi Yohanan takes on Reish Lakish as a student, and as he grows in knowledge, he becomes Rabbi Yohanan’s chavruta.
One day, there is a debate in the beit midrash about the manufacturing process of swords. Rabbi Yohanan argues one position, while Reish Lakish asserts another. Rabbi Yohanan insultingly responds by telling Reish Lakish that “a bandit knows his banditry,” conceding the argument by invoking Reish Lakish’s past life of violence. The two men quarrel, and Reish Lakish falls ill as a result and dies.
Rabbi Yohanan is deeply saddened, and his rabbinic colleagues send him a bright young rabbi as a replacement. For every ruling that Rabbi Yohanan makes, the student provides a prooftext to support him. Rabbi Yohanan grows upset; he says, “In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the Law would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good?” Rabbi Yohanan grows so distressed that he walks the streets wailing for his lost chavruta, and eventually dies.
This story illustrates the strengths and pitfalls of an argumentative discourse. In mourning Reish Lakish, Rabbi Yohanan illuminates that the ideal chavruta is one who challenges: Knowledge can only emerge from confrontation and dispute. However, the tragedy of this story is the decay of the relationship that enabled that dispute. By insulting Reish Lakish, reminding him that he did not originally belong in the space of the beit midrash, Rabbi Yohanan destroys the relationship that allowed for such knowledge to grow.
For “Talmudic” argumentation to work, it must be built on a strong foundation of trust and respect, one where all parties feel that they have a right to the space. This mode of discourse can be profoundly intellectually generative and meaningful. However, to advocate for it at Yale must also be to advocate for a stronger Yale community. We can only yell at each other in class when we know that we will eat lunch together afterwards. We can only have a robust argumentative culture when everyone knows they have equal space and credibility, regardless of gender, race or the other factors that filter how we see aggression and intellect.
We should uplift Jewish modes of conversation at Yale. At the center of that is to treat our peers with respect and good faith, to build bonds of affection and trust. Come study Talmud with me; you’ll see.
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Silliman College and a staff columnist-at-large. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.