Why Good People Disagree


In this blog, we’ve viewed Jewish education and engagement through various frames. This is our first post through a content frame. We need more Jewish in our lives, and we need more Jewish in our Jewish education and engagement. May the voices of the different teachers we feature here (from all backgrounds, from many Jewish communities) inspire us and inspire our work.


Today’s blog post from Rabbi David Wolkenfeld (Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, Chicago) discusses the concept of machloket, holy disagreement. The piece will likely call for reading through varied lenses (Jewish pluralism in North America and in Israel, American pluralism, community dynamics). May it move all of us toward inclusive community rooms that are filled with texture, with all kinds of ideas.



“The opposite of a truth is a lie. But the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.”


This quote, attributed to the physicist Niels Bohr, is illustrated by the Torah readings on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah. They express conflict and debate between two protagonists and between two distinct worldviews. Whenever conflict pits profound truths against one another rather than in opposition to a falsehood, resolving the conflict will require more than fact-checking lies until one person surrenders. There is no lie on the other side, only another profound truth with which one must contend.


The Torah’s account of the creation of the first Jewish family is also the account of the first machloket, the first disagreement in Jewish history involving two profound truths.


Genesis Chapter 21, which is also the reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, opens in a hopeful and mirthful tone. God has remembered Sarah, fulfilling his promise. Sarah gives birth and nurses a child at an advanced age. She weans that child, and then Abraham throws a big party to celebrate the day that Isaac is weaned. And they all lived happily ever after? If only.


Immediately following this happy opening, the Torah tells us that Sarah observed disturbing behavior and reached a dramatic conclusion:


“Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing – metzahek,” which has linguistic allusions both to Isaac’s Hebrew name “Yitschak” and to the Hebrew work for “terrible sins.” She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”


This was the first machloket. There had been disputes and disagreements; there were arguments and there was even great violence before this moment. But Abraham’s reluctance to listen to Sarah is the first time the Torah presents us with a profound truth standing in opposition to another profound truth.


Abraham does not want to send Yishmael away as the text states, “The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.”


This is a wonderfully ambiguous passage. Was Abraham distressed by what had been done to Isaac by his older half-brother Yishmael? Rashi suggests that Abraham’s distress was because Yishmael had become a bad influence and rejected Abraham’s values. Rashi himself, however, also acknowledges that the plain understanding of this verse is that Abraham grieved at the prospect of sending Yishmael away. I don’t think these two interpretations are fundamentally in conflict.


As a parent, Abraham was grievously troubled to learn about Yishmael’s negative behavior. He also was grievously troubled to learn that God endorsed Sarah’s demand to banish Yishmael. Our tradition teaches that Abraham was a consummate man of chessed, kindness and love. Abraham was told that he would be a blessing and that all human beings — the entire human family — would be blessed through him. He collects a motley crew of allies and servants of every nationality who were attracted to his universal ideals of ethical monotheism.


Sarah, though, was more invested in the specific project of perpetuating Abraham’s family, first through the help of the concubine Hagar, and then through her own son, Isaac. She was fiercely loyal to Isaac because she understood that the ethical-monotheist project that brought Abraham and Sarah from their native land to the land of Israel could change the world successfully only if it were first successful in replicating itself within one family. Sarah was not willing to risk that project by keeping Yishmael at home.


Abraham and Sarah each had a profound truth. Is the Abraham-and-Sarah project sustained by kindness to all or is it sustained through an investment in one’s own children and one’s own family?


Abraham and Sarah had the first machloket in Jewish history but certainly not the last one.


More than 100 years ago, Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook, at the time living in Yafo and serving as rabbi to the city and its surrounding pioneer agricultural communities, wrote about three forces battling within the Jewish community for dominance. 


He saw these forces expressed in three competing factions: Orthodoxy, Zionism, and Humanism. The yishuv ha’yashan, the ancient Orthodox community of Jerusalem, attacked Rav Kook mercilessly because of his willingness to accommodate modernity and to cooperate with Zionist pioneers. The most prominent Zionist activists were notable for their loyalty to their people and also for their rejection of Jewish tradition and their scorn for the Jewish religion. All the while, enlightened Jews in Europe organized behind the principle that freedom for Jews was inseparable from freedom for all the world’s peoples and attainable within a modern democracy. 


Rav Kook wrote that these factions, these parties, were expressing three ideas or were the product of three forces: the force of the sacred, kosdesh; the force of the nation, umah; and the force of humanity, enoshiut.


This machloket — this dispute among these three ideas, these three orienting points for human struggle — was a dispute that pitted profound truths in opposition to other profound truths.


Each of these ideals is a core demand that calls to us to organize our lives to promote and expand the realm of the sacred, the interest of the nation or the welfare of humanity. In Rav Kook’s words, Orthodoxy “claims with courage and bitter zealotry on behalf of the Torah and its mitzvot and faith and all that is holy within Israel.” Jewish nationalism, in Rav Kook’s characterization, “battles for all that the national orientation draws towards, including the pure natural sentiment of a nation wishing to renew its national life.” And humanism carries the banner of enlightenment and progress that cannot be confined to any one nation but extends to all human beings.


Rav Kook wrote with pathos and passion that the salvation of Israel and our flourishing as a people depend upon the unification of all of these ideals. Each ideal — holiness and tradition, the nation itself and its renewal, and the common bonds that connect all human beings to one another — is a profound truth.


“We would be miserable,” Rav Kook wrote, “if we were to allow any of these three forces to suppress another since they must become united.” And yet, as he wrote those words, the Jewish people were divided among Orthodox Jews, Zionists, and Humanists. Instead of uniting and forming a perspective that was informed by each of the three movements, adherents of each movement saw, as Rav Kook understood it, only the flaws of the other movements rather than the ways that the other movements were expressing something indispensable.


Five years ago, I assumed the pulpit of an Orthodox congregation in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. In an optimistic mood, I gave my first Rosh Hashanah sermon at my new congregation expressing the belief that unity and solidarity among the Jewish people and beyond were possible if only we would choose to embrace that unity. “What we share is greater than what divides us,” I suggested, so unity was simply a matter of deciding to emphasize what we have in common.


That optimism seems naive today. The Jewish community, indeed people of all religions, is divided into factions and camps, and when we look from our camps to alternative perspectives and alternative communities, we see only the negative, not the positive, implications of their perspectives. We cannot simply decide to be unified as I suggested five years ago. Our differences are too great.


But Rav Kook’s analysis of the bitter divisiveness that he observed 100 years ago also offers a way forward for us as well. What we share is not necessarily greater than the causes of our disagreements, but the ways in which we are different signal the very elements that are lacking in our own perspective and that must become incorporated into our own perspective.


The opposite of a truth is a lie. But the opposite of a profound truth is sometimes another profound truth.


Rav Kook understood that any ideology that can attract the allegiance of thousands of people and captivate the imagination of a generation of Jews must have a basis in a profound truth. A new form of Jew, Rav Kook believed, had to be created in the 20th century, one who combined the reverence for the tradition of the Orthodox, the patriotism and vitalism of the Zionists, and the love for all humanity of the liberals.


The path to unity is not to ignore the machloket but to look at the machloket as a teaching moment. If I disagree profoundly with your worldview and perspective, then I can ask what is missing from my own worldview that needs to incorporate something from yours.


Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” is essentially a 21st-century update of Rav Kook, based not on Jewish tradition but on social psychology. Bitter divisions between “good people” in contemporary America come from our devotion to different forms of moral thinking. We are good moral people, but for some morality is defined primarily by avoiding harm to other people, whereas loyalty and respect for authority are core moral virtues to others.


The opposite of a truth is a lie. But the opposite of a profound truth is sometimes another profound truth.


Darkness and falsehood are rampant in the world as the curtain rises on 5778. And applying the simple truths to vanquish the falsehood and providing the moral clarity that can banish the darkness is a burden that each one of us will need to take on in the weeks and months ahead. But we need the wisdom to understand when a simple truth needs to be wielded in opposition to falsehood and when there is an opportunity for growth and for unity that can come only when two or more profound truths are allowed to exist in fruitful dialogue with one another.


Within the Jewish community, the American community, and many of the communities of which we are a part exists an existential need to figure out a way to unite — not by papering over our differences or expecting others to see things our way but by recognizing the profound truth that exists in the perspective of the other. We need to embrace, as Rav Kook did, that the way forward will look different than anything that has come before and will need to incorporate all of the different perspectives that are currently struggling for dominance. As Avraham and Sarah did, we too must see that the survival of our people and the flourishing of our community require a perpetual and unending balance among competing priorities.


Does the future of American Judaism require doubling down on a commitment to Jewish day schools and should we organize politically to fund them with vouchers, or does maintaining the separation of church and state better serve our long-term interest?


Does the survival of Judaism require us to reinforce the reverence that we feel for tradition or must we become more open to revising and updating those traditions?


Does loyalty to Israel require us to offer its government and its people full political support at its challenging moments or do we have a greater loyalty to demand that the State of Israel, in its domestic policies of religion and state, and in its foreign policies of war and peace, live up to the highest ideals of the prophets and sages of Israel?


Should the large legacy organizations of the American Jewish community continue their historic nonpartisan neutrality to preserve access to all levels of government or is this a moment that calls for speaking truth to power and the forging of new alliances?


The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. There is no knockout punch that will cause our opponents to reconsider their opinions. And we should not be searching for knockout punches. If you have not been surprised, or shocked, or even offended by an opinion shared at your Shabbat table or by a neighbor, a parent at a playdate, then consider a more expansive circle of friends. Incorporate their commitments and virtues into your own perspective so that we can pursue our common dreams and common goals.