Rabbis stress the need for arguing civilly

Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter said the sage Shammai once thrust his sword into the floor to make his point. Arguing civilly is important, she said. Photo by Dan Schere

People can argue and respect each other at the same time. That was the message that several Washington rabbis and organizational leaders stressed on Sunday at a study session for Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

Tradition attributes the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE to causeless hatred. Sunday’s event, held at Kehilat Pardes — The Rock Creek Synagogue in Rockville and sponsored by the Orthodox clergy-led Beltway Vaad, looked at ways to channel disagreement so that it doesn’t reach temple-destroying

Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter
Shammai’s sword
Fruchter, of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, read a passage from the Talmud in which the sages Hillel and Shammai argue passionately, until Shammai thrusts a sword into the floor of the study house and declares, “Whoever wants to enter may enter, but no one may leave.” In a second passage, disciples of Shammai slaughter those of Hillel in anger.

Fruchter told the audience of 200 people that the texts reminded her of an argument she once witnessed in a synagogue following a discussion on immigration.


“It was a good, lively discussion,” she said. “But as people began to leave the room, two people began to yell at one another. It got to the point where I literally saw a fist being raised.”

No one was hurt. But for Fruchter, it was a “wake-up call” to the importance arguing civilly.

Jennifer Raskas
Two sides to an argument
Raskas, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Israel Action Center, read a commentary on Genesis’ first chapter, in which the ministering angels argued over whether God should create Adam.
God ultimately chose to do so, but heeded the cautionary note of the angel Truth, who is said to have predicted that Adam would be “full of lies.” The commentary states that God “cast Truth to the ground,” in order to ensure truth would be an essential part of man.

“God is showing us that many times there’s the dissenting and assenting opinion and we pick one,” Raskas said. “But every time there’s an argument, you sharpen what you think about in a
new way.”

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Standing on common ground
Ovadia, who recently resigned as rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, said he was recently in Jerusalem, attending a family friend’s bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. Halfway through the service, there was a commotion.

“All of a sudden, a group of men came in, and before we knew what was going on, they had set up a mechitzah [divider] in the section designated for the women,” he said.

One of the women in Ovadia’s group became angry, and wanted to confront the men, he said. But he advised
against it.

“I approached her and said, ‘This is not the way. We are going to lose by doing that. You’ll become the aggressor. You’ll become the attacker.’”

After thinking it over, Ovadia now said he might have suggested that she organize a group of about 30 women and join the men on their side of the mechitzah. He said that sort of gesture could apply to other situations in which parties are bitterly divided, including political debates.

“The rightest of the left, can find something in common with the leftist of the right,” he said.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky
Never say never
Topolosky, rabbi of Kehilat Pardes and the chair of the Beltway Vaad, returned to Hillel and Shammai. He read a talmudic passage in which three gentiles approach Shammai and ask to be converted. The first asks to only learn the written Torah but not the oral Torah, the second asks to learn Torah standing on one foot and the third asks to be installed as the high priest.

Shammai rejects all three, while Hillel coverts them.

Topolosky said the type of black-and-white approach to Jewish law that Shammai employed can be useful in some contexts. But keeping an open mind as Hillel did is the most important takeaway. As a challenge to himself, Topolosky said he is making a point to avoid using extreme words and phrases in his speech.

“Always. Never. It’s perfect. It’s impossible. Awful. That’s terrible. It’s ruined. It’s a disaster —these are absolute terms,” he said. “They’re all encompassing. It doesn’t leave room for nuance.”

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here