No Debating the Value of this Book
Rabbi Schwartz's latest book, Judaism's Great Debates, is a well-written and accessible guide to some of the major disputes in Jewish history, and as such, serves as a great introduction to this essential element within the world's oldest monotheistic tradition.
The book presents us with 10 debates in all, stretching all the way from Abraham's argument with God to spare the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the differing views on Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise at the turn of the 20th century. Each debate is presented in a concise form, with emphasis on the dialogue, whether real or virtual, between the disputants. And most importantly, each debate is presented with an eye towards the continuing relevance of the issues under consideration for contemporary life. The debates are a part of a living tradition, and are in their own way reflective of the contradictions inherent in the human condition.
Each of the 10 debates is thought-provoking, and provides an excellent opportunity for discussion and self-examination. But I do have my favorites. The 3rd debate, between Moses and the daughters of Zelophehad is remarkable for its relation to women's rights, the fact that it implies flexibility in regard to Mosaic Law, and its connection to the question of intermarriage. Chapter 4's debate between King David and the prophet Nathan is a sobering case of the abuse of authority and the need to speak truth to power, and the essential ideal that no one is above the law. The debate between Hillel and Shammai in Chapter 6 is a classic in Jewish tradition, encapsulating the conflict over lenient and strict interpretations of the Law, between liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist. Chapter 7's dispute between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov similarly speaks to the conflict between head and heart, between intellect and emotion, between study and prayer, and offers two sides of Judaism that are each in their own ways worthy of celebration. The debate between Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis in Chapter 8 regards in unblinking manner a dark moment in Jewish history, where one of the greatest of modern philosophers, and one of the founders of the Enlightenment movement, was excommunicated for his views--this chapter alone is worth the price of the book!
Barry Schwartz explains that he took part in tournament debate as a high school student, and his love of the form is present throughout the volume. Despite the sometimes tragic consequences of the conflicts that took place, Rabbi Schwartz makes it clear that "debate is more than a valued intellectual exercise in Judaism. In echoing the divine process of creation, it is a holy act." His introduction and overview of the tradition of "arguing for the sake of heaven" would serve as an excellent text for religious studies courses, adult education, and is an absolute must for anyone interested in moral theology or a dialogical approach to religious experience.
I should add that, as a communication scholar, I was quite pleased to discover that this book is informed by a real appreciation of the art of debating, a practice that is covered by my field, along with public speaking and oral interpretation. And in this political season when what passes for debate is a form of speech that can only be labeled debased, this book serves as a valuable reminder of the potential of debate to uplift, enlighten, and inspire.