How to argue Jewishly

Analytical criticism – argumentation – is an essential part of Judaism. We see argumentation in the Mishnah and Talmud, in every student’s education in a kollel, yeshiva or Hebrew school. But we must always note that arguments are aimed at reasoning and conclusions, they are not ad homenim (aimed at a person)


In a deductive argument, premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion – but that is hard to do in religion, in general. So we usually see a combination of deductive argumentation, with some amount of inductive argument (one in which logic provides reasons for supporting the conclusion’s probable truth.)

In rabbinical Judaism, our premises are not secular atheism, or Christian texts, or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist texts.

Our premises start with the Torah (five books of Moses) and Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and read them through the evolving tradition of our oral law – including the Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash, the two Talmuds and the responsa literature.

Responsa (Hebrew: She’elot u-Teshuvot,  שאלות ותשובות , questions and answers”) comprise the body of written decisions given by poskim (“deciders of Jewish law”)

A good overview of this topic may be found in History of responsa in Judaism (Wikipedia) and in Responsa in the Conservative/Masorti Jewish movement.

Timeline_Books_Judaism - Copy

An article on MyJewishLearning notes

Although Jews have excelled in many different sports, only one sport truly has a claim as being the Jewish national sport. Soccer? Dreidel? No. The Jewish national sport is…arguing! The rules to the sport are pretty slim: within a specific range, almost any opinion can be raised. One might read the story of Polemo and conclude that in Judaism there are a few topics about which you can’t ask questions. With a change of emphasis, that statement is quite accurate–there are only a few topics about which you can’t ask questions. Polemo (whose name is Greek for “I wage war”) just went a little too far.

Jewish texts, insofar as they seem to have personalities, are almost always either engaged in argument or perceived to be so. Some texts, such as the Mishnah, use the explicit language of dispute (“… these are the words of Rabbi Y. But Rabbi Z says…”) as their primary mode of expression. T

he Bible retells stories of disputes (such as the rebellion of Korah against Moses and Aaron), includes stories that contradict each other (the first chapter of Genesis says plants precede people but the second chapter says people precede plants), and dares to include writings that are at odds with the tone of most of the rest of the Bible. For instance, how could Jeremiah say that “[God] did not speak with your ancestors…about matters of offering and sacrifice” [7:22] in light of the book of Leviticus, which predominately deals with sacrifices?

In the Babylonian Talmud, argumentation is raised to an art form, with multi-tiered levels of hypothetical argument where it might seem as if the Talmud is just “picking fights.” A typical paragraph may look something like this: “This approach makes sense according to Rabbi V who asserts that Rabbi W thinks X in case Y, but could Rabbi V maintain this opinion about Rabbi W in case Z….”

Ironically, from a rhetorical point of view, the reduction of arguments to the proverbial hair-splitting differences serves to point out the broad areas of agreement that were shared by the rabbis and their disciples. Arguments about what we might see as trivial details presume that they agreed about the larger areas of practice and of process.

Conversation & Debate. An overview of the Jewish national sport: arguing. By MLJ staff.

The image below is really good; it shows the sources we use. One quibble. It implies primacy to a late medieval code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh. But the idea of it’s primacy is a post-1700’s belief, and not quite traditional.  For more on that see The Shulchan Aruch in perspective


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