Judaism's Great Debates
Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Jewish Publication Society
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Introduction: Arguing for the Sake of Heaven
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Judaism not only maintains a great respect for debate; one could readily
argue that debate is central to its religious expression.
According to the Torah, Abraham is involved in a great debate . . . with God. Moses has a serious argument with his own cousin. Five daughters of a deceased Israelite challenge their tribal leaders. King David...
Part One: Biblical Judaism
1. Abraham and God: The First Jewish Debate over Justice
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We call him Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father. He is venerated by the three monotheistic religions of Western Civilization — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — as the spiritual father of their faith. He is chosen (or chooses) to undertake an epic journey in response to the terms of a covenant with God. That covenant promises progeny...
2. Moses and Korah: The Debate over Holiness and Authority
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An argument can be made for considering Moses among the preeminent leaders in history. As the political and moral leader of the Israelite slaves in Egypt he bequeathed to Western civilization fundamental notions of both freedom and responsibility. The improbable Exodus is viewed as the paradigmatic example of resistance to tyranny and...
3. The Five Daughters and the Twelve Tribes: The Debate over Inclusion
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The five sisters are hardly household names, even to people who know their Bible. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha, Tirzah are the unmarried daughters of an Israelite man of the tribe of Manassah named Zelophehad, who dies in the desert with no male heirs. In a brief but significant encounter recorded in the Book of Numbers, these young...
4. David and Nathan: The Debate over Accountability and Morality
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King David, ancient Israel’s greatest monarch, came from humble origins. He grew up a shepherd to his family’s flocks in Bethlehem. While still a boy he comes to notice in an unlikely victory over a giant Philistine warrior named Goliath. The Bible, our sole biographical source, relates that David is chosen by God, and anointed by Samuel...
Part Two: Rabbinic Judaism
5. Ben Zakkai and the Zealots: The Debate over Resistance
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On the eve of the greatest calamity in ancient Jewish history, the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, one family produced two leaders with polar opposite approaches to the conflict with Rome. An uncle and his nephew rose to prominence in radically different circles. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was the greatest sage...
6. Hillel and Shammai: The Debateover Jewish Law
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Hillel and Shammai. Two names forever paired in Jewish law and lore.
Two names synonymous with disagreement and debate. Two names
that symbolize mercy and justice, leniency and strictness.
Hillel was nasi, head of the Sanhedrin, for forty years. Shammai was his deputy for all that time. Hillel was known for wisdom and...
7. The Vilna Gaon and the Baal ShemTov: The Debate over Spirituality
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In the mid-eighteenth century, Eastern European Jewry produced two remarkable spiritual masters. They never met, nor even corresponded, yet they engaged in vehement debate through their followers. Like Hillel and Shammai they were fundamentally dissimilar in temperament and outlook. One was the epitome of the establishment; the...
Part Three: Modern Judaism
8. Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis:The Debate over Boundaries
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Amsterdam in the 17th century was one of the great cities of the world. An international center of trade and mercantile innovation, its Protestant rulers also created some of the most tolerant havens for free thinkers and religious minorities. Amsterdam was home to artists (such as Rembrandt, who lived in the Jewish quarter), to intellectuals...
9. Geiger and Hirsch and Frankel: The Debate over Evolution in Religion
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As Jews became full citizens in Western Europe in the early 19th century, new ideas about Judaism began to emerge. Jews began receiving both a secular and a religious education. They studied philosophy, and Spinoza’s challenge of reason loomed large in their thoughts. So too did the pioneering thinking of Moses Mendelssohn, who argued...
10. Herzl and Wise: The Debate over Zionism
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Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) was a young, assimilated Jewish journalist and writer in Vienna when in 1895 he witnessed the trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus in France. Dreyfus was accused of treason, and his conviction (eventually overturned) unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism that included cries of “death to the Jews” at the ceremony where he...
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Debate and disputation are not only encouraged within Judaism, they are at the heart of Jewish history and theology. As such, I believe that a chronicle of great debates, like those presented in this book, is central to understanding the history of Jewish ideas. I wrote this slim volume as an introduction (an invitation, really) to an intellectual history of...
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Room for Debate: Questions for Reflection and Discussion
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Further Debate: Recommended Reading
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Page Count: 112
Publication Year: 2012