Sunday, February 15, 2009

2:1:50 - The Benefits of a Good Fight

R. Ulla said: Rabban Yochanan ben Zekkai spent eighteen years in Arav and only two inquiries on matters of law came before him. So he said: 'Galilee, O Galilee, you have no sue for the Torah. In the end you will have to cope with malfeasants.

One might have thought the opposite. Arav was such a peaceful place, where all its residents were so wise and learned, that they just never had disputes. They worked everything out, only needing to consult R. Yochana ben Zakkai about once a decade to resolve problems.

But this aggadah does not go in that direction. It takes the lack of disputes as a bad thing, not a good thing. The reason, I think, is that the rabbis presupposed that any serious engagement with Judaism results in conflicts. There is no way around it. And so the lack of conflict does not mean wisdom and peacefulness; it means people are not engaging in Judaism.

The same is true in politics. When President Bush was campaigning in 2000, he argued that he would be bipartisan. When President Obama was campaigning in 2008, he argued the same thing. I think R. YBZ would have disapproved of both messages. There certainly are bi-partisan laws, but most of those are easy. Everyone agrees that murder and stealing should be illegal. Those easily pass.

The challenge of governing is finding the laws that not everyone agrees with, making the case they are good ideas, and moving society in that direction. Politicians are partisan because that have different visions of how to govern and what they would like to accomplish. And that flows from the complexity of life, not from being mean or petty.

In contemporary Judaism, we have the same thing. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and serious non-denominational or post-denominational Jews have
very different visions of Judaism. But that is because they take it seriously, and Judaism and modernity are complicated and interact is complicated ways. The fact that we have these ideological divides is a good sign, not a bad sign.

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