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Published on March 28th, 2011 | by Natan Margalit


Machlochet L’Shem Shamayim: Arguing for the Sake of Heaven and Embracing Paradox

 The second of the three “mems” (see my post on February 7 for the first “mem”) is Machlochet L’Shem Shamayim: arguing for the sake of Heaven. This phrase comes from the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, where it refers to the arguments between the Schools of Hillel and Shamai. It is said that they argued vociferously but that they still respected one anther, would marry into each others families and would teach each others’ opinions.  This is a reflection of the practice in the Talmud of teaching several opinions on an issue, not just the “correct” one. It’s also at the beginning of the famous Jewish tolerance  for arguments which spawned jokes like “two Jews, three opinions.”

 A few years ago I was struck by a paragraph that I read in one of Michael Pollan’s earlier books, Second Nature, in which he writes about gardening:

 The gardener feels he has a legitimate quarrel with nature—with her weeds and storms and plagues, her rot and death. What’s more, that quarrel has produced much of value, not only in his own time here (this garden, these fruits), but over the whole course of Western history. Civilization itself, as Freud and Frazer and many others have observed, is the product of that quarrel. But at the same time, the gardener appreciates that it would probably not be in his interest, or in nature’s, to push his side of this argument too hard. Many points of contention that humankind thought it had won—DDT’s victory over insects, say, or medicines’ conquest of infection disease—turned out to be Pyrrhic or illusory triumphs. Better to keep the quarrel going, the good gardener reasons, than to reach for outright victory, which is dangerous in the attempt and probably impossible anyway.-Michael Pollan, Second Nature, p. 193

Wow!  Michael Pollan is talking about a machlochet L’Shem Shamayim with nature, I thought. He recommends what he calls the “Gardener’s Ethic” in which we humans push our “side of the argument” but we don’t try to vanquish nature. And that is ok. It’s actually the continued dialogue that is important. 

It seems to me that the natural principle that underlies both the Talmud’s and Michael Pollan’s Argument for the Sake of Heaven, is the idea that every whole is nested within a larger whole.  As the phrase implies, an argument for sake of Heaven means that both sides are not arguing purely for the own interests but they place their interests within a larger context of “Heaven.” Heaven might mean the greater good or the good of the whole group and in Pollan’s case it would be nature. The gardener knows that vanquishing nature would be like drilling a hole in her own boat. She has her own interests as a human planting tomatoes, but destroying nature in the process is self defeating.   

  So, the underlying theory of learning embraced by the rabbis is a natural, organic one, and it is still important today. We benefit from writers like Michael Pollan, who take the natural world as their subject, in helping us to re-vision and re-articulate the ancient wisdom of the Talmud.  How does machlochet l’shem Shamayim apply to our own theory of learning?   

· Learning is a collaborative effort. The truth comes from the on-going discussion. This dovetails with educational theorist Parker Palmer’s statement in The Courage to Teach, that “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” Palmer’s definition is very “Jewish” (he is a Quaker) in that the benefit is in the on-going discussion, not in “getting the answer.” His second clause, “conducted with passion and discipline” also reminds me of the Talmud’s unique mix of passionate, personal debate and disciplined logic and learning. Valuing many opinions and seeing a variety of possible angles on any question isn’t the same as having a sloppy or fluffy attitude toward learning.

·  This leads to another principle of Parker Palmer’s: embracing paradox. As we just saw, machlochet l’shem Shamayim implies both acceptance of a variety of opinions, which takes openness and tolerance, and also making a passionate and disciplined case for one’s own position.  We tend in our culture to go towards an either/or way of thinking, both Parker Palmer and the idea of machlochet l’shem Shamayim would claim that we learn better when we hold onto “both/and” and live in the paradox.   

As always, there’s much more to be said. I invite your thoughts, comments and suggestions.

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