Photo from Salvador Litvak.

War at the Book Club


At a recent meeting of our book club, we were discussing a novel about a self-loathing comedian when the conversation veered into politics. The guys in the club all are Jewish and about the same age, though our careers and backgrounds vary broadly.

Our host, whom we’ll call “Larry,” turned to “Jake,” who’d just defended President Donald Trump, and said, “You sound like the yahoos we fly over.”

I said, “Larry, you can’t mean that. You’re insulting half the country just to belittle Jake.”

“Sure, I can. They voted for the chief yahoo.”

“Let’s stick to the debate,” I replied. “We all understand that you disagree with Jake on Trump’s immigration policy. I challenge you to articulate Jake’s best argument in a manner to which Jake will say, ‘Yes, that’s my belief.’ ”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because that’s the only way you’ll ever get Jake to listen to your best argument with an open mind.”

“Exactly,” chimed in another guy.

“That’s ridiculous,” Larry said. “I’m not going to argue for the opposite of what I believe.”

“Come on, Larry,” said our oldest member, “you can do it.”

Did Larry argue the other side? Would you if you were in his shoes?

The stakes have never been higher. Americans are passionately divided over a growing number of issues. Friendships are ending and family ties are bursting because we fear for the country’s future. It seems everyone has a core issue — or two or three — that they’re ready to shout and fight about.

At a time like this, we can benefit greatly by recalling a 2,000-year-old episode from the Talmud:

R’Abba said in the name of Shmuel: for three years the followers of Shammai and the followers of the Hillel debated each other. These said the law follows their view and those said the law follows their view.

Keep in mind that this was not an academic argument. The disputants believed the destinies of their countrymen’s eternal souls were at stake.

A heavenly voice went forth and declared: Both these and those are words of the living God, but the Law follows the House of Hillel.

Now, if these and those are both the words of the living God, why did the House of Hillel merit to fix the Law according to their view?

Because they were easy and forbearing, and they would study both their opinion and the opinion of the House of Shammai. And not only that, but they would state the opinion of the House of Shammai before their own (Eruvin 13b, B. Talmud).

Now, maybe we hold like Larry in a debate of national importance, or maybe we hold like Jake. Either way, if our purpose is to do more than vent, virtue-signal or commiserate with the choir, it would behoove us to advocate like the House of Hillel. This means catching the attention of folks across the aisle by demonstrating that we’ve heard, understood and considered their best arguments. Only then will our own views have a chance to be heard, understood and considered by the people we think must hear those views. That, in my view, is where progress begins.

As for what happened at the book club, Larry declined to state Jake’s opinion with anything but sarcasm — the least effective strategy for opening any heart or mind.

Two weeks later, however, Larry and I were playing golf. As we walked up a fairway, he said, out of nowhere, “I’ve been thinking about your challenge at the book club. I was nothing but belligerent, and I missed an opportunity. Next time, I’ll articulate the other side.”

May our community merit to evolve as much as my friend Larry.


Salvador Litvak shares Jewish wisdom with his followers every day as the Accidental Talmudist (accidentaltalmudist.org).

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