Has America Stopped Debating?

Jews must insist there can be no shutting down of discourse in the name of progress.
December 2, 2021

In the past year, I have publicly broken with the woke Left in the Jewish community. I was previously the head of a venerable progressive Jewish organization. The breakup hasn’t been pretty. In June of this year, I wrote an article asserting that Critical Race Theory was being taught as dogma in some Jewish day schools and posted the article on a Jewish educators Facebook group. One educator immediately called me a racist for merely raising the issue and numerous others piled on. 

At this point, one might have expected cooler heads to prevail and diffuse the tension. But, instead, the opposite happened when a noted progressive rabbi and author with a large Twitter following joined in. After a short, caustic back and forth the rabbi exclaimed, “I do not owe you my labor.” The implication was that an exchange of views is a burden that she and her progressive kin alone bear. That statement ended the discussion. My ideas were not worthy of their “labor.” 

Let me be clear about what exactly was being debated on this social media forum. I have spent much of my career advocating for efforts to reduce racial disparities. At my last job, for example, I initiated a nation-wide criminal justice reform effort in the Jewish community. Without a doubt, America has too often failed to live up to its highest ideals of equality and fairness. It is unconscionable that we have 2.3 million people behind bars, more than one-third of whom are Black. We can and must do better.

I worry that current efforts to educate kids, including Jewish kids, with an ideological formula that prioritizes collective culpability over individual responsibility will only exacerbate racial tensions.

But I worry that current efforts to educate kids, including Jewish kids, with an ideological formula that prioritizes collective culpability over individual responsibility will only exacerbate racial tensions. This simplification of reality makes it exponentially more difficult to address real social problems. And, given the preoccupation with privilege and power and the place of Jews in American society, it assuredly fuels antisemitism. The article I posted made similar points and raised similar concerns—both of which I hoped would be taken seriously by members of my liberal Jewish community.

At this point, I am quite inured to the insults of progressive ex-friends for my supposed heresies, such as my view that systemic racism is not the only cause of disparity among groups or that implicit bias training probably doesn’t work. But the rabbi’s comment really got under my skin. This insult felt deeply personal, a repudiation of not just my beliefs—though it was certainly that—but of me and the kind of person I am, specifically the kind of Jewish person I am. I value spirited argument and intellectual debate, even and especially when it comes to sensitive social issues. The idea, however, that I am a “white” man (not according to 23andMe, however, which has me at 50.4 percent Western Asian) and thus must now “make space” for the opinions of marginalized voices by suppressing my own strikes me as glaringly antithetical to Jewish teachings. Indeed, cancel culture is not merely an act of firing people who say the “wrong” thing; it’s a concerted effort by ideologues deploying the most high-minded rhetoric to shut down alternative voices and end the discussion. I simply cannot fathom why so many progressive Jews are drawn to a political sensibility that is so flagrantly at odds with a slice of Jewish culture that questions and debates ideas, one in which many of them were surely raised. For me, at least, shutting down argument is the day the Klezmer dies.

The Jew has always questioned the unquestionable and challenged the conventional. 

What’s at stake in this stifling discourse, however, is not just the self-esteem of Jews like me who like to question and debate, but also the role of American Jews and, by extension, the health of American society. The Jew has always questioned the unquestionable and challenged the conventional. It’s hard to imagine America today without the inspirited, vexing, adversative Jew shaking things up and making arguments to the contrary. What the antisemite hates most about us—the refusal to conform—has been our most vital function in society. And there is no more powerful expression of this sense of purpose than our argumentativeness, always forcing the discussion, never letting things rest. Now, tragically, many progressive Jews, supposedly in the name of progress, are the ones demanding acquiescence to a new status quo. Such brazen conformity is a fundamental abrogation of Jewish leadership. If we cannot allow ourselves to argue, we should not expect America to be any more open to alternative ideas than we are. 

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1980s in a constant state of debate with my mostly Jewish guy friends. In my teen years we argued about politics, social issues, sports and whether a single debit card works at every ATM machine. We argued about sex, which we knew very little about but spoke of with the authority of Dr. Ruth, whose show we watched on Cable TV on Friday evenings. We argued about God’s existence, free will and trees falling in forests. We nearly came to blows over whether the 1954 Cleveland Indians would beat today’s World Series champ (no, they wouldn’t). Since my freshman year in college, I’ve been on both sides of more arguments over the efficacy and constitutionality of school vouchers than I care to remember. No one ever took it personally. In fact, these arguments sealed our friendships. 

This disposition to argue did not, of course, vanish in adulthood. In my early thirties, I went to see the 1998 comedy-drama “Pleasantville” with friends, a married couple. After the film, I got into a fierce argument with the husband about whether the Don Rickles character was God. “Go back in there and see the movie with this interpretation in mind,” I insisted. His wife, a clinical social worker, grew exasperated by the spectacle at the food court in Union Station in Washington. She finally blurted out, “You two aren’t listening to each other!” Her husband and I looked at each other aghast, and then calmly and precisely recited to her the other person’s argument. “Oh, she said. “You were listening.”

As anyone who enjoys such argumentation can tell you, it turns out that debating ideas is a great way to learn. When Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a professor, noticed his students weren’t learning, he decided to shake them up: he had his students argue with each other. Each turning to a nearby classmate, students debated a concept from physics. Wieman says that such debates lead to “substantially greater learning gains than are achieved with traditional lectures, with typical increases of 50 to 100%.” Robert Litan, a scholar at Brookings, urges the adoption of debate-centered education. He cited one study that, controlling for selection bias, found that students with debate experience were “more likely to graduate from high school, performed better on the ACT, and showed greater gains in cumulative GPA relative to similar comparison students.”

When I had kids of my own, I was determined to teach them how to construct an argument properly. I instituted Shabbat dinner debates, which have now been going on for twenty years, though the dinners have unfortunately become less frequent. On Friday night I raise an issue for discussion. The topic can be anything from “Should parents monitor their kids’ social media?” to “Is it the government’s responsibility to pay for college?” Very often my two children and two stepchildren, now all in their teens or older, request a different topic, such as “Should gender be abolished?” (yes, that’s a thing) or “Do video games cause violence?” and I relent because the topic doesn’t really matter. My role, much to their frustration, is devil’s advocate. No matter the issue, I always take the opposing view. “Video game violence may not matter in France, where no one owns a gun, but it obviously creates a culture of violence among American youth,” I once pronounced to a dinner table of teenage gamers who looked like they wanted to shoot me in the face. They beg for the big reveal—my actual perspective—which I duly withhold until I feel satisfied that they have fully fleshed out their positions. As time has passed, my children have begun to proffer semi-coherent arguments. My teenage stepson was raised by a mother who instilled the value of critical thinking above all else. No slouch in the disputative arts, he once caught himself committing a dastardly logical fallacy during a discussion at the dinner table: “The only reason cinema attendance has gone down is that Disney has taken ownership and ruined all the good film series.” My wife and I fell silent. “I know,” he conceded. “No shitty arguments allowed.”   

Apparently, you don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate the culture of argumentation in the Jewish community. The young black intellectual Coleman Hughes, who grew up among many Jews, noted with admiration that “the trademark argumentativeness around the dinner table that many Ashkenazi Jews would recognize as a cultural feature … it’s shared to a degree that is recognizable.” This culture of debate has deep roots in Jewish tradition. In the early 1990s, after I graduated from Ohio State, I spent some time studying at a Yeshiva (seminary) in Jerusalem, where young men who, two months earlier, might have been doing X at a Dead concert in Philly, donned traditional black fedoras and tzitzit with the fervor of a Deadhead. 

On my first visit to the Beit Midrash—the house of study where two men, sitting face-to-face, study Talmud with each other—I was minding my own business when one older man studying with a partner literally jumped out of his seat and started screaming and wildly gesticulating at the other. I couldn’t believe it. I thought we were in something akin to a library, where people were expected to speak in hushed tones if at all. Much to my surprise, none of the other men quietly studying so much as flinched. I sat down with my Talmud tutor to start deciphering the Aramaic, wondering if the maniac two tables away might soon again erupt. The Talmudic tract I was studying laid out the moral reasoning of who is responsible if one man’s ox gores another man’s calf. The purpose of this pedagogy was not to impart the facts around the ox and the calf, but rather to instill a rigorous thought process. Five minutes into the lesson, another man flew off the handle at his havruta partner, yelling and stomping “he’s patur [exempt]!” It turns out that in the Beit Midrash such emotional interludes were par for the course.

So central is debate to Jewish life that it is enshrined in the Mishna, the foundational texts of the Jewish oral tradition, in the concept of “makhloket l’shem shamayim”—“arguments for the sake of heaven.” Such was the ongoing dispute between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, heads of two competing schools of thought. They and their followers often disagreed on matters of Jewish law. Legend has it that for several years the houses of Shammai and Hillel vehemently disagreed on a point of law. Ultimately the Divine voice stepped in and proclaimed: “Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.” The reason the law ultimately sided with Hillel, the tradition tells us, was that Hillel cited both its own statements and the statements of Shammai, possibly the first instance of “steel-manning”—presenting the strongest possible version of an opponent’s argument—in recorded history. 

As time went on, I began to notice that many non-Jews (i.e., 98 percent of the U.S. population) were put off by my disputatiousness. In my 40s, I took a seven-month course in consulting and change management at Georgetown University. I frequently challenged others—teachers and students—about the material. It’s how I learned. “Why do we assume in this framework that there needs to be a hierarchical structure with a clear chain of command?” I pressed, questioning the very foundation of the lesson. The argumentativeness did not always go over well. “When I first encountered you in class,” one of my classmates told me, “I thought you were really combative and I was taken aback. But then I realized you were just … curious.” Not everyone, I’m quite sure, was so generous in their assessment. 

At Georgetown consulting school, the teachers emphasized the importance of setting “ground rules,” firm guidelines on how members should conduct themselves in meetings. “Step up, step back,” one rule held, meaning take a turn speaking but don’t hog the mic. “Don’t interrupt,” was another rule. I wondered: How were we supposed to argue about the topic at hand with all these regulations in place? A similarly argumentative Jewish friend of mine related that when at a recent business retreat the facilitator tried to institute the no interrupting ground rule, she was reluctant to go along: “I said why would you let me go on and on talking about a topic you already know about.” 

   There were other instances when it became apparent that even well-intentioned arguments must be given space to breathe. I spent years doing intergroup and interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee in Washington. In 2005, I brought a delegation of Jewish leaders to the National Cathedral to meet with the Bishop, a dignified man in his late 70s who may or may not have believed Israel should exist. “I see the Palestinian man as an olive tree, deeply rooted in his land,” he said. One of the Jewish participants smartly countered: aren’t we Jews olive trees as well? The Bishop then did something I had never seen a Jewish person do: he fell silent for an interminable ten seconds. At the five second mark, the Jews started getting visibly antsy. At the seven second mark, you could see beads of sweat on their foreheads and aggressive fidgeting. At nine seconds, the Jewish participants started filling the airwaves with chit chat, interrupting the dreaded stillness to ease their discomfort. Visibly startled by the interruption, the Bishop softly interjected, “I just needed some time to think.” Debate culture has its limits. We subsequently set up a training program for Jewish interfaith interlocutors, instructing the Jewish participants to listen before they argued, to slow down when they talked and not to melt down in the face of silence. In other words, we instituted ground rules.

A healthy society needs more than one kind of person—it needs many different types—and I have no interest in being replaced.

Kidding aside, I don’t want either the mainline Protestant cultural quality of quiet reflectiveness or the new progressive Jewish culture of moral certitude to completely replace the eager willingness to engage in argumentation that characterizes me and others like me. A healthy society needs more than one kind of person—it needs many different types—and I have no interest in being replaced. Indeed, if anything, our society needs more, not fewer, people willing to vigorously question the superstitions and pieties of the time and to model a good argument.

Unfortunately, in 2021, I can no longer count on the Jewish community to be a safe haven for the great debates. As recently as five years ago, a progressive rabbi would never have abruptly ended the discussion about an important issue. They would have continued to heap vitriol on me and I would have gladly taken it and returned the favor. This refusal to engage is new. Neither would any rabbi worth their salt, let alone a major figure of a Jewish denomination, as the head of the Reform movement did last year, have accused a notable Jewish scholar of “white intellectualism” for merely pointing out inaccuracies in a study on the number of Jews of color. This too is new. Some Jews, desperate to be aligned with perceived allies on the left, want to end the debate on social issues. They’ve figured it all out or at least signed on the dotted line of deference to a set of ideologies favored by their coalition partners. So now they insist the rest of us do the same.

If the most disputatious people the world has ever known can no longer even debate among themselves, then Americans of all political stripes must have stopped arguing altogether.

There is no more perilous red flag for American political discourse than Jews having stopped debating. For if Jews can no longer engage seriously around issues, then the rest of America has surely checked out. If the most disputatious people the world has ever known can no longer even debate among themselves, then Americans of all political stripes must have stopped arguing altogether. And that doesn’t make for a more peaceful society. To the contrary, it signals the potential for violence. Debate does not cause armed conflict, it prevents it. If people are fighting with words, then they aren’t fighting with guns. That’s the genius of the liberal order and why Western societies have largely thrived. If people aren’t arguing, then they’ve retreated into their respective tribal quarters, where they hear only echoes of themselves. The woke will talk with the woke. The right wing populist will talk with the right wing populist. And the classical liberal on either side of the political spectrum will, fearful of saying the wrong thing, talk with no one. This bifurcated social economy is a sure recipe for violence. Jews must insist there can be no shutting down of discourse in the name of progress.

Indeed, the most important role of Jews in America today is to bring this debate sensibility back into vogue. We must model for the rest of society how to argue and maintain good neighborly relations. Arguing—good arguments, arguments for the sake of heaven—is the only way to collectively solve problems. 

So no, Rabbi, you don’t owe me your emotional labor. But if there is any hope for the future of liberal discourse in America, we do owe one another our intellectual labor.

David Bernstein is the Founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.

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