The Talmud tells us that when Resh Lakish -- Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish -- died, Rabbi Jocanan was inconsolable. No one else challenged Rabbi Jochanan's conclusions so vigorously or engaged him in such sharp argument. Repeatedly the Jewish tradition emphasizes that disagreement, even fundamental disagreement, need not be the same as personal hostility.
Rabbi David Wolpe Misses the Point on the death of Rabbi Yochanan and Goldberg takes the bait.
Jeffrey Goldberg quotes his rabbi, David Wolpe, on the Talmudic tradition of argument.
The point, I guess, could be made that one should be dispassionate in arguing fundamental disagreements, but this is hardly the example to illustrate it. After all, it was during a fairly abstract argument that Rabbi Yochanan killed Resh Lakish, after each one hurled personal insults at the other. Rabbi Yochanan was so angry at the time that his own sister who was married to Resh Lakish could not convince him to have mercy on her husband. It is the most tragic story in the Talmud, and the lesson learned is that those who challenge you the most, are the ones who help you define your thinking. It was, however, Rabbi Yochanan's failure to understand this that gave us this lesson.
The Talmud repeatedly argues for forgiving the passions of those who are overzealous in argument if they are truly arguing for the truth and not some ulterior agenda. I don't think they presume that one can easily distinguish passionate engagement from personal hostility. The tragedy of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish is that after the moment of anger had passed, there was no road back to reflection and forgiveness, but the disagreements themselves were inevitably personal.
If someone attacks your understanding, something that you have internalized, it may be very difficult not to take it personally. It could be that the one who can easily argue principles dispassionately doesn't care about those issues so much in the first place. Christopher Hitchens--who is brought as an example of someone with whom Wolpe disagrees fundamentally, but civilly--I think, would agree.
The problem with Wolpe is that he doesn't seem to care about what the Talmud is saying, he only cares about using it as a pretext for what he wishes to say. I congratulate Wolpe for living in this Elysian Field of civil discourse, but I hardly believe that our Sages are fellow travellers.
Please, Rabbi Wolpe, let us know what you think, but leave the Talmud out of it.
For the whole story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, plus other powerful Talmudic narratives, click here. You can find the R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish story on page 11.