- Public Debates
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- Reader: It is clear from
your website that a person must engage in honest intellectual
investigation if he is to arrive at the fundamental truths underlying
all aspects of our world: man, Torah, Judaism, our relationship
to G-d, etc. I am curious then, of the position most orthodox
Rabbi's take not to support public forums and debates where the
merits of Judaism can be compared openly to other corrupt "forms
of Judaism", such as Reform and Conservative. Surely a side-by-side
comparison of the two schools would reveal the overwhelming truth
of Torah Judaism and the emptiness of the others. Yet, in my
experience, orthodox Rabbeim frown upon, and even often prohibit,
the participation of other orthodox laymen and Rabbeim from participating
in these events. Observers often view this as a form of intellectual
cowardice (chas v'sholom) on the part of the orthodox, assuming
these Rabbeim avoid public debates out of fear of being proven
wrong. Many also view this abstention as contributing to divisiveness
in the community (I personally know of a number of non-observant
Jews who maintain these views). Why do so many Rebbeim pass up
a chance to spread true divrei Hashem to the olam when the opportunity
is presented? Thank you for any insight you can provide.
Although we state, "Know what to respond to a heretic",
there is no law governing public versus written teaching.
"Knowing what to respond..." means knowledge of Torah
includes knowledge of the flawed arguments in opposing positions.
"Torah" means not only knowledge of how to act, but
knowledge of how to defend Torah. This mans that Torah must also
include knowledge of its exclusive nature - the "only"
system of truth. If one does not have the answers to a heretic's
attack, he is lacking in his knowledge that the Torah is completely
- Each person is free to do as he wishes. We are guided by
halacha alone, and not by conventional means. The Torah does
not prohibit debates. Avraham Avinu argued with others, Ramban
debated in his "Disputation at Barcelona", and Gaviha
ben Pasisa also debated as recorded in Talmud Sanhedrin 91a,
and his debate was even condoned by the Rabbis. On three occasions,
Gaviha ben Pasisa was given permission to debate with other peoples
in front of Alexander. Gaviha's goal was to shield the Torah
from shame, and make a "kiddush Hashem", a sanctification
of God's Torah. He succeeded all three times.
- But Gaviha and Ramban both were under attack. Debate was
a necessity. They did not initiate a debate. Regarding Avraham,
his goal was to expose idolatry. He cared for others, so he argued
against their views. I do not know if his forum was ever a staged
debate, but rather, as casual conversations. Under normal circumstances,
I do not see the need to debate when one may deliver their valuable
views to the same number of Jews - if not more - by spreading
their ideas in conversation or in print, as God has done with
His Torah. The presence of two people face to face does nothing
more to strengthen one's arguments. Content alone must impress
one's mind, not eloquence of speech, or a charming personality.
Additionally, viewing a debate actually removes one from the
activity of independent study, arriving at reasonable conclusions
with one's own mind, and at his own speed of comprehension.
A final thought: When one is requested to "face-off"
at a public debate, my guess is that such an invitation is at
times fueled by the host's desire to trash the guest. One who
sincerely wishes to debate points of view, need not do so in
person, or in staged debates. If he does wish a personal confrontation,
Rabbis are certainly wiser to pass. The real goal of such "gracious
hosts" is often personality assassination - not a search
for objective truth. I am certain many times there arises a pre-debate
on whose "turf" to debate. This substantiates my suspicion
of the host's true interest in ideas. I would debate that point.