Sometime back in the 1980s, the Dalai Lama was visiting the United States. While he
was here, he requested an audience with some rabbis so that he could learn more about Judaism.
During the conversation, he asked one of the rabbis to express, in just a few words, a basic
insight about Jewish belief and practice. The rabbi replied that one essential thing to understand
about Judaism is that Jews always disagree with one another.
“That’s not true!” quipped another rabbi.
Ten Jews, eleven opinions. That’s what my father always used to say. And if we scroll
through the pages of the Talmud, we can see the truth in this. Over the course of many centuries,
rabbis disagreed and debated with one another about such issues as how to interpret the Torah,
what certain symbols in the liturgy mean, and the best ways to practice the rituals, among many
other topics. In the absence of a pope or some other religious authority to settle the matter, the
discussions were left open, without resolution, so that future generations could continue the
Yet, in spite of all the differences in opinion, somehow the Jewish people have
remained united as an enduring faith tradition throughout many years of exile, diaspora and
persecution. It amazes me when we host visitors from other countries as far away as Latin
America and Eastern Europe, that we all recite the same prayers and even sing the same
melodies when we pray together as Jews.
Sameness in difference, and difference in sameness, might have been a good way to
inform the Dalai Lama about who we are.
It is therefore rather discouraging to see how these insights and values are quickly
disappearing from American political life. E Pluribus Unum, said the founders of the
Republic: Out of Many, One. But as more and more people burrow ever more deeply into
their information silos and echo chambers on social media and cable news, the value of
difference and disagreement for the democratic conversation has been forgotten, and is even
greeted with hostility. In addition to the many other gifts the Jewish people have given to
Western civilization, the revival of a robust but civil conversation on contentious topics could
certainly be one of them.
Louis Brandeis, who was the first Jewish Justice of the US Supreme Court, aptly noted
that when we find the opinions of others to be disagreeable and even obnoxious, “the remedy
to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Similarly, the philosopher John Stuart
Mill, one of the most passionate defenders of liberty, remarked that however true an opinion
may seem, “if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead
dogma, not a living truth.”
As the world around us explodes with controversy and uncertainty, let’s not forget
what these thinkers are teaching us about viewpoint toleration. Let’s also remember how our
traditions instruct us about the life and sustenance to be found in disagreement, as opposed
to the mind-numbing dullness that results from conformity of opinion. To be Jewish is
certainly to disagree with our fellow Jews. Let’s not lose sight of this wisdom when we
disagree with our fellow citizens.