Richard Feynman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, worked as a young graduate on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II. The greatest physicists of the day would regularly visit to consult on the project. Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate and father of nuclear physics, one of the most famous physicists at the time, paid a visit to Los Alamos and participated in a meeting attended by the project’s leading scientists.
When Bohr next visited Los Alamos, he requested a private meeting with Feynman. Feynman was quite surprised, considering that during the first visit he had hardly said a word. Bohr began the private meeting by raising a strategy for improving the bomb’s efficiency. When Feynman responded that the proposed plan would not work, they proceeded to debate back and forth for two hours until they had worked out a solution. Bohr then suggested it was time to call in the “big shots” and they discussed the plan with the rest of the team.
As Feynman relates in his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, he later inquired why he had been chosen to talk privately with Bohr. Feynman was not a well-known physicist at the time; it was long before he would win any major recognition. It turned out that after the first meeting, Bohr had commented to his son and colleague, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is ‘yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.’ Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”
A strikingly similar narrative is recorded in the Talmud. Reish Lakish was Rabbi Yochanan’s study partner. After Reish Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolably distressed. A new study partner was suggested for Rabbi Yochanan from the sharpest of the scholars. They began studying and each time Rabbi Yochanan suggested an idea, his new partner would reply, “You are right, there is evidence for your view.”
Rabbi Yochanan retorted, “and you want to replace Reish Lakish? When I would say an idea, he would ask me twenty-four questions, to which I would give twenty-four responses, and from this process the matter would be clarified. But you just bring evidence for my view. I do not need someone to tell me that I am correct.”
Both narratives illustrate critical discussion as an important tool for investigation. It provides a vehicle to compare and contrast different ideas. In order to be productive, discussion must be honest and open. Disagreement and argument, when aimed at advancement and clarification, are a welcome and necessary component of constructive discourse.
The Mishna in Pirke Avot (5:2) states: “An argument which is for the sake of heaven will endure, whereas one that is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? An argument between Hillel and Shamai. And one that is not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his congregation.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Arguments for the Sake of Heaven, elaborates on this Mishna. He explains a fundamental difference between these two types of arguments, based on the comments of Rabbi Menachem Meiri. The first type of argument is concerned entirely with the subject matter at hand. The two parties are interested only in furthering their collective understanding. They are engaged in a “collaborative rather than confrontational enterprise. To lose the argument is as enlightening as to win it, for truth is the outcome.”
An argument where truth is the sole objective is a machloket l’sheim shamyaim —an argument for the sake of, or more literally, in the name of heaven. This is exemplified by Hillel and Shamai, who argued in the interest of clarification. This type of argument endures, as both opinions contribute to the advancement of knowledge and truth.
In contrast, the second type of argument is exemplified by the argument of Korach and his followers. Korach launched a rebellion based on an assertion that Moses was usurping power. But underlying this attack was not an honest critique of politics. It was personal, and the subject matter was just a platform. When the objective is to sway opinion and win, it is no surprise when debate degenerates into ad hominem attacks. This type of argument does not endure, as it contributes nothing and only interferes with human advancement.
Whether one is exploring theoretical physics or the legal underpinnings of the Torah, discussion is an indispensible tool. It consists of divergent opinions unabashedly fighting it out for the sake of truth. Personal agendas are irrelevant, as it includes only open discourse about the topic at hand. It is collaborative endeavor where both parties have the same objective, to arrive at the most accurate conclusion possible. If we are to progress as individuals, as a people, and as a society, it is these types of discussions that will pave the way.
Imagine witnessing a political debate where the parties are actually concerned with debating their principles. Two opponents grappling openly and honestly with their positions’ strengths and weaknesses, concerned only with determining the best solutions. It seems so foreign because the only “debate” we see in today’s politics is concerned solely with winning.
This is not only a lesson in politics. It is relevant to all spheres of human endeavor. Whether in matters of science, politics, or religion, we are at our best when we can engage in honest discourse with our peers, especially those who can offer a different perspective. May we have success in engaging in collaborative debate, and through this process may the matter be clarified.