Arguing and Respect, Jewish Style
By Larry Fine
The Talmud (Tractate of Shabbat) relates that on Friday afternoon Rabbi Yehuda bar Iloy would wash his face, hands, and feet from a basin of hot water that was brought to him. Afterwards he would put on his four cornered linen garment that had tzitzis (the strings that hang down from the talit) attached and he would look like an angel of G-d.
His students would come to him but they would hide the corners of their linen garments so their teacher would not see that they did not have tzitzis on them. He detected their concealment and told them, "Did I not teach you regarding a linen garment that the Academy of Shamai says tzitzis are not required and the Academy of Hillel says they are required? The ruling is like the Academy of Hillel and not like the Academy of Shamai!"
Rashi, the 12th century scholar and major commentator on the Talmud, explains that the linen garments referred to had woolen tzitzis. The mixing of wool and linen in a single garment is a prohibition from the Torah called shatnez. The Academy of Hillel taught that the reason that the Torah wrote first the prohibition against mixing linen and wool and then immediately afterward wrote about the mitzvah of making tzitzis on a garment is to teach us that woolen tzitzis may be tied onto a linen garment. This is called learning from two passages in the Torah that are written one after the other. However, the Academy of Shamai did not accept this as a valid method of learning. They taught that tying woolen tzitzis on a linen garment falls under the prohibition of shatnez.
Rabbi Yehuda bar Iloy thought that his pupils were following the rule of the Academy of Shamai. Really, they agreed with their teacher regarding the ruling of the Academy of Hillel but they were obeying the ban that later rabbis had instituted against wearing woolen tzitzis on a linen garment because of the fear of someone making a mistake. The rabbis feared that people would see others wearing a linen garment with woolen tzitzis during the day and think that it is permitted all the time. They would not realize that this is only permitted by day, since the Torah says regarding the mitzvah of tzitzis, "and you shall see them" to include only a garment that can be seen by daylight. They might mistakenly come to put tzitzis also on a garment that is worn at night and thereby unintentionally do a sin. Rabbi Yehuda bar Iloy disagreed with this ban and permitted wearing a linen garment with wool tzitzis.
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This story from the Talmud illustrates an interesting facet in the relationship between a rabbi and his students. The students had the right to disagree with their teacher but they were careful to show respect for his opinion by hiding the corners of their garments. They did not want to insult him by flaunting their disagreement.
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When we argue with someone we sometimes take a rejection as a personal attack. Like Rabbi Yehuda bar Iloy and his students, we should separate the issue from the person. Many differences arise between people. One person may believe that a particular action is the best thing to do. His friend may believe just the opposite - that this is the worst thing to do. If the argument remains as an intellectual disagreement, there is a good chance that they will remain friends. However when one cannot disprove the other, he may begin to attack the personality of the person. This only creates hatred and disharmony.
When we have our disagreements, we should be careful to stick to the point of disagreement and keep personality out of the argument. This shows respect for the other even though there is a rejection of the idea that he is presenting.
It is hard for most people to take rejection of their ideas, but when it is coupled with personal insult it become unbearable. Curb your desire to belittle the other and maintain respect for their person. You may not win the argument, but you will not make a friend into an enemy.
from the November 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine