exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In the first of our three inaugural articles, Adina Roth explores the concept of Machloket l’shem shamayim and looks at what our textual tradition might suggest about the possibility of deepening debate and conversation in the South African Jewish community.
Every argument that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. And every argument that is not for the sake of heaven is not destined to endure. What is an example of argument for the sake of heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai. And not for the sake of heaven? Korach and his congregation (Avot, 5:17).
Machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, is an invisible yardstick put forth to distinguish between arguments considered worthy, and those seen as unworthy. What place could the concept of machloket l’shem shamayim or – argumentation for the sake of heaven – have in the South African Jewish community? Can this concept help establish the boundaries as well as the possibilities for acceptable discourse and debate in our community?
While the right to freedom of speech, as enshrined in the South African Constitution, ensures that anyone can raise an argument in our community, the way in which arguments are received, explored and discussed within the community is influenced by communal culture and norms, social pressures and consensus; a host of factors far more complicated than the right to freedom of speech. No one wants to be ostracised for exercising their inalienable right to free speech. That said, intuitively we might understand that some arguments are edifying and do much to advance the ethics of a community or culture while others can be destructive. The boundaries of what is and what is not a worthy – or edifying – argument, however, can become subjective. When it comes to communal engagement around issues of contention, we are in the realm of sociology as much as law; subjective narrative or poetics as much as absolutes. The question becomes, is it possible to share the value of macholket l’shem shamayim across the community so that a space of constructive, rigorous and more forthright dialogue can be opened up?