Monday, November 06, 2006

The first of the zugot and the proper way to debate (Avot 1:4)

וסי בן יועזר איש צרידה ויוסף בן יוחנן איש ירושלים קיבלו ממנו. יוסי בן יועזר איש צרידה אומר, יהי ביתך בית ועד לחכמים; והוי מתאבק בעפר רגליהם, ושותה בצמא את דבריהם

Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzreidah and Yosi ben Yohanon of Jerusalem accepted it [the Torah] from him. Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzreidah says, may your home be a gathering place for the Sages. And may you cover yourself with the dust about their feet and drink with thirst their words.
As the opening few Mishnahs of Avot record the chain of transmission of the (Oral) Torah from Moshe down through the ages, we arrive at a unique aspect of the Jewish tradition – the zugot. Literally, zugot means pairs. And a pair of great Sages – each one advocating for their own conflicting understandings of Jewish law – characterize each age of the Mishnah and Talmud. The genius of Judaism has been to – even when one of the understandings of those two Sages has come to be viewed as almost always the correct one – preserve both understandings.

That preservation of both begins here. Our Mishnah gives us the sayings of the first of the two, Yosi ben Yoezer. Tomorrow’s gives us the sayings of the other member of the pair.

It is no accident that the first sayings of the first of the pairs concentrates on showing respect for the Sages. Even when we disagree,we are to show our partners in Torah respect. We must treat them like great Sages and imagine that we are mere dust before them. And we must drink their words in fully, making sure we completely understand them. Only then have we earned the right to express our own opinions.

May a day come when our political discourse in this great nation – where we head to the polls tomorrow – will come to the show the ways of our Sages. May disagreements be expressed with respect and love. And with knowledge of the other’s position.

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