The Dream of a Common Language

Room for argument

One of the things I love about Judaism is the way we handle disagreement. We're a tradition of argument. Abraham, the forefather of our faith, argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses, given the task of bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt, argues with God about his suitability for the task. (God overrules him, to be sure; but I've never gotten the sense that his argument was insubordination.)

The sages whose conversations are enshrined in the Talmud argue with each other. Talmud is considered Oral Torah; the idea is that God whispered the entire Talmud to Moses atop Sinai, and it was passed down orally until it was finally transcribed. (Some denominations still see it this way.) But even though it's considered by many to be divinely-authored, it speaks in a multiplicity of voices. And we not only allow, but encourage, varied interpretations of Torah as a whole. How cool is that?

One of my favorite quotes about this comes from the JTS' commentary on the Torah portion Beshalach: [I]n Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings. This theology freed the Rabbis to do midrash, creating the anomaly of a canon without closure. I love how this guarantees space, within my tradition, for different interpretations and respectful disagreement.

In the Religion panel at BloggerCon II yesterday, Dave Weinberger joked that this is why so many Jews are bloggers: because Judaism is "a religion focused on a community arguing with coreligionists about sacred texts over the course of time." In other words (as I understand him): the DIY ethos of blogging -- anyone can speak up and claim a place and a voice in the community, and disagreement is both welcomed and expected -- dovetails neatly with the Jewish ethos of coreligionists arguing over what we hold dear. I knew there was a reason this blogging thing came so easily... ;-)