Fighting The Good Fight

Well, the world has finally discovered the secret of chavrusos, or so they think. An article in last week’s New York Times (Sunday Review, Nov. 5, 2017, page 7) is titled “Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting?” Written by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the article claims that “our images of creativity: filled with harmony” are “not how creativity really happens.” He cites, for one, the case of the Wright brothers, who virtually invented aviation as we know it today. Instead of quiet serene discussions about how to build an airplane, they apparently “squabbled for weeks, often shouting back and forth for hours.”

A more recent example he offers is the case of the creation of the first Apple computer. “Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak argued incessantly,” but the result of course changed life as we know it.

Dr. Grant cites studies that “highly creative adults often grow up in families full of tension.” He explains that this doesn’t mean “fistfights or personal insults, but real disagreements.”

Concluding with his early history of aviation, he notes that Wilbur Wright confessed that “I like scrapping with Orv.”

Of course, Professor Grant thinks that all this is a chiddush, since “we live in a time when voices that might offend are silenced on college campuses” and true dialogue and vigorous argumentation are all but lost completely. Nevertheless, he champions “disagreement as the antidote to groupthink,” which he feels has stifled creativity for long enough.

On the surface, it certainly seems as if this professor of management and psychology has somehow channeled the time-honored Torah methodology of chavrusah learning and vibrant discussion.

The Gemara (Taanis 7a) quotes a posuk in Mishlei (27:17): “barzel bevarzel – as iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens a fellow.” Chazal say that this refers to Torah scholars sharpening each other’s understanding.

Those who have just completed Sanhedrin in Daf Yomi recently learned (111b) that learning is like war. Furthermore, Chazal (Kiddushin 30b) teach that “even a father and son or a teacher and a student [who are debating Torah matters] initially become enemies, although they later reconcile and become friends again.”

In fact, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l (Ohr Olam, page 29) declares emphatically that “the battle of Torah requires a certain tenacity. One who is weak-minded, always yielding ‘perhaps you are right,’ will never arrive at the truth. Only through sharp energetic debate will the sugya become clarified.”

Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt”l (Ruach Chaim to Avos 1:4) even adds that “it is forbidden for a student to accept the word of his rebbi if he has strong objections (kushiyos) on his conclusions, when in fact the student may turn out to be correct…for this is indeed a milchemes mitzvah, a holy war.”

Thus, it would seem that Judaism, as usual, has much to teach modern society and education about the intellectual process and how to successfully analyze a text, situation or moral question. This is true in and of itself, but there is a much deeper aspect of this process that cannot be transferred to anything but Torah study.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Tzidkas Hatzaddik, 133 and 186) stresses that Torah study is not merely an intellectual exercise similar to all other cerebral pursuits. He offers the brilliant Doeg the Edomite as an example. Although he had the potential to understand profound matters, his studies ended superficially (Sanhedrin 106b) because he was lacking the requisite heart and yearning to submit himself to the Torah. “A person can only attain great Torah stature,” Rav Tzadok concludes, “if he is extremely thirsty for knowledge and longs mightily to absorb its message.”

For us, although indeed the intellectual attainments of Torah are aided by the sharpening and excitement of Torah discussions, the importance of these methodologies pale by comparison with matters of the soul. Among the 48 methods of acquiring the Torah (Avos 6:5), many seem to have nothing to do with the human brain. Humility, joy, having a good heart and many other traits address the quality of one’s soul, not the I.Q. or other intellectual criteria.

The Chasam Sofer (to Parshas Shelach) takes this concept a giant step further. He teaches in the name of his rebbi, the author of the Hafla’ah, that the war against Amaleik can only be won when we fully engage in the Torah wars, meaning energetic and dedicated Torah discussions and debates. He points out that Chazal (Sanhedrin 106b) reveal that we were in danger of losing the war with Amaleik when we became lazy and did not engage vigorously in the type of Torah debate that can genuinely be called a war of Torah.

Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l, Telsher rosh yeshiva, used to relate that in the Telshe of Europe, when a wealthy man would seek a worthy son-in-law from the yeshiva, the Telsher Rov Hy”d would let him watch the excited Talmudic arguments being offered by a bochur to his chavrusah, and that was sufficient to impress the future father-in-law. It is the milchamta shel Torah – the Torah wars, not necessarily the Torah brain – that proves the mettle of a talmid chochom.

However, when it comes to Torah wars, one must be extremely careful. The Imrei Emes of Gur was asked to speak at an early Agudah convention. He pointed out an extraordinary diyuk – a close reading – of a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos. While the Mishnah (5:20) suggests methods of determining whether a machlokes – Torah argument – is lesheim Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, when it comes to a gathering of many people, there is no option of a machlokes being lesheim Shomayim. A convention or gathering should have no machlokes at all, and this is what the Gerrer Rebbe, one of the founders of Agudas Yisroel, asked of the convention attendees (Osaf Michtavim, page 72).

Even in Torah arguments, there are considerations that are more important than intellectual achievements.

The Alter of Slabodka zt”l (Ohr Hatzafun, Bereishis, page 150) differentiates between a machlokes and a merivah. Lot’s shepherds had a money-making agenda, and therefore any arguments they put forth were tainted by their subjective profit-seeking plots. Avrohom Avinu, whose only pursuit was truth, could be trusted to make decisions, since his only agenda was the truth.

Rav Leib Chasman zt”l (Ohr Yahel, Maamarei Mussar, page 93) suggests a method of ascertaining whether or not an argument is in fact for the sake of Heaven. If someone makes claims, brings proofs, and sets forth logical arguments when he is in the heat of obtaining his goals, all of these have no value. However, if the pressure is off, no money will change hands, and no property is being acquired, then one can claim that his approach is lesheim Shomayim.

This guideline could actually be utilized by everyone – Jew and gentile alike – since it is a useful tool for discovering the validity of any seemingly objective argument. In the heated world of today’s political discourse, this Torah teaching could serve as a criterion for discovering who may be trusted at any given time. Gedolim often counseled to avoid contention even if it was ostensibly lesheim Shomayim, since the issues can be so subtle as to be undetectable (see Ish Tzaddik Haya, page 316).

Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l (Delayos Yechezkel, Parshas Korach, page 128) gives an important acid test for whether one’s objectives are pure. Doing something lesheim Shomayim always results in something beneficial for all the participants. Since we are now dealing with a religious event, not just a brain stimulant, we can understand that doing the right thing will result in the common good, but continually acting solely in one’s own good interest cannot but result in chaos and rancor.

Let us indeed sharpen our skills by learning energetically with our study partners. But by the same token, let us remember that Torah study is far more than a merely intellectual pursuit. It is connecting with the mind of Hashem Himself, the noblest activity of all.