How To Be A Student

Discussion Forum

Living & Learning

Challenge Scenario

The Sages encouraged vigorous, but respectful disagreement and debate over issues. Often,  whenever there is disagreement, either the person disagreeing or the one contradicted is upset, and in the heat of disagreement, no light is shed on the subject. How can you state a disagreement without giving offence? If the other side has put their disagreement in a tactless way, how can you defuse animosity, and keep the discussion productive?


1. Before stating a contrary view, First confirm that you have understood the other view, by restating it and asking if you got it right. Then “start soft,” meaning in a non-accusatory way. Focus on the issue, not the person, and preferably offer an alternative, rather simply a denial. State your alternative as a possibility, not as certainly right—certainty is not given in this world for any general claims.   

2. When the other side raises an objection, do not counterattack immediately, but again restate it to show you have understood the objection. Then ask ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions to explore the thinking behind the person’s objection. The other person feeling understood defuses animus.

3. Before you move to discussing the evidence and logic on the different views, identify the common problem that the conflicting claims are intending to solve. This will give you a standard for judging what best solves the problem, and a standard of relevance, so you keep on the same topic. Sliding from one topic to another is the most common destructive pattern that makes discussions frustratingly unproductive.

Your Experience

When have you had a discussion with disagreement that you really benefited from? When have discussions led to more heat than light? What do you think have been the differences? Does it make a difference whether you are discussing in person, by telephone, by email, or on line?

Modern Commentary – Berkson

Seven things mark the crude, seven the wise. 

Beginning with the Talmud, Jewish tradition has been taught and developed through discussion and debate over specific cases and issues. The idea that reasoned argument and debate can help us discover the truth comes from Socrates, and it entered into Judaism when Judea was part of a Hellenist empire, and was heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture. Discussion is difficult among those who disagree and who also have a personal stake in the outcome. Then anger, pride, and other emotions the Sages warn against can raise their heads and sabotage productive discussion.

In discussions among scholars, pride is the main obstacle. As we can see from the testimony of Shimon ben Gamliel (1:17) and Rabbi Eliezer (2:15), this was a serious problem even among some great Sages. Rules of respect and manners help tremendously to create discussions that are fruitful. Some of these rules are mentioned here. It is revealing that Hillel, the most revered of the Sages, systematized the principles of talmudic argument and was a model of good manners in discussion (see the commentary to 5:20).

All of these guidelines were evidently formulated with teachers, students, and scholars in mind. In the traditional style of Talmud study, students learn through discussion and debate about the passage they are studying, what its correct interpretation is, and how it applies in a contemporary context. Such a system of critical discussion is very powerful for understanding ideas in depth, and also for seeing their limitations. Indeed, as we have seen, one Sage, Rava, thought that we are all asked in heaven whether or not we have critically discussed wisdom (see 1:15). However, it is easy for the feelings of students and teachers to get bruised in such debate. Rules for proper conduct (derekh eretz) in study are vital so that everyone can progress with good feeling. Unfortunately, as the Talmud notes, scholars in the Land of Israel were very courteous—following the example of the school of Hillel—but when the center of learning moved to Babylonia, critical discussion became more brutal. Since then, the rules of courteous conduct unfortunately have been commonly violated.

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Classic Commentaries – Goldin

He does not break into his fellow’s speech.

Get thee a comrade. 


Such was Aaron. For it is said, Then Aaron spoke . . . Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering, and their burnt-offering . . . and there have befallen me such things as these (Leviticus 10:19): He kept quiet until Moses finished what he wanted to say, and Aaron did not say to him: "Cut thy words short.” Only afterwards did he say to Moses: "Behold, this day they have brought their offerings, although we are in mourning!” (ARN).

When Abraham was praying in behalf of the Men of Sodom, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: If 1 find in Sodom fifty righteous . . . then 1 will forgive all the place for their sake (Genesis 18:26). It was manifest and foreknown to Him that spake and the world came into being that had there been present in Sodom three or five righteous men, iniquity would not have affected it. Yet the Holy One, blessed be He, waited until Abraham finished what he wanted to say, and only then answered him; as it is said, And the Lord went His way when He had left off speaking to Abraham (Genesis 18:33): God, as it were, said to him: "Now, I shall depart”; as it is said, And the Lord went His way . . . then Abraham returned unto his place {ibid.) (ARN).
If the Holy One, blessed be He, to whom belongs the universe and everything in it, did not wish to break into the words of Abraham our father, how much the more should man, who is dust, worm, and maggot, not break into the speech of his fellow (ARNB).

This teaches that a man should get a comrade for himself, to eat with him, drink with him, study Scripture with him, study Mishna with him, sleep with him, and reveal to him all his secrets, the secrets of the Torah and the secrets of worldly things.

When two sit studying Torah and one of them makes a mistake in a matter of halakah or of a chapter heading— or says of the unclean that it is clean, or of the clean that it is unclean; or of the forbidden that it is permitted, or of the permitted that it is forbidden—his comrade will correct him (ARN).

It is sometimes possible for a man to provide himself with a teacher [from whom] to learn, but acquiring a comrade [with whom] to review comes only with great difficulty (ARNB).

Note that the idiom used here is “’get thee’ (buy) a companion,” not just “provide thyself with” a companion or “attach thyself” to others or some similar expression. The reason for this is that, if necessary, a man should buy a devoted friend for himself. ... As the Sages used to say (Taanit 23a):

Give me friendship or give me death. And if a person cannot easily find a friend, he must strive with all his heart to do so, even if he has to go so far as compel the person to love him, even if he has to buy his love and friendship (Maimonides).
The Greek philosophers used to say: A friend is somebody outside yourself and yet in truth he is you; that is to say, though the bodies of the two friends are separate and distinct, their souls cling and cleave to each other (Aknin).

There are some who interpret “get thee a comrade” as “buy yourself books,” but the true interpretation is the literal one (Duran).

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