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    The Limits of Debate

    I. To Respond or Not To Respond?
    The Bible expresses two competing concerns about religious debates in successive verses. On the one
    hand, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (Prov. 26:4). On the other,
    “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (ibid., 5). A decision to engage in
    debate has to account for these tensions.
    The Gemara (Shabbos 30b) distinguishes between the two cases. You must answer a fool regarding
    Torah matters but not about mundane things. The Vilna Gaon (Commentary to Mishlei 26:4) explains that
    regarding mundane things, the debate seems like two valid opinions in disagreement — you are reduced
    to an equal. Regarding Torah, you can disprove his thesis. In other words, the distinction arises from the
    nature of response. If you can win unequivocally, then respond to the fool. If not, your response will put
    you on par with the fool (see also Rashi, ad loc.).
    Rashbatz (Magen Avos 2:19) suggests another interpretation that he calls simpler (according to
    the peshat). It all depends on the situation. Sometimes responding to a challenge brings you down to the
    fool’s level and sometimes it prevents him from thinking he is wise. Use your best judgement.
    Rashbatz adds another explanation that he prefers. Both verses address the same case but distinguish
    between the types of responses. You have to respond, otherwise the fool will appear wise. However,
    respond wisely, in a way that avoids getting dragged into the foolishness.
    II. Debating Heretics
    The Talmud does not believe that religious challenges should remain unanswered. The Mishnah
    (Avos 2:19) teaches: “Be diligent in the study of Torah. Know how to answer a heretic…” The Torah
    scholar is expected to dedicate time to studying responses to religious challenges, implying that he
    should debate heretics. Rabbeinu Yonah (Commentary to Avos, ad loc.) explains that if you fail to
    respond to his challenges, people will be convinced by his false arguments. The community’s welfare
    obligates the Torah scholar to respond to religious challenges.
    However, elsewhere this imperative is limited. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 38b) only encourages responding
    to gentile heretics but cautions against debating Jewish heretics, who may veer even further from religion
    due to the disputation. This distinction is surprising. Shouldn’t we be concerned even more about
    educating wayward Jews?
    Rambam (Commentary to Avos, ad loc.) explains that a Jew who scoffs at tradition will be drawn by a
    response to scoff more. In this, Rambam is echoing the interpretation in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a)
    of Prov. 2:19: “None that go to her return,” this refers to heresy. Those who reject traditional Judaism
    will find it (nearly) impossible to return. If anything, arguing with them will only push them farther away.
    Dialogue differs greatly from debate. Partners in dialogue gently probe areas of agreement, attempting to
    discover areas for cooperation. Debate involves direct confrontation, the clash of ideas in an attempt to
    refute and convince. Dialogue risks softening boundaries, smoothing over differences. Debate leads to
    the opposite — hardening positions. It is the rare debater who abandons his position based on his
    opponent’s arguments. Most of the time, the debater leaves more convinced of his view. Rashbatz (ibid.)
    even invokes the prohibition against placing a stumbling block in front of someone. By engaging in
    debate with a Jewish heretic, you are causing him him to accept his heresy even more.
    III. Onlookers
    The permission, or requirement, to argue with someone who challenges Judaism revolves not around his
    education but that of others. For the sake of the observers, the Torah scholar must be prepared to
    defend Judaism. We need not concern ourselves with the allegiances to Judaism of a gentile disputant.

    While we want a gentile to “return to the truth,” we can attempt to persuade him via debate without
    concern for the likelihood of failure. However, when that challenger is Jewish, we must balance his
    personal religious welfare with that of the observers. We cannot actively push him away by engaging him
    in fruitless debate.
    But what about the onlookers? How do we prevent the innocent bystanders from falling prey to the
    clever but misleading challenges to traditional Judaism? Rav Ya’akov Emden faced that dilemma when
    arguing against Sabbatean heresies. In his Toras Ha-Kana’us (1870 edition, p. 133), he justifies his
    efforts by saying that he has no intention of debating heretics. Rather, he is dismantling the Sabbatean
    heresy for the innocent public, to warn and protect them. He avoids the Talmudic prohibition by
    refraining from directly engaging with heretics yet he still debates their ideas in public in order to address
    the innocent onlookers. This seems to reflect accurately the actions of great Torah scholars throughout
    the generations. Rambam wrote his Moreh Nevukhim as a response to radical philosophers, Rav Sa’adia
    Gaon wrote his Emunos Ve-Dei’os against Karaites, and many others did likewise — responding in writing
    to ideas rather than engaging in direct debates.
    Similarly, Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (Be-Kivshono Shel Pulmus, p. 90) justifies his extended response to
    a Maskilic attack on Judaism by quoting this passage from Rav Emden. With this approach, Rav Stern
    returns to the contradictory verses about responding to a fool. Do not respond directly to the fool but
    rather address the audience so they are not convinced by the fool’s apparent wisdom.
    Debate is an imperfect tool for finding truth. More than testing arguments, it measures the rhetorical
    skills of the participants. A debate is entertainment, not dispassionate investigation. A written analysis
    allows for more honest debate. While writing also involves skills and rhetorical tricks, the reader can
    return to the essay or book multiple times and dissect the analysis.