Rabbis love to argue. However, sometimes engaging in debate can lead to unintended consequences. In a debate over a highly technical subject, observers may not be able to determine which answer has more credibility. If disputants cannot agree on basic standards of evidence, their arguments may fly past each other. And by engaging with a troublemaker, you may be lending him your reputation.
To Respond, or Not To Respond?
The Bible expresses these two competing concerns 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 debates seem 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.).
Rav Shimon ben Tzemach (Rashbatz) Duran (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.
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, which 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 from debate. Partners in dialogue gently probe areas of agreement, attempting to discover areas for cooperation. Debate involves 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 to accept his heresy even more.
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 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 to address the innocent onlookers. This seems to reflect accurately the actions of great Torah scholars throughout the generations. Rambam wrote his Moreh Nevuchim 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.
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.