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Great Debates

Great Debates


Great Debates in Jewish History
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By Larry Gordon

What would Jewish life be without all the differences of opinion amongst us from time immemorial? In a way, some say the various approaches help to define the very nature and essence of Am Yisrael, dating back to the era of creation. Others insist that the only real matter of substance that unites us is all the things we disagree about.

To that end, each year, the Jewish Learning Institute—an affiliate of Chabad—offers a seminar on an aspect of Jewish life that is explored in depth and offered up in Chabad Houses around the world to tens of thousands of people. This year’s program, which begins at your local Chabad House next week, is “Great Debates in Jewish History,” six different events or periods of historical and contemporary Jewish life that are still subject to intense discussion and examination, ranging from the present to as far back as 2,000 years ago.

The first of the six-part weekly series takes a close look at the Dead Sea Scrolls and the debate around them that rages 70 years after they were discovered in caves on the mountainous terrain of Qumran near Kibbutz Kalya in Israel. The foremost expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls is Dr. Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, who has studied the scrolls with utmost intensity over the last several decades.

The origin of the scrolls and their impact on early Jewish life is the core of one great debate. It is interesting to note that the scrolls, written on papyrus almost 2,000 years ago (in the first century CE), according to the best estimates of the experts, were discovered by an Arab shepherd tossing stones into a cave who heard the rocks bounce off some utensils, which stimulated his curiosity about what was in those caves.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been not only a source of great debate but also a matter of controversy, with various experts who have studied them drawing variant conclusions. Of particular relevance today is the sect that copied the scrolls, what their motivations and beliefs were, and how those convictions contrasted with some core tenets of fundamental Torah-outlined Judaism.

Dr. Schiffman explained that there are three basic subdivisions of the scrolls that are still being studied and debated today. He says that one-third of the scrolls are copied portions of Tanach, another third contains what he refers to as Second Temple literature, and the final third he calls “sectarian literature.”

The identity of this sectarian group is itself a matter of long discussion, with most believing that it was a breakaway sect from elements of traditional Judaism at the time and others feeling that they were a group that separated themselves from the Chashmonaim of Chanukah fame.

As to how many actually were members of the sect, that, too, is debatable; Dr. Schiffman estimates anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand. The fascinating basis for assessing the number of adherents to this sect was the number of dishes and eating utensils found in and around the caves where the sect set up camp.

Dr. Schiffman adds that it is possible that they had additional followers at other locations, but for now this is the best guess as to the population of the group. There is so much depth involved in studying these Dead Sea Scrolls and trying to gain some insight into the mindset of early and disparate Jewish populations in the Holy Land. This is just a scant, superficial aspect of the issue and one that will make for a fascinating kickoff to this year’s JLI seminars.

The second week will focus on the early Jewish population that was under siege by the Roman army at Masada. According to recorded history, 960 Jews were trapped by the Romans in the first century CE atop the now famous and well-visited mountaintop. Using the example of the martyrdom at Masada, the seminar will explore the role that nationalism plays in Jewish life. It will look into Jewish perspectives on taking up arms when defeat is seemingly inevitable.

The class will seek to place the attendees in the mindset of those who gave up their lives at Masada and discover a nationalistic view of Judaism. The seminar will seek answers to the question, “Is it proper to choose death over a national survival that is subservient to a foreign nation?”

The week-three great debate is about where we stand on the positions of the Rambam, Maimonides. In the 12th century, Maimonides’ major philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed, was banned and even burned. For an observant Jew, Maimonides took a radically rationalistic approach. Beginning during his lifetime and continuing for decades after his death, the Maimonidean controversy and condemnation of his works divided the Jewish world. Why was there such fierce opposition to reason? Is rationalism an acceptable approach to Divine worship? What role does reason play in Judaism?

One of the additional seminars focuses on the “Commercialism of Religion,” and will devote the class to studying the matter of the Chabad organization’s extensive involvement in publicizing the Chanukah miracle by campaigning for public displays of menorahs, often on government property and frequently alongside crèches and Christmas trees.

Chabad has faced court challenges over the years on the matter and has been ridiculed and rebuked by organizations and denominations within Judaism over the promotion and public display of sometimes giant-size menorahs featuring elaborate and often star-studded lighting ceremonies.

One of the questions that will no doubt be addressed is whether these types of displays fulfill the halachicobligation of “pirsumei nissa,” or publicizing the great miracles of Chanukah that took place during the second century CE, about 1,800 years ago.

So is Chanukah a private matter that should be limited to celebrations in the home, or is the directive to promote the miracles that occurred by the public lighting and the affixing of the menorah to the tops of cars and trucks that drive around our cities and communities?

So in case you thought that Judaism was mere rote and repetitious tradition, all one needs to do is look back at these periods to see the foundation of a richness to the fundamental nature of Jewish life and the fact that vibrant debate is not only something that has been around for thousands of years but is indeed encouraged and the fabric of who we are as a people.

And once these great debates are carefully studied and analyzed, it is possible that we may come to the conclusion that there is truly nothing new under the sun and that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at


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