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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.