(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...pilpul hatalmidim, debate among the scholars...
(Genesis 48:11) ...r'o panekha lo pillalti... (Jacob says to Joseph)...I never thought I would see your face...
There are two organizations with the initials NFL. Most familiar to Americans is the National Football League. Less familiar is a high school honor society that was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin, midway between Madison and Green Bay. The National Forensic League is devoted to the varieties of oral communication – extemporaneous speaking, dramatic interpretation, original oratory and, most notably, debate. Whether on a two-person policy debate team or arguing solo in the Lincoln-Douglas competitions, high school students learn to argue both sides of a current public policy concern, and to back up their arguments with logic and documentation.
I suspect it is no surprise to you that I never qualified for the sports version of the NFL, but that I was a member of the arguing version from an early age. In fact, until my aspirations were derailed by my increasing commitment to Shabbat observance, my goal was to teach oral communication and coach debate in a high school.
Those impulses were fulfilled by my rabbinic training. Our legal tradition is virtually defined by the dialectic process, the manner of studying sacred texts in pointed conversation. No interpretation or application of law is considered authoritative if it has not been subjected to scrutiny from both sides, pro and con. In fact, it is accurate to say that a Jew should never study Torah alone; virtually every printed edition of the Bible comes with some sort of commentary to suggest alternative ways to understand the plain meaning of the text. If you don't have a live discussant reading with you, you at least have the insight of someone who has considered the text before you.
(It is, perhaps, ironic that in America there are politically conservative Christians who insist on a "literal reading" of the Bible. The English-language Bibles they read literally are themselves interpretations, translations from Hebrew and Greek that engage the reader in a conversation with commentary rather than primary sources!)
When high school students debate issues, they are forced to articulate ideas that are not their own. In the process, the hope is that they will better understand the differences in opinions and discover personal commitments that are informed by information, not just passion. The stakes are higher in halakhic debate, but the goal is the same. By arguing both sides – sometimes in the extreme – the hope is that the scholars will emerge with a better understanding of how to do God's will in the context of their times and circumstances.
I have often tried to illustrate that process by offering a twist (or, more accurately, a bend) on the way we usually imagine the continuum of opinion. Most folks see the continuum as a straight line, with the most extreme positions farthest from each other. We generally celebrate those who can mediate the extremes and find a place of satisfaction for everyone somewhere in the middle. I prefer to bend that continuum into an almost-complete circle. The two extremes, which represent the purest distillation of opposing opinions, are now much closer to each other than the middle ground, which is farthest away from both. Our purpose as Jews, whether examining halakha or engaging in the world around us, is to enter that gap and grab hold of the two extremes, thus making whole the circle and bringing a God-like unity to those things that separate us from each other.
The only time the world was whole was in Eden, and we the people were superfluous. God provided us with opportunity – expulsion – and motive – covenant – to be participants in the healing of the breach, and thereby give meaning to our lives. Whatever that covenant means for other people, for Jews it means Torah. Leaping into the breach through informed and passionate debate is one of the ways we acquire Torah.
The word pilpul is usually used derisively to mean a focus on minutiae. It is actually related to the word pillalti in the verse from Genesis. It means, at its root, "to think," "to judge" or "to sharpen." (And here is commentary to reflect upon: it is also at the root of "to pray," "pepper" and the Israeli snack food "falafel.") Scholars who sharpen each other's thinking and judgment develop within themselves the increasing ability to develop counterarguments to their own inclinations. They are better able to enter the gap and reach for wholeness.
Jacob acknowledges his own atrophy when he admits to Joseph that he had never thought to see him alive again. When the bloodied tunic was presented to him by the guilty brothers, he leapt to a conclusion without questioning the evidence before him. In wonder and perhaps abashedness, he acknowledges the failure of his own imagination.
When my kids propose something I'm not sure we can accomplish, I like to say to them, "Anything is possible, but not everything is likely." That statement is certainly as true of creating wholeness, shalom, in our world as it is of reconciling legal and political opponents, or even rivals in the National Football League. But equally true is that a refusal to enter that gap between extremes where Torah is to be found is a guarantee that the world will remain incomplete. The continuing lack of wholeness in our world is enabled by the failure of imagination.
How can you experience pilpul hatalmidim? Study Torah with a good commentary, such as Etz Hayyim, the chumash we use at the synagogue. Set a time for study with a partner or a group, during which you will examine a text of Bible, Talmud or midrash in conversation. Seek out someone whose opinions differ from yours on matters of public import and articulate for each other both your own positions and your understanding of each other's position.