Israelis often wail that the country lacks unity. But when most Israelis say “We need more unity,” what they really mean is “More people should agree with me.” Dissent can be a pain, but it’s essential—as is recognized by the Sages of the Talmud in the Horayot Tractate (4b). The Beit Midrash run for the last two years by Kehilat Yedidya last week finished its study of this tractate with just this insight.
Horayot deals with the issue of what happens when a court—a rabbinic court, which served as the chief legislative and moral authority of Jewish communities in Talmudic times—makes a ruling mistakenly. To do this, it reads Torah passages in Leviticus 4 and Numbers 16. These passages deal with a sacrifice called the korban shogeg, to be offered by a person or group of people who has violated a Torah precept without intention. While the Sages of the Talmud lived long after the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial service ceased, they continue to use this language. Assignment of responsibility for the error is designated by the assignment of the requirement to bring this sacrifice.
The question is: if a court makes a ruling that violates the Torah, does the ultimate responsibility fall on the court, or on the individual who obeyed the court’s instruction?
The tractate discusses various permutations of this issue. Page 4b considers the question of what happens if one member of the court disagrees with the ruling. In such a case, according to the Mishna, the court is not required to bring the sacrifice—by implication, the sacrifice must be brought by the individual who obeyed the court.
This is not to say that the court bears no responsibility. But the implication is that the very fact that one member of the court has dissented absolves the court of the ultimate, divine responsibility represented by the obligation to offer a sacrifice.
I would argue that this ruling serves as a caution and an incentive to every rabbinical court—and by implication, to every decision-making body, be it a modern parliament or the polity of a democracy. In this case, the court is clearly being encouraged to make sure that it has at least one contrary member—a member whose propensity is to argue against what ever everyone else agrees about.
We all know people like that. They can be a royal pain in the ass. But the Talmud here understands how easy it is for a group of people with power to settle into conventional wisdom, into a hegemonic discourse that blinds them. Not only do they not consider opposing arguments—they cannot even discern that there might be other points of view.
Many times the dissenter’s arguments won’t hold water. Many times the majority’s view may be the correct or necessary one. But a panel that rules unanimously, after a discussion in which no one has disagreed, cannot really have deliberated in a serious or thorough way.
So it’s dissent we should seek, not unity. A good argument is the fodder of democracy.