How to Compete (Ideas #108)

Being Jewish has always meant being surrounded and greatly outnumbered by ideological competition. As a result, Jews have long been keenly aware of the importance of preparedness to contend with that competition. Whether it was in the face of paganism, Christianity or Islam, the rabbis spoke about the imperative of “da mah shetashiv …” (know what to respond…). It goes without saying that “knowing what to respond” meant doing so effectively. It was not enough to have answers that impressed the in-group. The responses also had to minimally hold the opposition at bay.[i]

According to Maimonides, this principle requires knowledge of that which one is arguing against.  In this context, R. Aharon Lichtenstein quotes T. S. Eliot’s quip that “paganism (is best defeated) in the classical way, by understanding it”. Without such understanding, it would be extremely difficult to know how to debate effectively.  It would follow that the more sophisticated one’s likely opponent, the more background into the opponent’s views would be needed in order to rebuff his arguments.


Today, the often high level of contemporary public debate does not allow credible and convincing responses to be grounded in a superficial and polemical approach to competing ideologies. Rather, such responses require a serious understanding of the competition. In turn, transmitting such an understanding is predicated on showing our students these ideologies’ coherence and appeal. Focusing primarily on the ideology’s flaws would likely lead to its distortion and not to the type of understanding that allows one to rebut competing arguments. At best, it leads to positions that will only convince those already convinced, but will not carry much weight with others.


Of course, it is most probable that this directive was originally meant for the rabbis themselves, as they were the ones likely to entertain ideological challenges. Accordingly, the Talmud contains many episodes of gentiles presenting these challenges specifically to various rabbis.  Anyone who was not likely to meet such ideological challenges had no immediate need to be prepared.

In the present era of mass education and instant communications, the situation is quite different – we are all susceptible to ideological challenges. Thus, even if the directive did not have mass application when it was originally formulated, it may well be that it has mass application today.

In short then, the rabbinic principle of da mah shetashiv would suggest that all modern Jews (at least in the Diaspora) take the requisite steps to understand the views of our ideological opponents, in whatever realm they may present themselves.

I believe that this has applications in teaching about other religions and competing approaches to Judaism and the authorship of the Bible. I believe that this even has applications in how we teach our students about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For those concerned that such an approach will weaken our own convictions, it may be useful to note Maimonides’ understanding of the context of da mah shetashiv in Avot (2:14) – the mishna continues to say that one should be aware of Whom one is working in front of. Maimonides explains that precisely when one is involved in the necessary study of competing ideologies, one need be mindful of one’s primary allegiance. Study of competing ideas should be done in such a way as to prevent these ideas from entering one’s heart (shelo yekanes belibcha). In other words, these ideas should not be pursued with the same holistic and emotional overtones with which we should study our own tradition.

At the end of the day, if teaching competing ideologies will really shake our students’ commitment to Judaism, the real problem may not lie in whether or not we teach other perspectives, but how we teach our own.

[i] Maharal (Derekh heChaim) points out that, by seeking answers that will convince the opposition, one will also acquire the collateral (possibly the main) benefit of most effectively convincing oneself. That is to say that, although one can get away with weaker arguments if only convincing oneself, when forced to convince a hostile interlocutor, stronger arguments will be needed, which will ultimately strengthen one’s own convictions.