Private Chats and Public Debates

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Many of the 18th Century salons in Berlin were run by Jewish women. One of the most famous was that of Rachel Levin Varnhagen.

The thinker who is perhaps most well-known for his study on the history and philosophy of the public sphere is the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Habermas argued that the formation of the public sphere was a vital step in the move towards democracy, as it provided a space free from state intrusion, where everyone could criticise the acts of government. Habermas believed firmly that once ideas became public they could be discussed and further refined, ultimately arriving at a purer and more accurate notion of truth.

Whilst it may be anachronistic to speak of a public sphere as such in ancient Judaism, it is clear that the Talmud places a high value in forming a space where all voices can be heard. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (Chapter 4) states that when the High Court dealt with capital crimes, the less senior judges would voice their verdicts first. The Mishnah was concerned that if the most senior judges opened the debate with their own opinions, the junior judges would hold back their own thoughts and simply submit to their elders out of respect or fear. The Talmud (Sanhederin 36b) then states that Rabbi Judah Hanasi practised this etiquette in all legal areas, valuing the opinion of all his judges irrespective of rank or profile.

The Talmud also encouraged the many students who were in attendance at all court hearings to speak up if they felt that the judges were erring in their decision, citing the verse: “do not be afraid of man.” (Devarim 1:17) Evidently, the Sanhedrin was constructed as a place where all opinions could be heard, in the belief that truth would ultimately be better served by opening it up to challenges from all. Even the Sanhedrin’s architecture, Levinas writes, was elegantly designed as an open circle to expose itself to the rest of the wider world.

However, the Talmud also felt that the public arena is not the place for all conversations. In a rather curious passage in Chagiga, the Mishnah states that matters concerning the creation of the world ought not be discussed by more than two people at once, that illicit sexual relationships should not to be expounded in a group greater than three and that the Work of the Chariot –Ma’aseh Merkavah– can never be discussed “unless you are particularly wise and understands his own thoughts.” Some conversations, it seems, are better had in private.

In his commentary to this Mishnah, Maimonides writes that topics such as the world’s creation and sexual intimacy happen to be particularly complex and sensitive issues. Indeed, he writes that they touch to the very core of our existence and the nature of the world. Such matters, Maimonides writes, ought only to be discussed “between one man and another.” Maimonides feared that public discussions cannot address all individual private concerns and would thus leave people with half-truths and unbaked theories. Maimonides did not feel that certain people needed to be shielded from these issues, far from it. Rather, he thought that the appropriate format for such discussions was the personal and intimate conversation among a few rather than a public colloquium.

In a recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argued that the culture of public debate and of extrovert brainstorming often hinders the original ideas that arise in individuals. Cain’s theory argues that when in public, individuals naturally mirror each other and mould their views to fit in with the ideals of the crowd. Judaism too, is no stranger to the notion that crowds and society shape one’s thoughts and actions. Cain thus argues for the world to make more space for individual and introvert thinking, ultimately benefiting the rest of society.

The public arena certainly is a vital and vibrant part of life in modern democracies. And yet, Judaism balanced this emphasis on the public sphere with the importance of the personal face-to-face chat. Public speeches and writings might be good for raising awareness of pressing issues, yet they often cannot address all the private concerns of the individual.  When it comes to the most basic issues of life, the Talmud wanted to ensure that we all have the chance to fully work through all our own unique concerns and thoughts. Sometimes the most profound ideas and thoughts germinate in private and only then influence the wider world.

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