We all know the joke, but we still enjoy hearing it: the one where two factions in a disagreement present their case to the rabbi and both are told, “You’re right.” And when a listener points out the impossibility of both sides being right, the rabbi responds, “You’re right, too!” It always gets a laugh. But why? And what can we learn from the rabbi’s affable ways.
There is, of course, a way to read the joke as imparting a truth. Often, one party in a dispute is not completely right and the other completely wrong. Sometimes both sides have a valid claim, and there is wisdom in recognizing that fact. The path to a peaceful solution to a conflict often requires that each side offer recognition of the legitimacy of the other’s claim, or at least recognition that what one considers a fair solution might involve some loss or damage to the other.
Nevertheless, the rabbi’s responses, instantaneous and identical, come to seem glib. The two sides really cannot both be right. What is in question is either permitted or forbidden. Either it is kosher or it is not. A factual claim is true or false. Claiming that both are true in the same instance is foolishness.
This joke and its problematics come to mind in light of Rashi’s justifiably renowned comment on the description of Noah in Genesis 6:9, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his time (literally, “in his generations”) Rashi observes that “there are among our rabbis those who interpret this as praise, and there are those who interpret this as criticism”, and he proceeds to contrast two views of how Noah stacks up against Abraham, a paragon of virtue in a later era. Had Noah lived in Abraham’s time rather than in the corrupt world he actually had to put up with, would he have lived an even more exemplary life? Or, conversely, would Noah’s halo appear dim next to the glaring brilliance of Abraham’s?
Commenting on Rashi’s observation that “there are those who interpret this as criticism”, Rebbe Yehezkel Taub of Kuzmir (1755–1856), founder of the Modzitz line of Hasidic rebbes, registers surprise: “Can this be? How can this verse be interpreted as criticism (of Noah) when the Torah itself says of him, ‘Noah was a righteous, blameless man’? It is because a person who is a tzadik, pure and blameless, will encounter those who are critical of him. He will have opponents.” (Note that tzadik is the Hasidim’s own term for a rebbe, and the term for “opponents”, mitnagdim, is used for Hasidism’s opponents.)
Rebbe Yehezkel continues, “If everyone ‘interprets’ a person with praise, that is a bad sign for him. It is an indication that he is a liar and a sycophant, that for his own comfort and convenience, he wants to live in peace with everyone and for everyone to like him.” The rabbi in our joke refuses to take a stand. He wants to please everyone. But in the silence after the punchline, who still respects his opinion?
Noah stood apart from his society. He questioned its values. He taught his children to act differently from those around them. He was surely unpopular, but he saved the human race.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is head of the Bet Din of the Masorti Movement in Israel