The ways of the Torah are described as “דרכי נועם ” , “the ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3/17), and one of the most basic rules for those of us who spread Torah is to speak gently and pleasantly to people, as Hillel was so well known for doing (see Shabbos 31a.)
We also know very well the price that was paid by Rabbi Akiva’s students for not showing honor to each other (Yevamos 62b.)
We know that “תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם “, “Torah Scholars increase peace in the world,” (Brachos 64a) and our saintly Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Azriel Chayim Goldfein zt’l was well known for quipping the obvious corollary , that ” if he doesn’t increase peace, he is NOT a Talmid Chacham.”
Furthermore, we are told ( Eruvin 13b) that one of the reasons we follow Beis Hillel over Beis Shamai is because they would quote their words together with the words of Beis Shamai, and even quote Beit Shamai first !
The correct approach to other views according to that sugya, is one of “אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים ” ( Both these and those are the words of the living G-d), and this respect for other views is an intrinsic part of our approach to learning Torah .
Nevertheless, more than just occasionally, we are faced with what appears to be extremely harsh language by one scholar to the other .
For some of very many examples:
-In Brachos 32a, Rabbi Yannai tells Rabbi Chanina the reader “פוק קרא קראיך לברא” ( get out and read your reading outside .)- this is a relatively common retort in the shas.
-At the end of שלושה שאכלו (Brachos 51b), Rav Nachman’s scholarly wife, offended at the Amora Ullah’s apparent chauvinism, responds to his words by saying:
“ממהדורי מילי ומסמרטוטי כרמי ( empty words come from peddlers and lice come out of old rags .)
-Though not exactly the same, there is also the view that a Talmid Chacham who does not “take revenge and bare a grudge like a snake” is not a Talmid chacham ” ( Yoma 23a.)
On our daf, there is a debate between Rabbi Ilai and Rabbi Chanina regarding the rule that a zav only causes impurity when he sits on something that can be purified in a mikva ( as opposed to earthenware vessels than cannot be purified and certain types of simple wooden vessels like the מפץ (see Rashi .)
Rabbi Ilai holds that so long as some things made of the same material ( namely wood ) can be purified in a mikva, even things of that material that cannot be purified in a mikva ( like the מפץ), can become impure.
Rabbi Chanina responds to what he seems to view as a ridiculous idea, by saying ” may Hashem save us from that opinion,” to which Rabbi Ilai retorts in kind , that on the contrary :” may Hashem save us from YOUR opinion. “
Neither Chacham seems to be satisfied with the usual respectful give and take of the Talmudic discussion but seems to feel the need to speak extremely harshly and seemingly disrespectful about the other’s view.
It should also be noted that this debate is not exactly about one of the main principles of belief, which makes this behaviour even more surprising.
Interesting enough, the Masores hashas points us to two other places where a similar exchange occurs, between the same two chachomim , both in masechtos commonly learnt in yeshivos – and we really need to take a deeper look and try and find a common thread. (The case in Kesubos involves possibly giving someone a harsher death penalty than deserved, whereas the case in Bava Kama involves possibly making a thief pay back more than he needs to.)
But although these 3 cases must certainly hold clues as to when harsh language is indeed appropriate, it seems clear from them and so many other cases, that there is indeed a time for using such.
Although counter examples can perhaps be found the basic concept seems to me to be that in one’s relationship to people outside one’s immediate cozy learning environment , one has to always be extra careful with ones words and how one says things .
Of course, there are times such as danger to life and public chillul Hashem where it is sometimes necessary to speak harshly in the public eye too, as did the Neviim, Chazal, and Gedolim through all the ages , but one needs serious סיעתא דשמיא to do this successfully and it is essential to show that one is not doing it out of ego or anger, but completely for the sake of heaven – much more to discuss in this regard, perhaps in a later post , Hashem willing .
In contrast, inside the walls of the Beis Midrash, more scope is giving for lively and sometimes extremely strong “give and take ” so long as the argument is לשם שמיים .
As the Gemara says in Kiddushin (30b), two Talmidei Chachamim who are fighting with each other over a halacha can temporarily become “enemies ” during the passion of the argument , and this is part of the passionate search for the truth, and is completely legitimate .
Similarly perhaps, a Rebbe might use harsh language with his student in order to sharpen him and his thought process or stop him being lazy ( see Rambam hilchos Talmud Torah 4/5) – I would add that this is obviously ,provided he is confident that the student will be impacted positively by this and not negatively ( which in my experience is an extremely risky and often counter-productive strategy in our age.)
A Nasi may also be very strong with those under him in to strengthen the authority of the position ( see Kesubos 103b), as Rabban Gamliel did (perhaps going too far ) with Rabbi Yehoshua ( see Brachos 27b and parallel sugyos.)
HOWEVER , as the Gemara in Kiddushin continues , they do not leave the study hall without becoming friends again, and this is the true test of whether this harsh talk was in the correct spirit or not .
True debates for the sake of heaven might indeed get heated, but they may never get personal.