Public Debates
Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: It is clear from your website that a person must engage in honest intellectual investigation if he is to arrive at the fundamental truths underlying all aspects of our world: man, Torah, Judaism, our relationship to G-d, etc. I am curious then, of the position most orthodox Rabbi's take not to support public forums and debates where the merits of Judaism can be compared openly to other corrupt "forms of Judaism", such as Reform and Conservative. Surely a side-by-side comparison of the two schools would reveal the overwhelming truth of Torah Judaism and the emptiness of the others. Yet, in my experience, orthodox Rabbeim frown upon, and even often prohibit, the participation of other orthodox laymen and Rabbeim from participating in these events. Observers often view this as a form of intellectual cowardice (chas v'sholom) on the part of the orthodox, assuming these Rabbeim avoid public debates out of fear of being proven wrong. Many also view this abstention as contributing to divisiveness in the community (I personally know of a number of non-observant Jews who maintain these views). Why do so many Rebbeim pass up a chance to spread true divrei Hashem to the olam when the opportunity is presented? Thank you for any insight you can provide.
Mesora: Although we state, "Know what to respond to a heretic", there is no law governing public versus written teaching. "Knowing what to respond..." means knowledge of Torah includes knowledge of the flawed arguments in opposing positions. "Torah" means not only knowledge of how to act, but knowledge of how to defend Torah. This mans that Torah must also include knowledge of its exclusive nature - the "only" system of truth. If one does not have the answers to a heretic's attack, he is lacking in his knowledge that the Torah is completely correct.
Each person is free to do as he wishes. We are guided by halacha alone, and not by conventional means. The Torah does not prohibit debates. Avraham Avinu argued with others, Ramban debated in his "Disputation at Barcelona", and Gaviha ben Pasisa also debated as recorded in Talmud Sanhedrin 91a, and his debate was even condoned by the Rabbis. On three occasions, Gaviha ben Pasisa was given permission to debate with other peoples in front of Alexander. Gaviha's goal was to shield the Torah from shame, and make a "kiddush Hashem", a sanctification of God's Torah. He succeeded all three times.
But Gaviha and Ramban both were under attack. Debate was a necessity. They did not initiate a debate. Regarding Avraham, his goal was to expose idolatry. He cared for others, so he argued against their views. I do not know if his forum was ever a staged debate, but rather, as casual conversations. Under normal circumstances, I do not see the need to debate when one may deliver their valuable views to the same number of Jews - if not more - by spreading their ideas in conversation or in print, as God has done with His Torah. The presence of two people face to face does nothing more to strengthen one's arguments. Content alone must impress one's mind, not eloquence of speech, or a charming personality. Additionally, viewing a debate actually removes one from the activity of independent study, arriving at reasonable conclusions with one's own mind, and at his own speed of comprehension.

A final thought: When one is requested to "face-off" at a public debate, my guess is that such an invitation is at times fueled by the host's desire to trash the guest. One who sincerely wishes to debate points of view, need not do so in person, or in staged debates. If he does wish a personal confrontation, Rabbis are certainly wiser to pass. The real goal of such "gracious hosts" is often personality assassination - not a search for objective truth. I am certain many times there arises a pre-debate on whose "turf" to debate. This substantiates my suspicion of the host's true interest in ideas. I would debate that point.