With Respect, You're A Kofer
"Lula demistafina (Were I not afraid), I would say that we need to posit a completely novel interpretation."
"Lefi aniyos da'ati (In my lowly opinion), this way of looking at the topic is completely wrong."
"With all due respect, you're an am ha'aretz."
Such prefatory comments often strike me as completely dishonest in light of what follows. If you are genuinely afraid to posit a new interpretation, then don't! If you genuinely consider your opinion to be lowly, then don't denounce others! If you genuinely respect someone, don't insult them!
The truth is that it is very, very difficult to balance respect for others with strong disagreement. I find it to be especially challenging, as a parent, to teach it to my children. But there is one figure in Jewish history who stands out as striking an incredible balance between the two.
Ramban, a.k.a. Nachmanides, had strong and well-earned opinions. He viewed many of Rambam's views as being tremendous perversions of Judaism (not without reason). At the beginning of parashas Vayera, he discusses Rambam's radical view that all stories in the Torah concerning angels took place in visions rather than in real life. Ramban concludes that "this view contradicts Scripture; it is forbidden to listen to such things, and all the more so to believe them."
Strong words indeed. Ramban has effectively just deemed Rambam's view as heresy. And there are other places, too, where he uses strong language in denouncing Rambam's radical opinions. Yet this was the same Ramban who wrote an important letter defending Rambam in the Maimonidean controversy!
Nor was it only with Rambam that Ramban was able to find respect even while considering his opinions to be near, or actual, heresy. When writing to the rabbis of Northern France, whom he had heard to view God as being corporeal, Ramban addresses them with great respect, as he politely informs them of the error of their ways.
It's not easy to respect those with whom one disagrees so strongly. We would do well to learn from Ramban.
(See too Bernard Septimus, "Open Rebuke and Concealed Love: Nahmanides and the Andalusian Tradition," in Isadore Twersky, ed., Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 11-34)
(On another note: If you live in London, and you are free on Monday November 28, please contact me!)