Holy disagreement in culture and martial arts


December 2, 2007
Yossi Sheriff

By Yossi Sheriff

Many veteran practitioners already know our multi personal work method: maintaining the last item on The AKBAN Code is too much for a single person cooperation is needed. Cooperation among people is not some simple dance. It entails some heavy arguing and disagreement. I wanted to explain why this aspect should be documented, why arguing is necessary.

Martial art and AKBAN-Wiki
One of the reasons for creating the AKBAN-Wiki is the fact that we are not sure of the precision of our technique, we are not sure of our fighting conclusions and perspectives. It might be more correct to say that we are sure of some of the conclusions and techniques but tend to sanctify their discussion, and such discussion might refute some of them.

Can martial art profit from discussion, from scientific disagreements? I believe that any field of knowledge not only needs but must have criticism. Therefore we use critical point of view to preserve the old concepts, examine them, find more adequate ways to practice and argue, we argue a lot. Sometimes politely.

Just two days ago I tried to show how to perform an ancient kata. The Tel Avivian veteran practitioner with whom I worked did not have to argue loudly with my point of view. He simply disturbed me. With time, we might find ways to do it together. This is serious work that requires years of patience: patience for the difficulties of fighting, and patience towards people.

The reasonable amicable relations in AKBAN and the many capabilities of the veterans have helped us build a structure of distribution, gathering and examining of fighting knowledge and techniques. Through semantic Wiki we created a database that enables change, improvement, comparison and further investigation. We have opened our discourse to anyone interested.

Someone might criticize our whole endeavor, saying: “This is no longer a traditional martial art.” And we can answer: “Tradition is a complex cultural structure, especially for those who rigorously observe tradition, especially people like ourselves.”

I’d like to shake up a bit the usual take on tradition, by bringing two different examples that are unrelated – neither to each other nor to traditional martial art.

Through these strange examples I thought I would show at least three things:

1. Traditions that seem frozen have undergone long periods of change and accommodation.
2. Tradition is the result of multi-voiced discourse.
3. Proper results require specialists.

Wikipedia and multi-voiced discourse the need for specialists

Writing encyclopedias is a tradition that is well-worth using for observing the process of opinion exchange and transformation. The editors’ work involves gathering information, writing, editing, cataloging and publishing. This practical work is founded upon a tradition that is hundreds of years old. The process of writing encyclopedias took place in groups that were committed to the idea of gathering information and considered themselves authorized to voice their opinion or edit the opinions of others. The encyclopedia would seem like an example of frozen knowledge after it was completed. However, the actual gathering of information is an accumulative action. The Encyclopedia Britannica epitome of knowledge and order published annual update volumes.

A look at the work process on Wikipedia discloses both the power of exchanging opinions and the reservations as to the free exchange of opinion. Many articles on Wikipedia and central entries are regularly monitored by an elite of editors, Sysops and bureaucrats. Free editing today is only possible at the periphery of knowledge. Anyone can write an entry about their favorite chocolate. But changing a single character in a central entry such as Islam or USA might immediately sound the alarm among a large number of people in charge who will then immediately provide a return to the former state.

The tradition of gathering information relies upon a backbone of entries as exact and objective as possible.

Multi-voiced discourse serves this backbone of entries and exact knowledge with one reservation the discourse must be supervised by responsible experts.

Talmud not everyone participates and the debate is worth showing

A Gemara page looks like this: a central text, itself a discussion of a passage in the Torah or of resulting texts, is framed by other texts written in later periods. Some of the texts are in Aramaic, others in Hebrew of various epochs.

Visually, the Gemara page is a rare phenomenon in religious writing. The Talmud page uses not only different languages and scripts but goes further a-field and even presents disagreement and differing points of view on the same page.

One might look at the page and see far beyond its contents see the editing considerations. The editors of the Talmud, those who signed the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), took a decision: rather than a canonic text, they presented a mosaic of interpretations, all perpetuated upon the same, single page.

A critical overview of the contents exposes the limits of this multi-voiced discussion. Not everyone is invited to join it. The Karais, for example, are not direct writers. Their opinions are always presented in a roundabout manner, and always by one of the authorized writers. The Karais are a good example in this context since in spite of their belief in the five books of the Torah, they are not partners, by choice, in the Jewish multi-voiced discourse. The community of writers in the Talmud believes in scholars connected to the source of knowledge, on the one hand, and to the reality of community life, on the other.

The Jewish prayers, dress codes and blessings before meals are all products of a multi-voice discourse, not of Scriptural edicts. Wearing a skull cap is not dictated by the Torah. The Bible hardly mentions prayers. Until the sages wrote contents and turned them into permanent tradition, Jews hardly prayed. They offered animal sacrifices.

Karai dialogue perpetuated Orthodox fixation. According to the Karais, if the Torah says “an eye for an eye”, one must take the Law literally because of the text’s sanctity. But a community that tries to live in reality understands that the law must be interpreted so that it accommodates changing life circumstances. The Talmudic discussion surrounding the strict revenge verse indicates that the meaning intended here is proper financial restitution.

The Jewish multi-voiced discourse has never ceased in spite of the tendency on the part of a good many to declare certain of its versions sealed and signed. The rabbinical books of Q&A (questions and answers responses and later interpretations of sages) are a part of this interpretative multi-voiced discourse. Naturally, Jewish tendencies that have been pushed aside from the mainstream created separate textual and interpretative trends.

This is a big question: Is it better to debate in that same studying space, in the same dojo, on the same Wiki page, or perhaps behind one’s back? Perhaps the momentary position should be perpetuated, or a new method developed? A new dojo maybe?

I believe that taking the argument somewhere else smells of psychological difficulty. It does not serve knowledge, only the fragility of some of our features.

Someone who removed himself from our studying space in AKBAN, Mr. H., concluded this well by saying: “I prefer to walk all the way to Afghanistan to change batteries in a listening device rather than sit at my aunt’s with my family for a holiday dinner”. And this is the crux of the code: friendship is physical presence, on the same page, in the same dojo, around the same camp fire, and that is no simple matter.