The writer is a doctoral student of Bible at the Hebrew University and a former international debate champion. He has lectured on rhetoric at Hadassah Academic College and the Jerusalem College of Engineering.
"Hear, Heaven! And listen, Earth!" Isaiah opened with these words (Isaiah 1:2), and before going further we can already observe in them four rhetorical devices which the prophet used to intensify his message and ensure the attention of his audience. Two of these devices, parallelism and cadence, pleasant to the ear and conducive to memory, stand out immediately. The third device, allusion, recruits the authority of an earlier source to serve the new message. It finds expression in the entire opening, which brings to mind the beginning of an Israelite song that was already ancient by Isaiah's time, "Listen, Heaven, and let me speak; and let Earth hear the words of my mouth" (Deuteronomy 32:1). Furthermore, it appears that the phonetic similarity between the first two words (שמעו שמים), preserved in the translation "Hear, Heaven", is intentional, meaning the Seer of Jerusalem also made use of alliteration, our fourth device.
Later in his speech the prophet employs rhyme (הוי, גוי חוטא, which can be translated loosely as "Tarnation, sinful nation", v. 4), rhetorical questions (Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion?, v. 5), metaphor (From the sole of the foot to the head it has no healthy spot left, v. 6), simile (like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a melon field, v. 8), word play (חדשיכם ומועדיכם שנאה נפשי... נלאיתי נשא, which can be translated loosely as "Your New Moon festivals and your holidays bore me... I can't bear them", v. 14), and more. Clearly, Isaiah and other Israelite prophets developed public speaking into a fine art. The prophets' sharp tongues came to their aid when debating adversaries as well, as is shown, for example, in the stories of Micaiah vs. Zedekiah (1 Kings 22:11-25), Amos vs. Amaziah (Amos 7:10-17), and Jeremiah vs. Hananiah (Jeremiah 28). This was hundreds of years before the rise of the Sophists in Greece, who are usually associated with the development of rhetoric (a Greek word) and debate.
In the western world today the art of rhetoric, bound up with the culture of debate, is considered an integral part of a good education. These are typically learned through an organized competitive activity also known as debate or debating. Schools around the world implement debate in their curricula, whether as a separate program or as an element in civics or other subjects, and universities support student societies devoted to this activity. Participants in a debate are required to represent two opposing sides in a discussion, usually an imitation of a Parliamentary debate, according to pre-defined rules, each speaker trying to convince a neutral judge that their side is right.
In Israel, debating began to gain steam in the 90s. It is fairly popular today, with every BA-granting university and several academic colleges having a debate program. The same is the case for dozens of high schools in various cities, some of them within the framework of a league managed by the non-profit organization Siah vaSig and the Ministry of Education. Every year, several nation-wide competitions take place, in both the schools league and the university league. The two leagues have made significant achievements in international competitions, and in 1998 the World Schools Debating Championship was hosted in Jerusalem.
Why is debate so popular in education? The first and most basic benefit the student gains from debating is the ability to express ideas in a clear and interesting manner, which is an important skill in almost any profession. The ability to speak in front of an audience without fainting is also important in many contexts. But the fear of public speaking is so great that Jerry Seinfeld noted darkly that "according to most studies, people's number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death... This means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy." An improvement vis-à-vis this dire situation is one of the first things debate alumni mention when asked what they've gained from it.
Second, like any competitive group activity, debate gets students to practice cooperation and teamwork. Third, the competitive context of debate encourages identification and exposure of logical fallacies made by the opponent. It thereby immunizes the student against propaganda and demagoguery and prepares him or her to be a prudent citizen and consumer.
This brings us to a fourth and perhaps the most important contribution of debate. It forces the student to listen carefully and attentively to the opponent's arguments and to respond to them fairly, thus strengthening their ability to be pragmatic and civil in the context of disagreement. "The mindsets of human beings are not equal to one another", and the corollary of this fundamental and immutable fact is that a society, if it is to function as a society, needs its members to consider one another's opinions, as long as they are sincere, and occasionally even to compromise with opinions that are wrong. A prerequisite for this is the willingness to listen respectfully and civilly.
A school debate program can be run by a teacher on the staff who has been trained for it, or by an external teacher who specializes in it.