Rabbi's Column | Congregation Beth Am

Rabbi's Column

Only Connect

By Rabbi Janet Marder

These days, the simple act of having a conversation has become problematic. We’re ok as long as we stick to the basics -- the weather, our health, recreation or travel, work or the family. But if we drift into talking about what’s really on our minds -- recent developments in our country, the upcoming elections, what’s going on in Israel -- we risk seeing our conversation flare up into a conflagration. Just reading about people on “the other side” can make our blood pressure go up. And the effect is magnified if we find ourselves in an actual face-to-face encounter with someone who doesn’t share our political convictions, especially if we hold those convictions passionately.  

High school debate students are routinely taught to argue both sides of an issue -- a discipline that requires them to adopt multiple perspectives, to remain calm when hearing ideas with which they vehemently disagree, and to present their arguments clearly, cogently and in a civil manner. But outside the formal structure of a debate, many of us lack the tools for effective communication across boundaries of belief. We quickly get upset, feel attacked, even threatened, and may explode in anger, struggle in frustration to express our ideas, or shut down and stop talking altogether.

I know that some friendships within our congregation have frayed over political differences; some members are hesitant to express views that they know are in the minority for fear that they’ll feel “ganged up on” by the vehement majority. That’s a disappointment to me, not only because I want our congregation to be a comfortable home for Jews of all political persuasions, but because our own tradition especially honors the sharing of divergent views.

“Who is wise?” asked the second-century CE sage Ben Zoma. And he answered: “One who learns from all people.” As Scripture says [Ps. 119:99] “From all who taught me I have gained understanding” [Mishna Avot 4:1]. Wisdom is thus linked not to intellect but to curiosity and respectful attention; it grows in those who regard every encounter as an opportunity to learn something new. One can have clear moral values and firm political convictions, yet still derive something of value from hearing another person’s perspective -- if only a deeper understanding of the way that person sees the world.

Traditional Jewish study is based on vigorous discussion of the text, with all participants encouraged to share their own distinctive points of view. This method of learning implies several ideas: first, no one has an exclusive claim on the meaning of a text; second, truth is often complex and multi-sided; third, learning is best seen as an inclusive, communal endeavor in which all have a contribution to make.

A reading in our High Holy Day machzor, based on the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), demonstrates the Jewish view that peace emerges from the sharing of divergent views:

To think the same way, to share the same opinions --

this is not peace.  

Unity is not uniformity.

True peace comes through the expression of differences;

many perspectives, each offering a partial view of the truth.

Shalom means wholeness.

Only when we open ourselves to understand all sides of an issue

will we attain peace.

And so it is written: Torah scholars increase peace in the world (B’rachot 64a).

Through their disagreements, truth will emerge and we will find shalom.

Approached in this way, a conversation with someone who disagrees with us can become, not a frustrating argument, but a mutual opportunity to advance our learning. This comes close to the descriptions offered by experts in dialogue. For example, William Isaacs, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, writes: “Dialogue... is a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people.”

What might this mean in practice? Perhaps a deliberate effort to seek out those with whom we disagree, rather than living in an echo chamber, conversing exclusively with those who share our views. Then, taking advantage of the opportunity to listen --- not so that we can silently formulate arguments to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong, but in order to gain a genuine glimpse into another’s mind and heart. We can do our best to demonstrate that we’ve listened well and understood what the other was trying to convey. Finally, we can assert our own views – clearly and strongly affirming our values and beliefs, as well as the reasons we hold them.

Such conversations will probably not end in compromise; nor will there be a winner and a loser. Done well, they will bring us closer to our partner in dialogue and strengthen our relationship. And that’s what I most hope we can achieve through a civil and respectful exchange of views at Beth Am: not solutions to the daunting problems facing our world, but a stronger, more empathic community.

Words from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai remind us that self-righteousness is the enemy of growth; humility and compassion prepare the soil for new blossoms, and build the possibility of peace:

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

Shana tovah -- wishing you a year of good and fruitful conversations!

Congregation Beth Am
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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).