All are right! A hassidic lesson for American mediators

We cannot just insist on our truth and expect the other side to succumb to it and accept us as winners.

By URIEL HALBREICH
June 20, 2013 20:52
3 minute read.
Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah

Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

 
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A couple who could not reconcile on any issue and were considering a final separation agreed only on a single point: to bring their tortured complaints to an influential rabbi and accept his ruling.

On the appointed day, the woman elaborated on her side of the ordeal. The rabbi listened carefully and following a brief contemplation, said, “You are right.”

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Then the husband presented his perspective of the truth. Again, the rabbi listened attentively and closed his eyes to concentrate on the presentation.

The frustrated husband’s version was the opposite of that of his wife, her black was his white; cause and effect were interchangeable.

The only common denominator was blame.

The husband blamed his wife and she blamed him.

After a short but careful consideration of the case, the rabbi opened his eyes and, with a tortured expression, declared: “You are right.”

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The scholars present were stunned. They could not contain their gasps and looked at one another with astonishment. They whispered among themselves for a while until the most courageous student, who was considered to be the closest to the rabbi and some even said his slated successor, opened his mouth and in a trembling voice asked: “Rabbi, with all due respect, the husband’s and wife’s versions are the complete opposites of each other. How can you say that both are correct?” Another observant pupil added from the back of the room: “It does not make any sense.”

The rabbi smiled and said: “You too are correct.”

The couple left unhappy but remained together.

Several months later, the couple were still together and unhappy, but the pupils’ puzzlement had not subsided.

In the midst of a Talmudic back-and-forth discussion on a particularly tough issue about two people who claim the ownership of one tallit (prayer shawl), each of them claims, “It is all mine.” No apparent solution surfaced.

One of the students, who was brilliant and possessed a good memory, said: “Rabbi, it is obvious that the other side is wrong. Justice and truth are on our side! This time, don’t teach us your theoretical philosophy, give us a real solution, a decision.”

The rabbi scanned the entire room with a wise expression and shared his thought process.

“Truth is not absolute. It is multifaceted. We cannot just insist on our truth and expect the other side to succumb to it and accept us as winners.

“The tallit cannot be divided. If it does not have all four corners with all tzitziot untouched, it is damaged and no longer is a tallit. Now let’s talk and pray together and forget the tallit.”

“But rabbi, we need the tallit to pray properly. Do you have any practical solution?” The rabbi looked at his students and mumbled to himself, “We have to adopt the merit in the opponent’s approach and recognize it as our own.

“Once we illuminate the merits of both sides, controversy will hopefully be reduced to a shadow and we will all prevail. All of us will prevail, God willing.”

“But master,” said the feuding camps in unison,” you are our rabbi, tell us what to do!” “You see,” the rabbi responded, “the main problem now is not the tallit any more. I united you all in seeing me as the problem. I accept it. All of you are right, praise the Lord.”

The lesson to American mediators in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict – if they care to listen – is this: Mediation carries its own perils, especially when undivided property is in dispute and the mediator brings to the table his own perspective, based on his own preconceptions, procedures and stature.

If and when the mediator claims, “I know best what is good for you, you better do it or else...” beware! The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of BioBehavioral Research in SUNYAB.

He is currently a Fulbright scholar for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.

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