A gathering place for respectful discourse

“Seeing gray” is not viewing life as a series of moral equivalencies, but appreciating those aspects in others that we not only tolerate but which we celebrate within ourselves."

‘IF WE are to resolve conflict among ourselves, we must not only find a gathering place for respectful discourse but also enter it with open minds and open hearts.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘IF WE are to resolve conflict among ourselves, we must not only find a gathering place for respectful discourse but also enter it with open minds and open hearts.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We are living in an environment saturated with conflict. These conflicts – about values, about directions for our society, even about the definition of a “fact” – have inserted themselves into every aspect of our lives.
Social media are packed with people looking for ideas on how to get through family holidays.
First, Rosh Hashana, then Thanksgiving, Hanukka – and we can expect Passover also will be shaped by either avoidance or conflict at the dinner table.
A November Associated Press article noted: “The debate over whether to talk politics at Thanksgiving is about as American as the traditional feast itself. Just one year ago, Christmas 2016, 39% of US adults said their families avoided conversations about politics, according to the Pew Research Center.”
It is a healthy sign of alignment of sanity and reality, therefore, that so many people ask me if – or how – our synagogues and institutions can provide a place for respectful discourse and caring relationships that transcends ideological divides. Concerns about polarization in our community are not new, but as tensions steadily rise, those concerns feel more urgent. What has changed? The need to feel a part of a community that is civil, interdependent and productive has become vital. It is second in concrete importance only to the material needs of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. It is at the top of our spiritual or emotional needs, such as a loving personal relationship, an ethical framework and purposeful work. What also has become eminently clear is that our most basic needs – whether material or spiritual – are in significant jeopardy in this current environment of division. Left unchecked, this atmosphere could devolve into even-more toxic social frameworks, something we cannot allow to happen.
For many people, what lies in the balance regarding having such a community is their very ability to look to the future and feel hope.
A friend recently showed me an Aspen Institute interview with Rev. Adam Hamilton, the senior pastor of the 22,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, a multi-campus megachurch.
Studies show the Methodist Church to be politically the most evenly divided denomination of American Christianity. Both the denomination and Hamilton’s church are split 40% Democrat and 60% Republican.
In the interview, the pastor related the story of Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014 – the day before the first Seder of Passover – when Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., a 73-year-old neo-Nazi, came to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, and later to the local Jewish retirement home, to murder Jews. Miller murdered three Christians associated with Hamilton’s church, including a 14-year-old boy.
FOLLOWING THIS tragedy, Hamilton led his congregants – who are also nearly evenly divided on their attitudes toward guns – to find two points on which they could all work together. First, was the need for mandatory gun safety training for gun-purchasers. The second, was repeal of the straw-man loophole in 32 states, which allows someone to purchase guns for another person, even for someone disqualified to own a gun, with a penalty as low as a $100 fine. A straw-man purchase at a Walmart had provided the weapons used on that Palm Sunday.
Congregants have also dealt as a community with other pressing issues such as healthcare, school reform, taxes and the environment.
Hamilton’s 2008 book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics, details his approach.
As the head of the worldwide organization of Conservative rabbis, I was moved by Hamilton’s dedication to the centrist character of the United Methodist Church and his passion for maintaining the vitality of the Center.
A quote from Hamilton’s September blog entry, edited slightly, reads: “Centrism, for its advocates, is not some kind of milquetoast, middle-of-the-road, mediocre faith... it is not a ‘faith of moderation,’ [Centrists] pursue a spirituality that engages both the intellect and the heart.... This Center involves the capacity to listen to and learn from people with whom we disagree... and to draw water from various streams while navigating a way between them.”
“Seeing gray” is not viewing life as a series of moral equivalencies, but appreciating those aspects in others that we not only tolerate but which we celebrate within ourselves. Hamilton writes: “To be liberal means to be open to reform, new ideas, generous – who doesn’t want to be that? To be conservative means that you recognize there are some things that are so important that you conserve them, you hold on to them, you don’t cast them aside because they are no longer popular or in style.
“If you are conservative without being a liberal, you are stuck. If you are liberal without being conservative, you out there drifting...
Somehow we have to be both of those things.
If we hold those things in tension with each other, somehow we can find the truth.”
Fortunately, Judaism has much to say about the conduct of such discussions. It also has time-honored practices for conflict mediation and the building of productive, interdependent and supportive communities.
While the world teaches that the winners write history, to the Jewish way of thinking, all of us must write history and all of us preserve it. In a future that we cannot foresee, other people may yet renew ideas that might fail in the unique circumstances of our time.
Judaism, in all its component parts, concerns itself primarily with the question of how people of different views can live together both peacefully and productively.
Hence, we find the statement in Talmud Eruvin 13b: “Although Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed, Beit Shammai did not abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, ‘Love ye truth and peace.’” PIRKEI AVOT 5:17 dubs the disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai to be the very essence of makloket l’shem shamayim, or a disagreement that – because it is for the sake of heaven – will have enduring positive value.
Among the signifiers of dispute “for the sake of heaven” are the ability to remain in intimate community and friendship; the capacity to change one’s mind occasionally and publicly; the willingness to study one another’s opinions; the desire to exemplify civility in listening to the other; and the ability to dispute issues that are of real and significant meaning.
In one story in Talmud Eduyot, Hillel and Shammai were engaged in a dispute about how much drawn water would make a mikve, or ritual bath, impure in proportion to the water flowing from a natural source. After much debate, both sages defer to the opinion of two weavers (considered a humble profession) from the Dung Gate in Jerusalem, who faithfully recorded a teaching from previous generations. The text explains: “If the Fathers of the world, Hillel and Shammai, did not stand by their own opinions when there was an authentic tradition, how much more so should the average person not cling stubbornly to his position.”
Such stubbornness or insensitivity to the losing position is deemed extremely serious.
The Talmud records a series of disputes between Rabban Gamliel II – who was the nasi, a powerful position of communal leadership – and Rabbi Yehoshua, on fundamental matters of Jewish practice and observance. Following a dispute about the exact date of Yom Kippur, Rabban Gamliel orders Rabbi Yehoshua to appear before him on Rabbi Yehoshua’s Yom Kippur, carrying his staff and his purse, to establish Rabban Gamliel’s authority. After a subsequent dispute regarding whether evening prayers were obligatory, the sages were so incensed by Rabban Gamliel’s treatment of Rabbi Yehoshua that they removed him from his position.
Jewish tradition brings concrete, tested methodologies for mediating disagreement.
Talmud Sanhedrin discusses scenarios in which people who cannot reach an agreement must turn to a court – an outcome that Judaism, although fascinated with law and justice, finds unfortunate and even at times distasteful. The rabbis of the Talmud prefer mediation, because it involves the parties themselves directly coming to a compromise, rather than having a judgment imposed upon them by someone else. Sanhedrin 6b states: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says: ‘It is a mitzva to mediate a dispute... for which is the judgment that has peace within it: You must say this is mediation as both sides are satisfied with the result.’” So, these are several stories of examples of what a community of machlokot l’shem shamayim might look like: • Direct compromise between parties is preferable to strict judgment based on theoretical factors.
• People of differing opinions remain in such close relationship that their families can marry each other.
• Positional authority does not override fidelity to overarching values.
• Legitimate authority includes respectful treatment of opponents.
• Ideology may never overcome our fundamental obligations to care for one another.
If we are to resolve conflict among ourselves, we must not only find a gathering place for respectful discourse, but also enter it with open minds and open hearts.
The author is executive vice president and CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.