There’s a story about a rabbi who was new to a congregation. When it was time to share the Shema, half the congregation stood while the other half remained seated. The rabbi asked, what’s the tradition here? And the ones standing argued it was to stand, it had always been to stand. Similarly, the ones seated argued it was to stay seated, it had always been to stay seated.
So the new rabbi paid a visit to a founding member of the congregation who at this point was very elderly. And the rabbi asked, which is it? What’s the tradition around the Shema? Standing or sitting? They’re arguing about it.
And the elderly founding member said, Ah! Arguing about it - That’s the tradition.
To argue, to disagree… much has been made over the millennia that this is the Jewish way.
We don’t argue to argue… though sometimes it feels that way.
What we really cherish as a people and appreciate is our ability to engage in the difficult conversation. We have a long history in Judaism of preserving debates. Refusing to erase dissenting voices, we recall both the majority and the minority opinions.
Pirkei Avot proclaims: An argument for the sake of heaven will have lasting value. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai.
And it’s true. We’ve preserved Hillel and Shammai’s 2000-year-old debates and while the halakah, the law often followed Hillel in the end, we’re taught Eilu v’eilu - Both these and these are the words of the living God.
Debate is healthy - holy even - when that debate is an attempt to figure out how we as human beings can best act in the world. If Judaism is about lifting up the holy art of disagreement, then might it have something to say about the state of affairs where we currently find ourselves in America?
It turns out maybe Judaism and these United States of America might have more in common than you think.
Eric Liu recently wrote in the Atlantic:
America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum. The point of civic life in this country is not to avoid such tensions. Nor is it for one side to achieve “final” victory. It is for us all to wrestle perpetually with these differences, to fashion hybrid solutions that work for the times until they don’t, and then to start again.
America as a perpetual argument about who we are and who we aspire to be - that’s an idea worth embracing. But this current state of affairs we are in? Today’s disagreements remind me very little of an argument for the sake of heaven.
Lest we think otherwise – and this is for the conflict-averse among us - debate and disagreements are not inherently bad; they’re necessary for a healthy democracy. Conflict can be a sign of intense interest, ownership, and engagement.
However, when our debate descends into something decidedly darker, when arguments are entrenched in ego and triumph rather than what’s best for our nation and our people as a whole, then we know we are in trouble.
A story: There were once two study partners, a chevruta pair. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. Their study and debate were legendary until one day Rabbi Yochanan retorted not with a solid argument, but with an insult instead. They had been discussing the ritual purity and impurity of weaponry and had come down on different sides of the matter. They go back and forth until finally Yochanan throws up his hands and says to Resh Lakish, “A robber understands his trade.”
You see, what you need to know here is that Resh Lakish in fact was a robber before he met Yochanan and it was precisely his meeting with Yochanan that returned him to the path of Torah. “A robber understands his trade” then was not a factual you-would-know because you used to handle weapons. No, Yochanan employed it as a dig at Lakish’s past when his own argument wasn’t getting him the win. Rabbi Yochanan took the low road with his insult. To win was seemingly more important than the feelings of a friend.
When Resh Lakish falls ill, his wife who is also Yochanan’s sister comes calling, begging Yochanan, please, brother come make peace with your friend. But he refuses, stubborn and Resh Lakish dies. Words are left unsaid.
A final image from our sacred text: Yochanan tearing at his clothing filled with a deep grief, sobbing, Where are you Resh Lakish? Where are you, Resh Lakish?
When we fight without care, when we lay relationships to the side in order to be right, it leads to dire consequences.
How many of us have lost friendships or even relationships with family members over conversations that have gotten out of hand or over political debates that boiled over? How many of us have resorted to the use of insults or taken the brunt of an insult ourselves? How many of us are fed up and have decided nope, I am not talking politics anymore because I do not want a fight.
And I get it. I really do. I understand how hard it is to have these conversations. How sometimes it is easier to avoid them altogether in order both to maintain our integrity in what we believe as well as to respect our relationships.
My father and I, while not quite polar opposites, are pretty close to that when it comes to politics. Talk about a border wall left us both drained and exhausted. Talk about ways to stay gun violence got us nowhere. But I love him. And while the grandkids are usually the first and safest go-to for our talks, I refuse to not talk to him about the big issues facing us in our world. Because I respect him too much to not talk about what keeps me up at night or to wonder with real curiosity how and why he thinks and believes what he does.
We discuss without the intention to sway the other. Things are a little too far afield for that, but it’s important that we talk. Because we believe that America is an argument. A worthy argument. And America depends on these types of conversations, especially between those with different opinions.
More and more, it seems like that type of healthy debate is no longer desired. What’s replaced the healthy debate is the desire to drown out the other voice in whatever way possible. It’s like sometimes we think if we just shout a little louder, a light-bulb will magically appear over our debate partner’s head having been enlightened by us. And when that doesn’t happen and we’ve all raised our voices and we’re all frustrated, we sometimes encounter that old refrain, “Be civil.” And sometimes, it means just that: Be civil, Rabbi Yochanan, no more low blows. But other times, Be civil is code. It’s code for “Sit down and be quiet now. Your anger is not welcome here.” Be civil can be a powerful weapon in shutting down debate.
It’s not easy to listen to an opinion distinct from our own. It’s much easier to dismiss what we can’t understand.
Author of the book Being Wrong, Karen Schulz argues that in order to explain to ourselves how anyone can believe anything other than what we believe, we often resort to what she calls ‘a series of unfortunate assumptions.’
The first unfortunate assumption: those on the other side of the debate are ignorant.
And maybe sometimes that’s true… But if it turns out that they are operating from all the same information that we have, and they still come to a different conclusion than our own, then it’s time to break out the second unfortunate assumption: they must all be idiots.
And then if it turns out that they are operating from all the same information that we have, and it turns out that they are actually smart people and they still come to a different conclusion than our own, well then – third unfortunate assumption - they must just be evil.
If we thought beforehand that it was difficult to talk across lines of difference, well now it’s just near impossible.
There are of course other ways to explain why we have come to different conclusions, the first of which is to consider the radical possibility that it is we indeed who are wrong.
In her Ted Talk, Karen Schultz asks the audience in front of her, what does it feel like to be wrong? And think for a moment about how you would respond to that question, too. People begin to call out: it’s dreadful, it’s embarrassing. But then she explains: those are responses to a different question. Those are the responses to the question, what does it feel like after you realize you are wrong.
You see, when we’re wrong when we think we are right, we feel like we are right – right?
To illustrate this point, she tells the story of a surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess right here in Boston who operated on the wrong leg of a patient. The Hospital Senior Vice President for Healthcare Quality later said, “For whatever reason, he simply felt that he was on the correct side of the patient.”
What does it feel like to be wrong? It feels like being right.
If we never slow down and carefully, intentionally question our assumptions once in a while, we may end up making horrific mistakes.
Here’s another take on why we may disagree. It’s not that we are wrong at all, but rather that morality is complex.
I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and in it, he argues that we all approach the world weighing different aspects of morality more or less heavily than others. He calls these aspects our six moral foundations. Liberals, his term, tend to favor the moral foundations of care and fairness while conservatives, his term, tend to favor all of the moral foundations relatively equally adding a little extra weight to the other four: to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
Haidt understands that we are not creatures governed by reason despite what a whole score of 18th and19th century philosophers may say. Rationality won’t win here even if it should. Because it is our emotions, our moral foundations that drive our very human behavior.
And that’s exactly what we see playing out in our country today. We can continue to choose to drive against human nature and appeal entirely to logic to straighten out the mess that we are in or we can work to better understand human beings and what really makes us tick.
It’s possible that we may be able to get somewhere by appealing to the intuitive, moral foundations of our sparring partners, for example, shifting the frame of a debate from caring about others vs. not-caring to caring about others vs. respect for authority. Grounding conversation in an understanding of competing moral foundations rather than immediately demonizing a different intuitive approach may, at the very least, get us talking differently. And that’s a step. And if we can do that, then maybe, just maybe we can begin (just begin!) to unpack this stalemate in which we currently find ourselves.
What we know for sure is that we’re living in extraordinary times. We’re more divided than ever. And the knowledge is ever present in our hearts that this is no mere intellectual exercise; for many, people’s real lives are on the line – and that is why we simply do not have the option to disengage.
There will be times when the chair on the other side of the table will be empty. There will be no partner with whom to engage, no one who is willing to listen. At least in that moment.
In those times, we are like the lone man who lived in Sodom who would take to the streets protesting each and every day against the immorality perpetrated around him. One day, a traveler stopped in Sodom and saw the man in his protest and said: “Why do you keep shouting? No one is listening.” The man responded, “At first I protested because I hoped to change them. Now I protest because if I don’t, they will change me.”
And there will be other times when yes, someone will be ready to sit down across from us; we will have a partner with whom to study and discuss and debate. Take that opportunity. It’s precious and increasingly rare. Be at the table. There may be moments when insults will replace reasonable retorts, but we will be ready keeping in mind the tragedy of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. We’ll strive to engage - and emulate the greats: the houses of Hillel and Shammai. And on the good days, the conversation will be healthy – and maybe even holy. And on the not-so-good days, we’ll commit to keep returning to the table because America is an argument and a worthy one at that.
Will our willingness to engage in a difficult conversation change the state of politics? Probably not. Will it change you and the person across the table from you? Maybe.
Change has to start somewhere. Why not with you?
Starting in just a few weeks, we will begin a series here at Temple Isaiah called Difficult Conversations: Right, Wrong, and Righteous.
Groups made up of about fifteen people each will meet over the course of a month to begin a shared conversation about what it means to be right, what it means to be wrong, how we can disagree with grace, how we can understand the limits of debate, and how we can stand in our own truth and integrity despite the storm raging all around us. This series is not issue-based; rather, it is about what Judaism and other great wisdom sources can offer us about how to engage in thoughtful, intentional discourse. After Yom Kippur, head to our website; register today. Many groups are already filling up.
We need these conversations. We desperately need to talk.
In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Invite your Neighbors Over for a Barbeque this Weekend,” Marc Dunkelman argues that our “middling relationships,” that is, those relationships with people outside our core, but with whom we are still in close physical proximity “are the best suited to pierce our much-bemoaned filter bubbles. A left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently.”
So come and talk more to these neighbors right here, the ones all around you through our Difficult Conversations groups. Lest you be lulled into the false impression that we are all of the same political bent here at Isaiah, that this is an extension of your bubble, let me pop that bubble right now. While we might not quite be a microcosm of our country as a whole, I can assure you that there is a diversity of beliefs and opinions right here in our temple family.
Let’s talk to one another and create a shared conversation grounded in our sacred text and our Jewish values.
There was a debate a number of years ago here. A conversation ensued at a board meeting: did we want to be a congregation that was a sanctuary from the world around us or one that prepares us to live our Jewish values, to live Isaiah each and every day beyond our four walls.
Isaiah is our home and haven, but we are not doing our duty as a moral community if we are only a shelter from the storm.
Our values and texts guide us to engage and look outward. They implore us: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. Do not be indifferent. Do not stand idly by.
May we never forget the Talmudic teaching: a sanctuary must always be built with windows. Why? Because windows look out into the world! And therefore, so must we.
Judaism is a conversation, an argument about how we can be our best, most moral, most responsible selves in the world.
America is an argument, too. May we bring our full selves, our open selves, our courageous selves to this argument – and may it be an argument worthy of all who count America as their home. An argument worthy of the sake of heaven.
Shanah tovah. G’mar tov.
 Adapted from Pirkei Avot 5:17.
 Liu, Eric. The Atlantic. “Americans Don't Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing” Nov 1, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/post-election-reconciliation/506027/
 Bava Metzia 84a.
 Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. New York: Ecco, 2010.
 Karen Schulz, On Being Wrong, TED2011. https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
 Adapted from Wiesel, Elie. "Words from a Witness," Conservative Judaism, XXI (Spring, 1967), p.48.
 Registration for Temple Isaiah Difficult Conversations groups can be found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScg-DseRRRBgKZrQv1EkhxJ5LlroYWXbkgYbKi5eVvJzF9nAQ/viewform
 Dunkelman, Marc J., The New York Times. “
 Pirkei Avot 2:5
 Leviticus 19:17
 Deuteronomy 22:3
 Leviticus 19:16
 Brachot 34b