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Machlokhet L’Shem Shamayim: the art of Jewish civil discourse

09/10/2018 09:11:32 AM


Rabbi Laura Abrasley

Rabbi Abrasley delivered this at Rosh Hashanah 5779 morning services on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018

They were unlikely friends. He was brash in speech. Burly in appearance. A believer in adherence to the Constitution as written. She is of slight-build, soft-spoken in her words. A woman who insists America’s foundational legal document can change with the times.

Some even say they were the closest of friends. Friends who often shared a dinner table, vacations and a love of opera. In fact, the only matters where they did not see eye-to-eye were matters of law. And here they disagreed vociferously. Declaring opposite stances on just about every major issue that came before the court, including abortion, GLBTQ rights, affirmative action and gun control.

Yes, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia stood on opposite sides of many of the issues that divide our nation. But they were friends. Friends with a real personal connection. Friends whose mutual respect and affinity for the other transcended partisan politics. They listened to one another, even as they disagreed with the other’s ideology. Living out, at least with each other, an unwavering conviction that within the discourse of differences, there exists common ground. (1)

I stand up here on this Rosh Hashanah morning and cannot help but wonder what happened. It seems trite to observe that every week marks a new low in our willingness to listen to one another. And I fear that we may soon give up completely. Some of us have already stopped talking to each other, especially when the other holds opinions different from our own. Our newsfeed comes only from sources that narrowly reflect our unique viewpoint. We surround ourselves only with people who share our opinion. Civility and the art of respectful debate is on life-support. Maybe she is already gone? How on earth did we get here? What happened to democracy? And how can we get it back?

Civil discourse is crucial to democracy. The founders of our country purposefully designed tension within the three branches of our government so that power was equally distributed. Our Constitution’s underpinning encourages dialogue and compromise and a governance strategy that benefits all Americans. As citizens, we are taught to educate ourselves so we can join in the debate about how to best maintain our democracy. Civil discourse is the ultimate tool through which to achieve this goal.

Civil discourse - broadly defined - depends on the ability to constructively communicate your ideas using integrity, compromise and humility. When we do this, we do not seek destruction of the opponent, but the closest version of the truth through facts, analysis, reasoning and listening to solve problems and accomplish goals. Judaism refers to this method of discourse by a unique Hebrew turn of phrase – machloket l’shem shamayim. A well-known teaching in Pirkei Avot, a second century rabbinic era book of wisdom, illustrates how this system of Jewish civil discourse operates in the ideal.

Kol machloket she’he l’shem shamayim - A controversy for heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for Heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. (2)

Controversy. Argument. Disagreement. Call it what you want in English, but the word in Hebrew is machloket. Analysis of the verb from which the word comes, lechalek, can help us move closer to what actually constitutes a machloket l’shem shamayim. At first glance I might translate it as “to divide.” This definition resonates for our day, especially if we understand machloket as an argument. When we argue, we divide ourselves into separate sides, each holding our ground, refusing to yield. We end up deeply, deeply divided.

But the beauty of Hebrew is that it allows for more than just one way to understand words. Our holy language sings with possibility, encouraging us to take a breath, another look, another attempt to restart the conversation.

Within the Hebrew word machloket we find another word, chelek, which means a piece or portion. According to a beautiful interpretation offered by Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, “a chelek represents one portion of the whole.” (3) These individual pieces that we each hold so tightly are divided amongst us. Collectively each one of them is necessary for the sake of the conversation. Without all the pieces present, we can never achieve the whole.

Abrahamson further interprets machloket l’shem shamayim – a disagreement for the sake of heaven – as one that calls for acknowledgement of each person around the table. Each person merits his or her piece (chelek) of the conversation. Abrahamson asks, “what would happen if we embraced the idea that when someone advocates a position different from the one we hold, each person in the conversation acknowledges that the discussion needs the opposing view in order to be whole.” (4)

Now I know what you’re thinking. Or at least I know what I’m thinking. Maybe many of you feel the same way. And I fear this thinking might be universal today. I just cannot talk to the other side. They are unreasonable. They never listen. They never change their mind. They just argue their side. And I argue mine. And nothing ever changes.

But changing minds and opinions is not always the point of civil discourse. It is certainly not the value of a machloket l’shem shamayim as presented by the rabbis in Jewish tradition. Rather, this approach to respectful debate creates an opportunity for dialogue. The specific design is so that we can talk to one another and more importantly, listen to those who see the world differently from us. Not to change a mind, but to open mine. When it works, it can expand our willingness to talk and listen to one another with respect and dignity.

This value of passionate, respectful debate is part and parcel of Jewish discourse. One of Judaism’s most sacred books, the Talmud, is, for all intents and purposes, an ancient book of recorded arguments. This book is Judaism’s primary source of religious law and theology. It captures foundational Jewish thought and aspirations, in addition to serving as a guidebook for conducting daily life of the Jewish community. The Talmud’s design recognizes the fact that we may, on occasion, disagree with one another about how to best construct and govern our communal lives. It acknowledges that we may argue, but insists that our arguments must have a purpose. They must never cause one another pain and insult.

In fact, resorting to insults to win an argument can be dangerous. Even deadly. A story of rabbinic chevruta partners, Jewish study buddies, illustrates this danger with tragic irony.

This story of destructive debate takes place between two great sages, Rabbi Joshua and Resh Lakish. These two had been arguing constructively with each other for years. One day while studying, their friendship comes to a startling end when they differ in opinion. Instead of offering a sharpened dissent, Rabbi Joshua chooses to insult Resh Lakish. And not simply an insult about Resh Lakish’s opinion, but a personal insult that attacks Resh Lakish’s character. (5)

The Talmud tells us that Resh Lakish never recovers from Rabbi Joshua’s insult. It hurts him so deeply that he eventually dies from the emotional pain. Rabbi Joshua, his longtime friend who makes a terrible mistake, suffers as well. He never heals from the loss and tragedy of what his insult set in motion. In the end, both men are ruined by a discourse that lacks civility and higher purpose.

Rabbi Joshua and Resh Lakish are examples of what not to do. Are there examples of how to do civic discourse as our tradition demands? Is there a pair of scholars to be found within Judaism who know how to argue the right way? Of course! What a silly question!

The clue can be found in our earlier text about machloket l’shem shamayim and its reference to Judaism’s most famous pair of rabbinic scholars, Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud records over 300 references to this duo. Placed almost always in opposition to one another, the stories of their arguments extend way beyond the men themselves. The writers of the Talmud use them as the ultimate foils against one another. But a key point is emphasized over and over by these texts. Real respect exists between these houses of study. They never resort to insult. Always agree to disagree. No grudges. No dehumanizing behavior.

Another teaching illustrates their dynamic:

“For three years, there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The law is in agreement with our views.’ Yitzei bat kol v’amrah -- then a voice from heaven announced – elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayim – ‘these and those both are, the words of the living God…’” (6)

Respecting another’s opinion does not require us to lose the power and position of our own opinion. On the contrary, Judaism teaches that we can hold a multiplicity of relevant, worthwhile truths. The essence of Talmudic debate teaches that we seek truth, the ultimate truth, through listening and debating divergent truths. But the Talmud warns we will not reach these truths if we resort to “lashon harah – the evil tongue,” to convince others that our opinion is not just the right opinion but the only opinion.

And as the earlier dangerous story reminds us, resorting to bullying and insult cause us to abandon God’s teaching of the imperative of due process. Our tradition demands respectful dialogue. A process of machloket l’shem shamayim can lead the way.

But how? How can we figure out how to listen to one another inside the echo chamber of our social media feeds and the sharp decline of civility in our country?

I found a potential answer recently in an unlikely source, a book entitled The Happiest Toddler on the Block. (7) Now stay with me here. Despite my tendency to go for a laugh in order to lighten the room, I do not intend this suggestion as funny. Nor am I intending to insult or downplay the very serious challenges in our country. Or of parenting a toddler. But a back-to-basics approach might prove instructive for all of us. We need a solution desperately.

This clever, deceptively simple strategy recommended by the book’s author Dr. Harvey Karp, is a specific type of directed speech called “Toddler-ese.” The approach focuses less on content and more on connection. Parents are guided to be temporal, topical and tonal when implementing Toddler-ese. My personal favorite rule in this strategy is a component called the Fast Food Rule, which takes a page out of successful customer service principles found in the fast food industry. A fast food worker, he teaches, is trained to always repeat back your order. In doing so, they ensure they hear you accurately. This training means they begin by listening closely to what you have to say.

I think this basic approach can be a foundational key for bringing back respectful civil discourse.

Listen first. Repeat back what you heard to gain clarity. Then share your thoughts. And, consider that connection matters more than content. What we say to each other during difficult conversations is never as important as the way we say. Our words should never hurt, distract or dismiss another’s feelings.

I wonder, like Rabbi Abrahamson did earlier, what could happen if we just started listening to one another again. Not agreeing. Not persuading. But listening. And doing so even without the promise that the other will automatically do the same for us. Could it begin to help to disarm all the hateful rhetoric of our day?

I know that we cannot move forward unless someone takes the first step. Not to persuade others that our opinion is right. But to listen. To make room for dissenting ideas. To perhaps strengthen our own ideas. And to hold space for the humanity of our fellow beings on this planet even as we disagree. This is the only way forward for all of us.

As Rabbi Berry and I begin the first official year of our rabbinic partnership at Temple Shalom, we set a goal of helping all of us figure out how to have these conversations. In particular, we will co-teach a course this winter called Machloket Matters. The material, from The Pardes Institute, an innovative, non-denominational Jewish learning community in Jerusalem, will address how we can strengthen “the Jewish culture of healthy and constructive conflict (machloket l’shem shamayim) in the pursuit of peace.” (8)
This learning will guide all of us in our quest to practice the art of civil discourse. It will remind us that Facebook and Twitter may not be the best place to encourage respectful debate. That we must instead sit down face-to-face with our neighbors and friends who might see things differently, to approach each other with love and a willingness to listen.

Our tradition teaches that it is customary to recite a blessing when two people sit down to study Torah together. The closing phase of this blessing is “la’asok b’divrei Torah – to engage with words of Torah. This blessing reminds us that the words we share should honor both the holiness of the conversation and the people with whom we converse. And, when our words together begin to “la’asok” – to engage in active civil discourse, we must remember that the journey of respectful discovery between friends far outweighs the different outcomes we individually think should result from our disagreement.

I wonder if this ritual of blessing for Jewish civil discourse could follow us into our secular lives. Imagine the world of sacred conversations we might create together if it did.

Kein Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

1)Much has been written about the friendship of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The story as told here was influenced by two newspaper articles: Daum, Meghan. “Scalia and Ginsburg: The End of a Beautiful Friendship.” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 18, 2016. Carmon, Irin. “What made the friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg work.” The Washington Post, 13 February 2016.
2) Pirkei Avot 5:17
3) Rabbi Elka Abrahamson spoke at the 78th Jewish Community Relations Council Annual Meeting in June, 2017. Excerpts from her address are included here:
4) Ibid.
5) The story of Rabbi Joshua and
Resh Lakish is told in BT Bava Metzia 84a. The version included here contains Talmudic commentary as well as the essence of the story.
6) BT Eruvin 13b.
7) Karp, Harvey. The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One-to Four-Year-Old. New York: Bantam Books. 2012.

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780