06 December 2019
Jewish tradition is known for its multitude of opinions and its complex, consequential, and utterly fascinating debates. For thousands of years, our ability to disagree with each other has been a source of wisdom and strength. The Talmud, for example, is a sacred anthology of disagreements, where we not only get to read the majority decision, but also the dissenting ones. We are taught that, in order to grow as individuals and as a people, we must engage with those who disagree with us.
Today, as we know so well, our debates or differences of opinion are less likely to educate and more likely to divide. Distinct perspectives are seen as moral gaps rather than different opinions.
As a Jewish community, however, we should not accept this status quo. At a time when people are digging in their heels and vilifying those who think differently, we can be the ones to go against the grain. We can be the ones to bring nuance, consideration, and empathy back to our communal conversations.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Tal Becker made this very point as part of the ongoing lecture series of Federation’s partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Specifically, Dr. Becker identified four methods for overcoming discord and sustaining a healthy community.
- Always recognize the weaknesses in our own arguments
- Understand that our differences mean we have something unique to offer each other
- Show humility when we win an argument by acknowledging the validity of the other side
- Find ways to step out of our own moral tribes
We must recognize that a strong Jewish people and society require us to embrace disagreement and debate.
Running through Dr. Becker’s remarks was a larger point as well: No matter how many challenges we face or how tough today’s circumstances may seem, we have many, many reasons to be optimistic about our future. The Jewish people and Israel continue to face real and significant threats, but this need not define who we are. By all accounts, we are thriving. We have everything we need to build a vibrant Jewish future and share our gifts with the world.
Dr. Becker concluded his thoughts by sharing a particularly Jewish perspective on optimism. While we each might have our own opinions on the glass half full-half empty conundrum, he suggested we are best served by remembering how fortunate we are to live at a time when we can add more water to the glass.
This thought has stayed with me ever since. We can be the people who disrupt the cycle of toxic debates. We can be the ones to lead our society away from partisan conflict and toward a place of empathy and understanding. We can be the ones who put more water in the glass.