Rabbis Without Borders
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A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine — another rabbi, who is a friend of my current havruta [Jewish study partner] — was sitting with us at lunch, and astonishedly mused, “How is it possible that you two have been havrutas for over a decade?”
He shook his head at us, since he considers me the leftist of lefties, and considers my havruta, as he often says, “to the right of Attila the Hun!”
I just laughed at him.
He suggested that we must not talk politics. But, no, we often talk politics — and rarely agree. Moreover, what we believe about Jewish texts and their purpose in our lives and how we relate to them — we pretty much completely disagree on that, too. We don’t agree on politics and we don’t agree on religion, and we talk about them all the time.
So… How have we managed to not only study together, but teach together, for years?
We don’t make any bones about disagreeing with one another. Possibly, we will never agree with one another about either religion or politics. But you know, I could, after all these years, probably tell you his arguments on all of these things. And, as a matter of fact, when one or the other of us has to be away during a teaching session, whoever is there might preface a statement with, “Well, you know OtherRabbiPerson wouldn’t agree, but…”
And in fact, we (and — uh — our regular students, who were the ones who started calling it that) sometimes refer to our class as “the dog and pony show,” because we often get into arguments in class. Actually, we pretty much argue every week in class. It’s become part of the class.
And yet, we walk out of there, still havruta, still willing to engage each other and study together, and have pretty much most holiday meals together.
It’s not because I don’t believe that what we’re talking about is important — in fact, most of the time we argue about things we both care about deeply. But being able to go at it hammer and tongs with the assumption that neither of us will change our minds allows both a certain level of honesty and the possibility of kindness in disagreement that, ultimately, even though neither of us have come to agree with one another, we have, over the years, influenced one another.
Right now, our society is struggling deeply with its divisions. The presidential campaigns represent two very different kinds of people who believe very differently about what are the solutions to the nation’s problems. Each side is certain that the other side are ignoramuses or cretins.
In the Jewish community, too, the struggle over even talking about Israel reveals deep divides between us, and each side considers itself the only side looking out for Israel’s interests and true justice.
In both these cases, the outcomes matter very deeply. Whichever side “wins,” their policies will have consequences that affect millions of people for lifetimes. So, yes, it matters who prevails, and there is probably a “right” and a “wrong,” although the right and wrong are very likely to lie somewhere that acknowledges the perspectives of both “sides.”
And I often see people on social media, or in the Jewish community advocating “tolerance” — but tolerance seems to generally mean, in these cases, not arguing or being condescendingly okay with allowing those who disagree with us to come to the party — generally for the sake of some sort of “unity.” A unity, which I might add, does not seem to have resulted.
Although, in theory, I like tolerance as well as the next person and more than many, I also have to admit that I think we either need a better definition of “tolerance,” or we need a different word for how we are to interact with people who vehemently disagree with us as individuals or groups. And that different word needs to have an opening for deep disagreement and its airing. Maybe loudly.
But the difference between that and the current atmosphere needs to be one which doesn’t end with actual brawling, which doesn’t allow condescension, and which perhaps doesn’t assume that it will convince the “other side.” What it must have is the commitment to continue engaging.
Because argument “lishma” — for the sake of the greater truth — is important regardless of the outcome. I continue to study, teach and argue with my havruta because we both believe in the havruta. We believe in modeling conflict. We believe that one knife sharpens the other. And we can argue with each other *knowing* that the outcome isn’t to change one or the other’s mind. It’s to have the conversation.