For the Sake of Heaven: Jewish Wisdom on Fostering Dialogue in Turbulent Times

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From October 28 – 30, 2016, I had the wonderful opportunity to be Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee, WI. This was the 8th Gill Weekend, a weekend of learning in memory of Norman and Ethel Gill. Being part of this weekend was a great honor, and it was also a personal pleasure to have the opportunity to spend time focused on the importance of dialogue. Here is what I shared during Friday night services: 

Shabbat shalom. It is an honor to be here with you this weekend. I had the pleasure of knowing Norman Gill through my work with the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning and I’d like to start tonight with my heart’s prayer that this weekend honors the Gill name by elevating each of us through an engagement with Jewish learning.

My topic tonight is “For the Sake of Heaven: Fostering Dialogue in Turbulent Times.” If only I were speaking on something relevant!  Actually, I wish it weren’t quite so relevant. We all know how polarized our society has become, how we see things in terms of “sides” –  one side versus the other.

The first part of my title, “For the Sake of Heaven” references Pirke Avot, which says that “every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his company.” Hillel and Shammai are, of course, beloved sages of our tradition, while Korach and his followers sought the power of Moses and staged a rebellion against him.

The Rabbis knew that disagreement and debate are necessary if one is to arrive at the truth – our very tradition is based on this premise. The Torah and our other sacred texts are filled with arguments between God and humans, and among humans.  The Mishnah records the disagreements of the sages even when it knows that the law has already been decided. Our tradition considers most of these arguments for the sake of heaven.

But if we disagree and debate not because we want to discover the truth, but rather because we want to be right, we want to win, we want power, then our arguments are not for the sake of heaven.

Unfortunately, many of the arguments in our world today do not feel “for the sake of heaven.” We may not be able to change everything about the tenor of our current world, but we must start – in our families, workplaces, synagogues, and communities.

So tonight, I want to explore what true dialogue is, and to point to ways that we can have more of it in our lives.

These are philosophical questions, but they are deeply practical as well, and we really need the practical today. So I’ve framed my talk as seven practical points about dialogue, and I will point to the Jewish underpinnings along the way.

1. Dialogue is not the same as debate.

 Often when we think about dialogue, what we are really thinking about is debate. We think about two people with diametrically opposed ideas, sharing with each other. And debating has its place – I met my husband on my high school debate team, and I enjoy debating! – but the aim of debate is to convince. This is why we have presidential debates rather than presidential dialogues, because the very point of these debates is to convince undecided voters. But imagine if we could have true dialogue between our representatives, in a search for the truth. Imagine how much it could change the world.

 To better understand what dialogue is and how to foster it, we can turn to the work of Martin Buber. Buber was a renowned thinker, teacher, philosopher, and Zionist. Raised in Vienna, Buber lived in Germany for most of the beginning of his adult life, earning his Ph.D. and becoming a professor. He ended up resigning his university post when it became clear that the Nazis would strip him of it, but he stayed in Germany to offer educational classes for the Jews of Germany. He left Germany only in 1938 to move to Palestine.  He helped to found Hebrew University, where he taught until 1951. Yet he sat down in dialogue with Arabs. When he died, a wreath was laid on his grave by a delegation from the Arab Students’ Organization. This is a man who believed strongly in his own views, but who also reached out to people who saw the world differently, a man who saw dialogue as the path to peace.

Through the work of Buber, we can understand that dialogue is not simply a way of speaking. It is a way of seeing the world, of being in the world.

One of my favorite quotes by Martin Buber is “All real living is meeting.”  What he meant by this, and what he explored throughout his landmark text, I and Thou, is that all of our lives are an encounter with people, plants, animals — living things that are different from us. For Buber, the central ethical question for human beings was, How will I encounter this world that is different from me? Will I treat the world as something that exists only to serve me, will I be interested in other people only to prove myself right? Buber called this the I-It relationship, where I treat the people, animals, and plants around me as objects, only there to serve me.  In this way of seeing the world, I am at the center, and everything else exists only in so far as it is important to me.

The I-Thou, relationship, in contrast, sees the beings around me as independent and also connected to me. The word Buber used for this was intersubjectivity – that we are separate individuals, but also connected to each other.  For Buber, the ultimate Thou is of course, God, but we connect to God in part by treating everyone else around us as a “Thou.”

For Buber, every meeting – you and me, together, here, tonight  – is an opportunity for holiness.

This holiness can’t happen if I am only interested in convincing you to agree with me. Because then I’m not accepting you as separate from me – You exist only for me to convince. But this doesn’t mean that dialogue can’t be strong and opinionated. On the contrary, Buber believed that it often had to be, if people were going to be authentic.  We have to be able to bring our true selves to any dialogue, and those true selves are often passionate and opinionated.

Here’s the difference, though:  Buber said that we can’t expect to change people if we are not willing to be changed by them. If there is one take-away from tonight, this is it: that dialogue is a way of engaging with other people and being open to being changed by them.

This is why dialogue is not simply a different way of speaking. It’s not a nicer, more polite way of debating. It is, quite simply, a way of seeing the world and being in the world, and it is, in my opinion, one of the great gifts of Judaism to the world.

2. Above all, remember the humanity of all people

We know when respectful dialogue is not happening, because we see entire groups of people demeaned and objectified. We hear words like bad, immoral, thoughtless, monsters, criminals applied to people – not because of their actions, but simply because they hold a view that we disagree with.

The parsha for this week is Bereshit, which we will be exploring at Torah study tomorrow morning. The parsha contains the most profound Jewish teaching – that human beings are created in the image of God.

We think about this passage being about the inherent dignity and worth of each person, and it is, but it is also about the interconnection between people. When God creates the other species, he creates all the varieties at one time, but when God creates humans, God starts with a single human.

There is a Midrash that tries to answer this question,  why was only a single specimen of humans created first? And it answers:  “To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole word; furthermore, in order that no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, ‘our father was born first,’ and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of mankind to emanate from one type.”

I want to suggest that the text also guides us towards what is difficult for us. We don’t always right away see the differences between one tree and another, but it is obvious to us that human beings are different from one another. it harder for us to see what unites us. The Torah is very clear that human beings are inherently connected to one another, despite our external differences.

In the next telling, it is written, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.” So we have this beautiful Jewish teaching that each human is a world unto himself or herself and yet, also, it is not good for us to be alone. There is something that is incomplete until we meet each other.

This has profound ramifications for how our tradition thinks about truth. It is not simply that truth comes from God and we learn it once and keep it close throughout our lives. We don’t learn the truth by locking ourselves in rooms with the Torah and the Talmud. Even those who do study Talmud for hours a day, study it in pairs, because truth can be found only in conversation, in dialogue. It is bigger than any one person.

If we are to know God – to know holiness and righteousness – we are going to need to meet others. Dialogue, then, is not only a way of exploring different ideas and beliefs – It is, quite simply, a spiritual act, one that says that I am going to affected by the great diversity in the world, that I cannot be fully human unless I am changed by my encounter with the rest of the world.

This doesn’t mean that my core beliefs will necessarily change through dialogue. Buber the Zionist did not become Buber the non-Zionist by meeting with Arabs. But our beliefs are only one part of us. We are complex beings of mind, heart, spirit, and truly meeting someone with with a different world view from you, and understanding their different life experiences — can change us.

3. Dialogue is not always possible

 At the same time, dialogue is not always possible, which is my third practical guideline. One needs to have a true dialogue partner.

For there to be dialogue, both parties must be able to meet with openness. Buber wrote that one thing that has to happen for there to be dialogue is authenticity – being free to say what you really think.

So Buber did not reach out to have dialogue with the Nazis, of course. You cannot dialogue with people who want to eliminate you. You cannot dialogue with people who only want to debate, to win, to coerce.

And yet, drawing from Buber and from Bereshit, we can still be thoughtful about our speech. Even where true dialogue is not possible, we needn’t dehumanize those who disagree with us. We needn’t see ourselves as the ones who hold all of the Truth. Such is a diminishment of the diverse world that our tradition holds dear.

4. When entering someone else’s house, be respectful

 I teach Jewish Studies to students who are mostly Christian, which means that they often bring a different world view to the material. One semester, in my Holocaust course, I had a student who was an Evangelical Christian. She raised her hand and asked, “Did the Jews ever think that maybe these terrible things were happening to them because they didn’t believe in Jesus?”

Now, this question has a simple answer: No. I told the student that, and explained that Judaism is a fully formed religion that existed before Christianity and does not see itself in terms of Christianity. But my answer felt incomplete and insufficient to me. I thought a lot about it and when I went to the next class, I said this:

Imagine that you live in Brookfield and it’s raining. I live in Shorewood, and it’s sunny. I call you up and ask if you want to go to the park. You say, “It’s raining” and I say, “It’s sunny.” So in your house, you see that Jews might be punished for not being Christians, but in my house, I see that Jews are rewarded for their steadfastness to their religion. 

I think this is a good metaphor for dialogue. We are entering someone else’s house, someone’s world view, to try to understand how they see the world. We invite others into our house, to see the world through our eyes. We need to be good guests and good hosts.

Interestingly, the student went on to take a second Holocaust course with me. Had I shamed her for her question, she might not have come back. Had I told her that she was wrong to hold her view, she might not have come back. Instead, I tried to show her the house I live in, to let her to look through the windows and to see, even for a moment, the world through my Jewish eyes. And I tried to visit her house and to understand how she saw the world.

5. Be curious about human experience

The other important point about entering the world view of another person, is that we have a tendency to see great diversity in our own group, and to minimize the diversity in other groups. For example, Jews may group all Christians together as “Christians,” because that is the primary difference that is important to us, while a Christian sees the differences between Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, and so on. So we tend to see our own group as diverse and complex, and other groups as more unified and simple. This can make it hard to have dialogue, because we group people together and then label the entire group, thinking that we know them.

Dialogue helps us to see the diversity in groups, because dialogue always happens with a specific person at a specific time and place. We may be engaged in something called “Jewish-Christian dialogue,” but at the moment of meeting, it is always one person face-to-face with another.

6. Have face-to-face meetings

 Another Jewish philosopher known for his work on dialogue was Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was a French philosopher born in Lithuania. He fought for France in World War II and was captured, spending the rest of the war as a POW in Germany.  His wife and daughter found refuge in a monastery, but the rest of his family was killed by the Nazis.

Levinas believed that we are always responsible for the other person. He goes even further than Buber in this, in thinking that what is important about our being in the world is our responsibility for others.

Levinas is best known for his writings on the face of the other. He taught that there is something about the nakedness of the human face that calls me to responsibility. I think that we’ve seen this in the recent photos of Syrian refugees. We can disagree and debate about what precisely our response should be, but there is something in the nakedness and vulnerability of the human face that lets me know that we are connected, and that I have a moral responsibility.

I mentioned my Evangelical student earlier, and how she went on to take another course with me. The course was Jewish & Christian Responses to the Holocaust, and our dialogue wasn’t always easy. In the very first week, she announced that the Jewish students would end up in Hell because they did not believe in Jesus.

I don’t know if I was thinking explicitly of Levinas, but my first inclination was to bring a photo of my then-young children. I brought them to the next class, and I said, whatever you have to say about Jews, you need to say it in front of these sweet faces. I wanted her to understand that her beliefs about Jews had been formed entirely outside of any dialogue with Jews. It is so much easier to hold beliefs about entire groups of people when you are not sitting down with them, face to face.

This dialogic approach has influenced the behavior of other Christian students, who have internalized a Jewish perspective into their own Christian identities. One student came back to tell me about his work as a Christian youth group leader and how he now tells his students that they should say Hebrew Bible instead of Old Testament. This wasn’t because I told him that it was a more politically correct term – It is because for a time in our class, he stepped outside of his own metaphorical house, looked through the eyes of his Jewish classmates, and understood how they heard the words “Old Testament.” Significantly, he thinks that his time spent in dialogue with Jews made him a better Christian. Dialogue needn’t be seen as a threat to our most deeply held beliefs – on the contrary, as Buber teaches, it can help us to be more fully human, more fully moral, and can bring us closer to the truth.

Levinas’ emphasis on the face to face encounter helps to explain why I do not see social media as a good place for true dialogue. Respectful debate can happen, and that is important too, but that is not the same as dialogue.  Remember that to be true dialogue, I have to be willing to be changed by the encounter and I have to bring my authentic self. These aspects are very difficult to find in social media, which is so public and curated. Technology makes it easy to focus on the words and to forget the face of the other person behind the words. This means that if we are to have true dialogue in our lives, we may have to physically sit with people who see the world differently than we do.

Many people have noted that this is becoming harder to do these days. There has been a decline in participation in broad civic groups, and an increase in niche activities that are more likely to bring us in contact with people who already share our beliefs and values. At the same time, both Buber and Levinas remind us that even people who seem to be similar to us are infinitely different, worlds onto themselves. We can still be curious to learn about them, their experiences, and their very specific ways of seeing the world. We might start with asking more questions and having fewer answers, with listening more than speaking.

7. In turbulent times, hold on to something sturdy

In an ideal world, dialogue would take place in a comfortable setting, with complete trust on both sides, but this is rarely what happens. Dialogue is needed most when it is the most difficult, in the turbulent times evoked by my title. I do not think it is coincidence that the two Jewish thinkers most associated with dialogue – Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas – were both targeted by Nazis and this experience strengthened, rather than weakened, their commitment to dialogue.

The phrase “turbulent times” evokes the turbulence of the sea or the air. These are the times when it is easy to get tossed about, to get thrown off course. So what do we do? hold onto something sturdy.

We must acknowledge the turbulence of these times we are in, turbulence that makes it so easy to get thrown off course. It is so easy to join in the polarization, to dehumanize people who think differently than oneself. It is easy to lump people into groups, imagine that they are all the same, and judge them.

These are precisely the times when we must take a breath and hold on tightly to our core values, as Jews. These values are strong, based on the holiness and uniqueness of every human life. They remind us, again and again, that every human being is an entire world, and that the greatest meaning of our lives is to be found in connection to others.

Shabbat shalom.


[Photo: “Martin Buber Postage Stamp” by On Being. Licensed by CC 2.0 Generic]









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