By Rav Mordechai Burg
One week ago Sunday, the New York Times printed a front-page article about the Chasidic school system. The report highlighted the failure of the system to provide a meaningful secular education while at the same time taking massive amounts of public funding. It also featured severe allegations about the use of corporal punishment on students.
Predictably this set off a firestorm in the Jewish world. For many, this is a deeply personal issue, and understandably so. Ranging from those who felt abused by the system to those who see this as an attack on their values and way of life to those who agree that the system needs modification but are concerned about the slippery slope of government oversight and regulatory overreach on religious minorities, all opinions were expressed. And as you can imagine, in many cases, the discourse featured a complete lack of civility. Well-intentioned people who commented on the matter were not met with thoughtful responses articulating why they disagreed but with ad hominem attacks. The sensitive nature of this topic is an open wound, and no matter how delicately one attempts to have the conversation, inevitably and again understandably, people have “stuff” coming up. Pain, shame, and fear were on full display. It was hard to watch as people I love attempted to tear each other down, but I don’t blame them. They are speaking from a deep place of hurt.
I cannot comment on the article itself. I am not knowledgeable enough about the facts on the ground to have a meaningful take on this subject. What I would like to address is how we can, in times of great pain, remain civil, loving, and respectful in our discourse. We can use our disagreements not only to discover a greater understanding of the truth but perhaps even to grow closer to one another.
But first, a disclaimer. I write this article with a significant amount of trepidation. When I mentioned to an old friend, someone who was dragged on social media for his take, that I was writing this article, his response to me was “sending thoughts and prayers.” I have asked myself repeatedly if writing this article is a good idea. While in the middle of writing, I have hit pause several times, wondering if I am making a terrible mistake. I have written, edited, and deleted more times than I can count. Why not just stay out of it? Why get involved at all? Sheila Suess Kennedy wrote, “We cannot find common ground without civility, and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground.” We live in a society that is increasingly losing its sense of civility. A ‘Civility in America’ survey conducted in 2016 found that 75% of Americans thought incivility had reached crisis levels, and 56% expected it to increase. If political discourse is any indication, the 56% were clearly in the right. Our community is meant to be a light unto the nations, but we too have fallen into the trap of machlokes shelo l’shem shomayim. Chazal (Kerisus 28b) teach us that talmidei chachamim increase shalom in the world. While I do not lay claim to the title of talmid chacham, I aspire to act like one. I fervently pray that this article is not seen as a criticism of any particular opinion but rather as a way of helping those who deeply love each other reach out across the divide and find common ground to create meaningful solutions.
The Necessity of Conflict
Chazal teach us that we ought to be like the talmidim of Ahron HaKohen, loving and pursuing peace (Avos 1:12). In Judaism, shalom is one of our highest values. Avoiding conflict is not the same thing as having shalom. To be sure, people may choose to silence themselves or agree to disagree because the value of the relationship exceeds the issue being disputed. However, there are times when we choose silence or disengagement not because we have let the issue go but because we feel the need to protect ourselves and the relationship. In choosing to sweep the issue under the rug, we create the opportunity for resentment to fester. Over time, this resentment can prove toxic to the relationship. Surfacing conflict allows us to deal with the issues. It creates opportunities for meaningful change to occur and for apologies to be made. For a couple to come to a deeper understanding of each other and ultimately a greater level of intimacy. When conflict is avoided to protect shalom, it often comes at the cost of shalom.
Our community has become increasingly fractured. Deep-seated resentment boils beneath the surface, and even the slightest trigger can set off enormous eruptions. Rather than casting aspersions on communities that differ from ours, we need to have hard conversations. What would it look like if we could sit together over a cup of coffee and really hash out the issues? If we could listen to those who feel broken by the system? The pain of those who feel marginalized? The fear of those who feel like they are under constant attack? No system is perfect. We will always need to evolve. Yelling at each other on social media will not create the change we seek. If anything, it only furthers the divide. Change will only occur when we courageously confront the issues we are facing with respect and dignity.
Engaging the “Other”
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. (Avos 5:17)
Many of the famed Torah disputes are contested by the disciples of two great Talmudic sages, Shammai and Hillel. And yet the Mishna tells us that their disagreements are the ones that will ultimately endure. In contrast, Korach’s machlokes with Moshe Rabbeinu, because it was not l’shem shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, ultimately did not last. What do Chazal mean when they say that the machlokes between Shammai and Hillel “endured”? And that Korach’s machlokes did not “endure”? Many explanations are offered, but I would like to share the explanations of the Bartenura. The first answer of the Bartenura is that conflict can destroy those who participate in it. When done l’shem shomayim the parties to the argument will survive the battle. If the conflict is not l’shem shomayim, the participants are destined to perish, as with Korach. This explanation begs the question, what is it about a conflict l’shem shomayim that ensures the survival of the quarreling parties while those who are not l’shem shomayim are destroyed?
A prerequisite for successful conflict is a foundation of love, trust, and mutual respect. It allows us to assume the most generous thing about the words, intentions, and actions of the person we are engaging. Put simply, in a successful conflict we are fundamentally on the same side. There are no winners and losers. We are sitting next to each other, not across from each other. The problem is in front of us, not between us. The world is a vulnerable place. Community is a necessity to survive in this world. We are stronger together. As a community, we do not need to think alike, but we do need to think together. And when we do, no problem is insurmountable. Conflicts are vulnerable. Without a foundation of love and respect, there is not enough trust in the system to brave the vulnerability. Arguments quickly devolve into who can outwit the other. Who can score the most points. Conflict without trust only serves to further the divide and exacerbate the problem.
A core feature of a machlokes l’shem shomayim is the trust that underlies the conflict. If we genuinely love our friends, then we inevitably love their children. The child is seen as an extension of the parent. Similarly, those who love Hashem will inevitably love His children. L’shem shomayim people see their fellow Jews as brothers and sisters. An argument l’shem shomayim is a family matter. There is a foundation that we have a shared parent and a shared mission. We are both here to make our world a more Godly place. There is no “other.” Your win is my win. Your loss is my loss. We are not arguing for ourselves but about how to best complete the job that Hashem gave us. Ideas are debated, not people. There is enough love and respect in the system to overcome and work together to resolve our differences. Together we can endure.
Chazal teach us that Beis Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beis Hillel, nor did Beis Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beis Shammai (Yevamos 14b). More than 600 times in the Talmud, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai argued with one another. They even argued about halachos that had essential ramifications on marriage, yet we find that their children married each other. In a machlokes l’shem shomayim, people are still worthy of love and connection even if you disagree with their ideology. The arguments between Hillel and Shammai did not divide their respective camps; they united them. Together they endured.
In contrast, Korach did not argue with Moshe Rabbeinu because he genuinely believed his position but because it was an opportunity to grab power and glory. Notice the language of the Mishna. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ, the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven is the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. There is no mention of Moshe Rabbeinu. In a machlokes shelo l’shem shomayim, we stand alone, and man cannot survive in this world alone. Korach paved the way to his own demise.
Conflict Reveals Truth
The Bartenura gives a second answer that also deserves our attention. The purpose of an argument l’shem shomayim is to arrive at the truth. Only through disputation can the issue be clarified and ultimately understood. When Chazal say that a machlokes l’shem shomayim endures, they mean truth endures. In contrast, the goal of a machlokes shelo l’shem shomayim is to achieve honor and power. And as we saw with Korach, the opposite was achieved.
Confrontation is a tool, not a weapon. Truth is something that can only be appreciated when seen from 360 degrees. Our perspective alone is myopic. Students of Gemara will instantly recognize this idea. The Gemara was written as a dialectic. We examine opposing views to arrive at the truth of the matter. One moment we are convinced of Abaye’s position, and the next, we are confident that Rava was correct. Rashi’s understanding of the sugya is absolutely compelling, until you learn the Ritva. A true lamdan will not stop until both positions are equally valid. Only through the appreciation of both sides of the matter can we see the truth of the entire picture. The same is true of our communal conflicts. Each side is firmly entrenched in the belief that only they are correct. That the other side has no merit. Truth is generally more complex than that, and truth seekers would do well to truly listen to the other side of the argument. Though the Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were both valid positions (as Chazal expressed, “these and these are the words of the living God”), the halacha accords with Beis Hillel – not because their position was more correct than Beis Shammai but because they were kind and gracious. Not only did they teach the position of Beis Shammai, but they also taught Beis Shammai’s position before their own (Eiruvin 13b). Students of Beis Hillel were raised in a system where they learned to truly consider the ideas of another. That society is better when we respect the position of our opponents even when we disagree. That one can see the world through the lens of the other and still have the strength to maintain your own opinion. That the truth of another position can even be complementary to our own. We would do well to raise our children as Beis Hillel raised theirs. Noted organization psychologist Adam Grant highlights the importance of humility and curiosity in conflict. “It takes humility to consider information that contradicts your opinions. You’re willing to concede that you might be wrong. It takes curiosity to actively seek evidence that challenges your views. You’re eager to find out if you might be wrong.”
Of course, there are times when there are absolute right and wrongs, when something is clearly against the Torah, and eilu v’eilu does not apply, but those instances are few and far between. To quote Aaron Sorkin, “Every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.” In situations of absolute right and wrong, we may be obligated to speak out against injustice, but even then, it is best done with civility. Not because we lack the emotional fortitude to engage with strength but because civility is often the best way to effect the desired change (Chazon Ish, Yoreh Deah 2:16). Consider the national divide that exists in America today. In an effort to win over voters, Democrats and Republicans have turned towards ridiculing each other. And while they may have won over their constituents with cheap mockery, they divided the nation. What’s the value of holding an office if there is no community left to govern? The loss of civility in political discourse has a corrosive impact not only on the country but on our own community as well. Klal Yisrael is facing new challenges and opportunities. Ideas ought to be debated so that we can chart our course. If the rhetoric on social media is any indication, we are from the ideology of Beis Hillel. Mocking the other side may win cheap points, but it destroys the community we are seeking to build.
For someone who does not particularly enjoy traveling, I frequently find myself flying to America (I live in Israel). Between my responsibilities to the Yeshiva, weddings of talmidim, scholar in residences, NCSY Shabbatonim, etc..… I travel often. Work begins as soon as I land, so all I want is to board the plane, stow my bags and quickly fall asleep so I can be somewhat rested and ready to go when we hit the ground. A few years ago, my flight had a significantly delayed takeoff as several passengers refused to take their assigned seats. They did not feel comfortable sitting next to women, and finding people willing to switch and accommodate their needs took some time. Ultimately the four men found seats together in the row directly in front of me. Sitting to my left was a Conservative Rabbi. He politely asked the young man (I would guess he was in his early 20s) if he would be willing to discuss why he would not sit next to a woman. Sensing the sincerity of the question, the young man quickly agreed. He explained that his understanding of halacha obligated him to sit next to a man. The Conservative Rabbi asked, “Are you not afraid of offending the woman you refused to sit next to?” The man replied that he meant no offense; he was simply following halacha to the best of his ability. He added that following halacha is the most important thing in the world to him and that he would not violate the halacha for any amount of money. The Conservative Rabbi responded that he felt that there are only daled amos of halacha and that we all have to find a way to live together in these daled amos. This went on for about ten minutes until they finished the conversation. I was amazed by how respectfully they treated each other. Frustrated by the delayed takeoff, I certainly would not have handled that situation that well. I turned to my seatmate and asked the Conservative Rabbi if he would mind me asking him a question. He agreed, and I posed my question. “Would you have been willing to have that confrontation if the men had belonged to a different religion? If, for example, a group of Muslim men had refused to sit next to women, would you have engaged them?” The Conservative Rabbi thought for a moment and responded that he would not have felt comfortable. “It seems, ” I responded, “that the reason you feel passionately about this issue is because of how close you feel to these people.” He quickly agreed, and we spent a good while talking about how Jewish people with different value systems could coexist in a society where choices must be made. It was a wonderful conversation between two brothers with wildly different worldviews.
Ultimately, this is the path we must walk if we are to have achdus. Achdus does not obligate us to compromise on our core values. It obligates us to remember that we are arguing with our siblings. And it is only because they are our siblings that we are so profoundly triggered. We cannot sacrifice truth on the altar of peace, nor can we sacrifice peace on the altar of truth. Someone once told me that a family is a group of people you may not choose to live with, but you cannot live without. Every Jew is a member of our family. We may not always agree. We may feel deeply hurt by each other. But at the end of the day, we cannot live without each other. As we have these necessary and uncomfortable conversations, let’s do our best to treat each other with the respect and dignity we would give a beloved family member.
Civility in conflict is no simple matter. Here are some tips I have learned along the way.
- Difficult conversations ought to happen in person wherever possible. Email, WhatsApp, and social media may not allow the necessary nuance, and things can get lost in translation.
- Get comfortable with uncomfortable. These conversations are vulnerable, and you may hear some difficult things that touch some severe triggers. Own your emotions around this issue. Learn to see criticism as a deep tissue massage.
- Set intentions for the conversation. What is your goal? How do you want to show up? Make your expectations clear to the other person.
- Seek first to understand, then be understood. Listening first creates safety for the other person and engenders a softer environment.
- Practice deep listening. Be open to new evidence and ideas, especially those that are contrary to your own. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what is being expressed. Phrases like “Help me understand” and “Tell me more about” are especially helpful.
- Repeat back what has been said. This ensures that you have the idea clearly and lets the other person know that you were truly listening.
- Affirm the other person even when you disagree with their idea. “I really respect your passion for….”
- Stand ready to admit you may have been wrong. New evidence or worthy arguments can be accepted with humility.
- Strong boundaries keep people in. Let people know that you are willing to work through meaningful conflicts. You don’t have to listen to personal attacks.
- Begin by expressing where you agree. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. For these conversations to create shalom, we must not lose sight of the fact that, for the most part, we can agree on most things.
- Use appropriate language that creates space for the listener to hear what is being said.
- Speak for your pain, not from your pain. Speaking for your pain means stating clearly what is bothering you. Speaking from your pain inevitably leads to blaming and shaming the other. Speaking for your pain means staying in the facts. Speaking from your pain means staying in your narrative.
- Be willing to express the shortcomings of your position. No idea or community is perfect.
- State your position fully. Only the fullness of each idea can complete the other. This may require some bravery. Especially when you know how the other feels about your position.
Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com