One week before Passover, in the midst of busy holiday preparations, I was surprised to find myself at a morning workshop for local rabbis that was held at Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco . . .and feeling that every moment was worth it. The seminar was on ways to dialogue about Israel within our Jewish communities. It was convened by Israeli Shaliach Nadav Shachmon and led by Leah Reiser from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people dialogue across political and ideological divides. In the case of the Jewish community, those divides often center around the politics and policies of Israel, ironically the one topic that used to hold us all together.
Even though I have been involved in many kind of dialogue and interfaith work for decades (and even co-founded two interfaith dialogue groups myself), I learned a lot from the workshop. Moreover, I was refreshed and strengthened in my conviction that this type of work is crucial to our Jewish, American and even world future. We are living in a time when we are divided by ideological and political camps that are tearing the fabric of our country and also causing painful rifts in the Jewish community.
We began the gathering by sketching three formative experiences in our own lives that related to Israel (no artistic talent required). Then we had a chance to share one or more of those experiences in small groups. The other members of the group listened without judgement or feedback. Afterwards we offered responses, but only responses that were designed to evoke even more understanding from the teller of how that experience influenced their life. My dialogue mentors, Len and Libby Traubman, always emphasized that we start with stories, not with arguments.
The next part of the morning identified differences. We were offered various propositions about how events and discourses related to Israel influence us, and asked to position ourselves in the room based on "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." At this point differences among us were identified, but rather than argue about them and defend our positions, we got to listen to each other speak about why some issues effect us strongly. We practiced active listening and reflecting skills that led to a more open-hearted and nuanced understanding rather than shutting us down and creating more division. We learned why people felt the way that they do and that things are often more complicated than they seem at the surface.
The program on "Resetting the Table" was timely for Passover, because it made me think about who is welcome at our Seder tables and beyond, and what kind of conversations we have, not only about Israel, but about all kinds of important issues. The Seder itself contains the famous passage about the "Four Children," one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn't know how to ask. But the kicker is that there are no such children in the Torah. Rather there are four examples of telling the Passover story, and from that our Sages wrote a a Midrash, an interpretive story, attributing these four tellings to four children and their personalities and learning styles. Although one version of this story got into the Haggadah (the Passover Seder guidebook), there were other versions in Rabbinic texts, and there are countless interpretations to the present day.
And so it is today: when someone disagrees with us or has a tone of voice we dislike, we may impute to them being a "wicked child." When they agree with us, they are the "wise child." While I believe in the value of seeking what is right, as a Jew I also strongly believe in nuance and complication. As my teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel says, the Talmud has arguments on every page, but the purpose isn't to win the argument. It is to refine the argument, to gain greater understanding and to try to harmonize better with the divine will. They weren't like the "Simple Child" who wants everything to be black and white. They liked to complicate matters and then find commonalities among disputants. The Talmud (Bavli Eruvin 13b) valorizes listening and respect for others opinions over winning the argument. The house of Hillel is favored because they respected their opponents.
I was raised in Reform Judaism, that values the Prophetic strand of Judaism: standing up for what is right, social justice. I still value those as supreme Jewish values and I value the way of the Sages, who listened and debated, who questioned and harmonized disagreements, always trying to find the common denominator. At our Seder, we tell the story of an event of human liberation and justice . . .and we tell it from the advantage point of the Sages, making Midrash, interpreting and questioning.
If we lean too much to the prophetic side, we can become self-righteous in our quest for right. I see that all about me today. But if we lean to much to the sage side, we risk relativizing all arguments or shying away from taking a stand on important issues. We need both of these approaches, but today I think (as I've read from the great modern Israeli Talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz), that we would do well to learn from the Sages that things are often very complicated.
To grow our listening skills will make our table more expansive and open. May your Seder and your Passover be full of meaning, inspiring action for justice and also promoting dialogue for understanding.
Have a happy and meaningful Passover!
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.