Dialog, Disagreement and Listening

For the past few days I have had the privilege of studying at a workshop at Yale Divinity School entitled: Joy and the Good Life. There were about 200 learners and scholars, and pastors, and one Reform Rabbi (yours truly) at the conference. We gathered together to discuss what the good life is and how to achieve it.

While I am still digesting all that I learned this past week, I wanted to share with you one insight that I have already gleaned from the week. That insight is that dialogue and disagreement coupled with listening are a few of the keys to experiencing the good life.

At a conference with so many different opinions and points of view on how to define and live the good life, it would be entirely possible for us to merely tune each other out. In reflecting on this week, it occurs to me how this gathering represented, on a micro level, the true diversity of opinion that exists in this world. I am very proud to have participated in a conference that modeled and taught not only what the good life is, but also, how to respect those who do not necessarily see the world exactly as I do.

Perhaps listening is a virtue. However, just because listening is virtuous does not mean it is always easy. One of the reasons I attend conferences of this type is to hear from those I would not normally hear from. I heard from Christians, Muslims, African-Americans, and scholars on what their struggles are and how they define the good in their particularistic way. What listening to other peoples perspective on an issue allows me to do is to step out of the echo chamber that is occasionally created by living in a homogeneous context. By breaking the echoes and hearing new voices I grow. Not this growth does not mean that I have changed my belief, in fact sometimes I in fact more resolute in what I believe then before. Rather it allows me to refine my point of view, to see an issue more broadly, and to make the matter better known to me.

Our tradition demands that we study with the other. Judaism says that it is a mitzvah to sit with those who might disagree with us and to discuss. Jewish tradition suggests that true knowledge and wisdom can only be arrived at in dialogue with the other. This studying with the other is known as chevrutah. The Jewish Virtual Library says the following:

“The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue and disagreement. Jews often study in havruta — in pairs — with each member of the havruta challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional beit midrash is struck immediately by the noise level — havrutot (plural of havruta) read the text aloud and often argue at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.”

This idea of chevrutah (the Jewish Virtual Library and I disagree on the spelling) was encapsulated so well in the letter I received by one of the organizers of the conference I attended:

“I’m particularly excited for our group. You all are extraordinary folks working in different sorts of ministry and community organizations. If we’re able to listen to one another, I think we have a great opportunity to learn a lot about how to lead people in our learning communities and our societies into deeper engagement with the most important questions of our lives.

It is essential that the members of our various communities and organizations learn to ask and answer questions of meaning and purpose across enduring lines of difference, be they cultural, political, ideological, religious, or what have you. It’s what our world needs and I’m personally excited to learn from and alongside all of you during the workshop.

So, as you’re making your way to New Haven for the workshop (and conference, for many), I encourage you to prepare to be open to learn across lines of difference we perhaps don’t often cross and to dare to share from your particular experiences and insights. We have a lot to learn from one another!”

Argument, discussion, dialogue are core Jewish values. It is only through conversation and the exchange of different points of view that we truly can arrive at the good life. Shabbat Shalom!