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Crawling out of the tarpit

It's easy to get stuck in the muck of conflict, but we can rise above it if we focus on what we have in common even with those who infuriate us
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This past Purim, someone hit me with a hamantaschen.

(courtesy)

Several times a year, I do outreach for my congregation by standing on a subway platform in costume and giving out treats during rush hour in honor of upcoming Jewish holidays. This year, before Purim, one gentleman took one of my hamantaschen, walked up the stairs, and when he saw that my congregation’s name included the word “Israel,” he threw the hamantaschen at me, yelling, “I don’t want your genocidal cookie.”

How clever.

This could be a story about incivility, but for the next person I met that cold morning in Astoria. A few minutes later, an older woman walked pushing a cart, wearing what I assumed was a hijab. She smiled at me and said, “Aren’t you cold?” I smiled back and said, “You bet I am! My mother is very worried.”

As she laughed, I asked her if she wanted a hamantaschen. She replied, “That’s very sweet of you, but I am fasting.” I wished her and her family a Ramadan Mubarak, and we both went on our way.

If this woman and I dove into current events, we would likely disagree about many things, but at that moment, there was nothing but kindness, even a bit of tenderness.

Surprisingly, we only saw each other as human beings.

What would it take for more of our interactions to be like this one?

High Conflict

Across the mosaic of Jewish life, we teach that Judaism values disagreement. “Come and learn: Be like the students of Hillel and Shammai or Beruria and Rabbi Meir.” This is a “good” conflict, which Pirkei Avot calls “debates for the sake of heaven” (5:17).

However, the Jewish conflicts we valorize have a beginning, middle, and end. Rabbinic debates typically concern questions of law; rabbis state their opinions, debate ensues, and eventually, one position is adopted. And then, it’s on to the next debate. 

Today, we live in a moment of what Amanda Ripley calls “high conflict.”

While the debates of our Sages were for the purpose of resolution, the only goal of high conflict is to keep the conflict going. In healthy conflict, “there is movement. Questions get asked. Curiosity exists. There can be yelling too. But healthy conflict leads somewhere.”  In high conflict, positions harden until “There’s nowhere else to go.”

This has been much on my mind since the October 7th massacre.

Every day, I feel despair for the hostages; I shudder just thinking about what it must be like for them, even as I pray that they are still alive. Other times, I mourn how antisemitism feels like a societal disease impossible to inoculate, a terrible inheritance Jews of every generation must grapple with and remain vigilant against. And, I cannot look away from the horrific suffering of Palestinians, whatever the causes, and empathize with their misery.

And given my lack of agency to solve the conflict at the highest levels, sometimes it is easier for me to avoid engaging with relationships I held dear before October 7th, whether those individuals are Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, or just less supportive of Israel than I’d like them to be. I see someone’s goodness, yet I cannot imagine continuing a relationship built on love and respect when so much disagreement lies in plain sight.

Ripley likens this state to sinking into a tarpit, where “More and more of us get pulled into the muck, without realizing how much worse we are making our own lives.” And once we sink too deep, it becomes impossible to get out, no matter how much we want to.

The Tarpit

Even if you agree with me, it is natural to want to assign blame.

First and foremost, you blame Hamas, and you should. 

But you may also blame, in some combination, Iran, Bibi, wokeness, civility, the conceptzia, judicial reform, leftists, rightists, messianism, SJWs, Itamar Ben-Gvir, UNRWA, settlers, the JCPOA, Haredi conscription, the Ivy League, Ofer Cassif, Obama, Trump, Ben-Gurion, Oslo, the Abraham Accords, South Africa, AIPAC, J-Street, Jabotinsky, IfNotNow, JVP, TikTok, and/or China. 

When hope feels in short supply, targets for blame become abundant.

Yet the instinct to immediately go from acknowledgment to blame is a telltale sign of high conflict; we spend so much time arguing, “How did we get here?” that no energy remains to ask, “How can we get out?” or better yet, “How do we all stand to benefit when we get out?” 

This begs the question: Why would anyone want to sink into a tarpit?

In the world as I want it to be, no one.

But in our world as it is, Ripley exposes that every intractable conflict has “entrepreneurs,” the people who “vilify them,” with “them” being whomever “will need to join us for high conflict to end one day.” 

Hamas is a conflict entrepreneur; Hamas wants to destroy Israel, and nothing about Hamas’ behavior since October 7th suggests that they care about Palestinians, either. For people whose existence depends on high conflict, keeping people angry and enraged is good business.

(If this is the part where you are waiting for me to identify other conflict entrepreneurs, nice try.)

Because conflict entrepreneurs are insidious and effective, they traumatize bystanders “so distressed by the fight that they tune out altogether.” Unless we lift up relationships that are not intoxicated by high conflict and give them oxygen to flourish, conflict entrepreneurs fill all the space, suffocating us from their poison.

Curiosity Over Anger

I am fortunate to serve as the rabbi in a community with many people with deep connections to the Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim communities. While I won’t pretend that moments of tension do not exist, my interaction with that woman at the subway has been the rule, not the exception. If anything, I come away from most interactions more hopeful, not less.

The secret: I don’t try to win the argument.

Admittedly, this is very difficult for me (cue the laugh track.)

But over a cup of coffee (or, in my case, a Diet Dr. Pepper), we share why ending this conflict matters to us without fear. Instead of assuming someone feels the way they do because they desire total victory, I listen deeply and remember what is too easy to forget: all people want basic needs like food and water, freedom from violence used to express hate, and for our children to be proud of their identities without terror.

The list goes on. And yes, that includes people who sometimes use words that infuriate me. Remember, I am already in the tarpit; time is of the essence, and every second I spend in a blame posture is one less second I have to crawl out. This reminds me of a midrash from Vayikra Rabbah:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai taught: This is analogous to people sitting in a ship. One of them took a drill and began drilling a hole. His counterparts said, ‘What are you sitting and doing?’ He said to them: ‘Why do you care? Am I not drilling under myself?’ They said to him: ‘Because the water will rise and flood the ship we are on!’

For me, the choice to walk away from relationships is the equivalent of drilling a hole in the boat, where I think I am drawing a line in the sand but actually causing both of us to sink into greater suffering. The only way to climb out is to increase my curiosity rather than anger. 

This brings me back to that sweet woman at the subway station. At that moment, the easy thing for us to do was go into our corner and treat each other as enemies, no questions asked. But here’s the other secret I learned:

When we recognize that we want many of the same things, we lose nothing ourselves. But we gain everything as children of God.

May it happen soon and speedily in our days.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the rabbi of the Astoria Center of Israel and the founder of Moneyball Judaism. Josh received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011, and is a recipient of the Wexner Field Fellowship and the Ruskay Fellowship in Jewish Professional Leadership. Josh lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Rabbi Yael Hammerman, and their children Hannah, Shai, and Ella. You can read more of Josh's writings at www.joshuarabin.com
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