Jacob and Esau, Thinking About Dialogue Reconciliation

True reconciliation is never easy because it demands that we step away from our preconceptions, feelings of hurt and biases, and reach for a sense of empathy and connection.  As Jacob does in our parashah, we need to wrestle with ourselves and learn to hear others without judgment.  It was only when Jacob transcended his identity as a deceiver and supplanter – expressed in his very name – and became Israel (the person who wrestled with himself and God) that he was ready to face his brother Esau and to reconcile.  Only then could they transcend the years of recrimination and hurt.

I have often thought of this parashah as I participated in interfaith dialogue and discussion.  It is often tempting to try to score points, attempting to demonstrate one’s tradition’s superiority.  It is also tempting to listen only to fit the other into one’s preconceptions and definitions.  When we do either of these, then authentic dialogue and reconciliation are impossible.

These challenges are at the root of Martin Buber’s assertion that it is only content-less dialogue that can be the authentic meeting place of the “I” and the “Thou.” Buber identifies the actual moment of dialogue as a place where “the relation to the You is unmediated. Nothing conceptual intervenes between the I and the You.” Without content, he implies, we allow for a genuine encounter with the other without the imposition of self or ego. These authentic moments of dialogue are infinitesimally short, he contends, because we, perhaps perforce, almost immediately begin to add content and therefore turn the other into an object, an “it” rather than a “you.”

Buber points here to the challenge in all communication. As we listen, we interpret and begin to see the other in our terms, rather than in his or her own. This challenge is especially germane in times of reconciliation, be it interpersonal or within interfaith (and other forms of) dialogue where disparate understandings of events (today especially surrounding politics), the world, or theology are presented.  In these cases, it is a common human reaction to attempt to normalize the unfamiliar “other” by placing it within an accepted model or narrative.

Buber also suggests that humanity generally sees the world and all that is in it in a utilitarian way. Everything (even another person) is examined within the context of how it (he or she) is useful. In this way, we transform and see all things and people as objects, or in Buber’s terms, “it,” rather than as a “you,” something with which we can enter into a relationship.

He suggests that dialogue should be primarily about the creation of relationships. He suggests that authentic dialogue reveals connectivity and connection between one human and another and between one human and the world and more fundamentally between humanity and the divine.

Perhaps, however, Buber’s silent content-less dialogue is only the necessary first step to genuine dialogue. However, if we stop here, we are still trapped in our perceptions because (as Buber suggests) we will still immediately begin the unconscious process of interpretation and objectification. We place that person within a narrative or existing taxonomy. Perhaps, instead, the next stage of authentic dialogue should be the time of listening, without – as much as possible – interpretation. Or, at the very least, listening with the realization that what we hear and understand has been interpreted through our internal cognitive systems. We need to open ourselves to listen to what the other person is telling us, without comparing or contrasting or fitting it into preconceived models (when we interpret, we objectify the “other”). Through this process, the relationship built by the silent Buberian dialogue is enhanced as we come to appreciate the unity and the diversity of all that exists.

Once dialogue moves beyond silence to content, objectifying the other can also take judgment and attempts to discern the truth. As we listen to the other, it is difficult not to explicitly or implicitly judge their “truths” based on our own. We create criteria, generally areas where we believe our tradition excels. Or we take criteria, which are normative from our secular worldview, and use these to judge other religions, systems, or cultures.  Through this process of comparison, judgment, and attempted discernment of truth, we not only objectify the other, but we also lose them in ourselves.

The parashah establishes an ideal of reconciliation.  It is our challenge to learn to listen to the “other” without judgment so that we can make the ideal a reality in our lives.

About the Author
David serves as rabbi of Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in DeWitt, NY. He was formerly the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and a past chair of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse."
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