It was only upon my first arrival in Jerusalem, that ultimate melting-pot and testing-ground of Jewish life, that I noticed I had spent my entire life speaking in a dialect – the unique, genteel, carefully bland English of the American Jewish left. There were the gentle pauses, and the slow pace of a sentence crafted in every moment with painstaking caution; there was the royal “we,” selected for its inclusivity, lest we should be thought to accuse; every word was at least four syllables and delivered at the soothing volume of a lullaby. There were the many instances of “we must” that, despite their rhetorical flourish, in the end meant only “we should.” Things are “deeply” this, “genuine” that. And most of all, there were the buzzwords: engagement, tolerance, grassroots, openness, coexistence, dialogue.
Dialogue. Dialogue! How many times I used that word, and every time with a clear sense of what it meant – a civil conversation lobbed back and forth by a panel of calm, rational people, with no trembling, little gesticulation, and only an occasional, socially acceptable appeal to emotion. Everyone would more or less agree on the universals, and the particulars would sort themselves out in time for tea. Given this fantasy of dialogue, where every participant held all the same premises and at heart no one really wanted to fight, of course I believed that dialogue was the answer.
The trouble, of course, is that real, significant conversation has little to nothing in common with this kind of dialogue. If it is to touch on any subject worth mentioning, it will inevitably be messy and gritty and, every so often, mean. Feelings will be hurt. Axioms may not be held in common, and the differences between them will command as much attention or more as the similarities. This kind of talk is much more likely to take place over dinner or a shared cigarette than in a discussion group; it will be hard to contain and nearly impossible to institutionalize.
It is this last point that brings me to a slightly less common, but no less noticeable, phenomenon of American Jewish liberalism: laments about the paucity of “genuine dialogue” on the subject of Israel, most of which take the form of criticizing shuls for their unwillingness to host left-wing speakers or performers. Of these, Julian Zelizer’s recent Tablet piece is a prime example. It hits all the necessary buttons for such an article – the nefarious right-wing shul board scheming behind the scenes, the arcane bureaucracy, the causeless stigmatization of J Street (poor J Street – it never intended to inspire controversy!), and so on. And its foundational argument is the same as all the others, illustrated by the same Gemara-wielding representatives of open-minded days past: that this alleged rightist conspiracy is anti-Jewish because it is anti-“dialogue,” and Judaism is pro-“dialogue.”
Never mind that the Gemara itself, throughout its treasure trove of ideas, has a proud, particularist streak that would make many liberals blush, and is perfectly willing to stigmatize figures like Elisha ben Abuya (referred to as Acher, or Other) whose ideas are considered dangerous to the Jewish people; never mind that the Gemara, though often cited as a paradigm of Jewish disagreement, is all-too-rarely studied in many of the shuls that deign to mention it. And never mind that, with even a modicum of effort, it is possible to understand the shul’s position (understanding! another well-worn word). In a Diaspora community that encourages universalistic self-criticism at every turn, there is a place for putting that criticism aside and celebrating the unique achievements and joys of Jewish life, practice, belief, history, study – what better place than the shul? For that matter, why should it be the shul’s responsibility to host even-handed, satisfying discussions on every political topic of interest to Jews? Shuls are not universities or coffeehouses; their job is to host davening, share hospitality, facilitate the study of Torah, and (especially in those communities where they are the sole repository of Jewish life) kindle a pride and love for Yiddishkeit that burns brightly enough to leave the congregant wanting more. It seems likely that yet another earnest laceration of the Jewish state would not contribute to any of those goals.
But never mind all that. It’s barely relevant. These cases, not only the alleged suppressions of dialogue but the ensuing lamentations, are symptomatic of a larger issue: the closing of the American Jewish mind, to repurpose Zelizer’s unintentionally apt title. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind bemoans a generation of students who are unlearned in the classics, incapable of holding and defending their own beliefs, and heavily reliant on institutions to do the hard work of thinking for them. Zelizer, and the many other authors of the many other articles like his, expect the Great Jewish Conversation on Israel to be happily hosted in the halls of Jewish institutions, preferably with free bagels afterwards – because the institution, not the individual Jew, is now the master and dispenser of Jewish life. That need for curation, and organizational frameworks, and a professional class of knowledgeable Jews to do the work of the laypeople – not only for dialogue, but for learning and practice and prayer and ritual – that will be the downfall of the American Jewish community, unless something is done about it.
Want to start real, meaningful dialogue? Own it. Don’t wait for an institution to do it for you, particularly an institution (the American shul) that has seen its own obligations balloon with obscene speed over the past century and isn’t quite sure what to do with itself. Make big statements; ask challenging questions. People respond to sincerity and clarity and insight, wherever it’s presented, whether or not it’s hosted in a grand building with refreshments and a professional moderator. In fact, that kind of environment might be actively hostile to the sort of conversation that addresses the participants’ actual convictions.
There is a famous moment in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) often cited by the proponents of dialogue. Essentially, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish learn Torah together with a passion – having discovered one another as potential study-mates, they approach the text with a no-holds-barred fury so alive that it dips occasionally into personal insult. After one of these insults, Resh Lakish grows sick and dies. Rabbi Yochanan is disconsolate and starts to lose his mind, and I will let the text itself explain the rest:
Said the Rabbis: “Who shall go to ease his mind? Let Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yochanan he observed: “There is a baraita [an additional text] which supports you.”
“Are you ben Lakish?” he [Rabbi Yochanan] complained. “When I stated a law, the son of Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘a baraita has been taught which supports you:’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?”
Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, “Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha,” and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
Yes, Rabbi Yochanan wants dialogue. But it isn’t Eleazar ben Pedath’s dialogue: gentle dialogue, soft formal dialogue, the kind of pap that mostly serves to trumpet the virtue of the participants. It is self-directed, freewheeling, hungry dialectic that raises opposing ideas and flirts with danger at every moment. In short, it is the kind of conversation that individuals, not organizations, are best suited to have with one another, should they dare. And it may be offensive and sometimes ugly, and it may break free of its sotto voce dialect, but in the end it will be a thousand times better.