As a Spring 2023 Lay Fellow in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies’ program, Mahloket Matters, How to Disagree Constructively, I learned principles which we applied to Jewish texts. The fellowship requires we share what we learn with others. I was grateful that my synagogue’s rabbis allowed me to speak from the bima this past shabbat, when the Torah portion was Parshat Vayishlach. What follows is what I said to my metro Atlanta congregation.
Mahloket Matter talks about four principles which allow us to disagree constructively with others, a skill needed in today’s emotion-charged world. They are:
- Active Listening: Listen without trying to formulate a response. Stay curious. Ask questions.
- Motivation: Think about why you are engaging. What is your goal? Are you trying to win & provoke or do you want to understand & solve?
- Stay Issue-Driven: Focus on issues without attacking people or harming relationships. A fellow congregant once told me how she might describe an act as antisemitic or racist, but never the person. That lesson stuck. When we label people, we risk flattening them to something two-dimensional. We also risk losing our own ability to become introspective, because we disassociate what “they” do – more extreme behaviors perhaps – from what we ourselves might be thinking or doing.
- Truth – what Mahloket Matters calls the 49-49 Principle. In a midrash for Psalm 12, Rabbi Yanai says we are not given the Torah in a clear-cut way, but that G-D told Moshe that on each statement there are 49 faces, or reasons, that a matter could be pure and an equal amount it could be impure. Similarly, I had a grad school professor who spoke about big T Truth versus little t truths, plural. Same idea. Multiple things can be true at the same time. What this means is that we should be open to admitting that we might be wrong. And we should be open to admitting both we and the one we disagree with might both be right, despite holding different opinions.
This is not always easy to do. It requires seeing things from perspectives other than your own. And it means not allowing your emotions to get the better of you.
Parshat Vayishlach starts with Jacob returning home and trying to reconcile with Esau. But today’s triennial reading focused on Shechem’s rape of Dina, after which he held her captive. Shechem’s father Hamor tells Jacob that Shechem wants to marry Dina. Jacob’s brothers reply that only if all men in the city are first circumcised. Three days later, Dina’s brothers Simeon and Levi slay all the men in the town and rescue Dina and then their other brothers plunder the town.
I asked the rabbi guiding my cohort how I could tie this to what we learned. She reminded me how we had spoken about why people disagree. Sociologist Jonathan Haidt says people see the world through certain values: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. Let me give you an example: prayer in school. Supporters might see it as a moral value issue of liberty or sanctity, while opposers might think it harmful or oppressive. How we prioritize different moral values – or even the same one in different situations – is why we find ourselves disagreeing. And then we emotionally judge the other person’s character instead of trying to understand how we are prioritizing different values.
Jacob is concerned that harm that will come to his family and property due to his sons’ actions while his sons are concerned about the harm that will come to their reputation as a result of their sister’s rape. Is one right and the other wrong? Both could be considered valid concerns, even if we disagree with the method in which they went about rectifying it. It need not be an either/or.
How Dina’s rape is being treated in terms of care/harm is also how we tie the parsha and Mahloket Matters into current events.
During Hamas’s attack on October 7th, many Israeli women were raped. But, as Miriam Schler, executive director of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center wrote in a Times of Israel blog, “So many who champion human rights, feminism and social justice – some of whom I have long considered friends or looked up to for their moral courage – have been bending over backwards to justify atrocities and rationalize rape with “BUT…” “But, you need to remember the broader context…” “But, Israel has…” “But, you have to understand the anger caused by…”
She continued, “Such a stance takes victim-blaming to a whole new level and excuses the calculated abuse of women. Do we stand against sexual violence, always, regardless of race, creed, orientation or politics, etc.? Or do feminist ideology and human rights suddenly stop being applicable because the rapes happened over the Israeli border?” She also said, “If you are claiming that they were never raped or questioning the veracity of their experiences, ask yourself honestly: Are you making these claims just to make sure things fit neatly into a black-and-white version of reality where the ‘good’ side has done nothing wrong?” This speaks to that second principle of constructive disagreement, Motivation.
Yasmine Mohammed, whose father was from Gaza and detested Hamas, said in a CNN op-ed, “Many people on the left, for example, conflate Hamas with all Palestinians and then deem them all the oppressed — the minority group, the victims, the besieged. Hamas is happy with this misguided and confused perspective because it allows the group to hide under the umbrella of ‘oppression’ to justify its violence. It would rather, of course, be seen as freedom fighters than terrorists.” What she describes is what happens when people cannot hold multiple truths but see the word in an oversimplified fashion. In a world of binary scenarios, if Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors, than conflating Hamas with Palestinians translates into brushing off Hamas’s inexcusable and harmful brutality.
In the parsha, Dina is not blamed, thankfully. But she is not heard. Her brothers express care for her by taking vengeance, though they and their father do not agree if that was the best way to handle it.
Today, while Israeli women are not being blamed, they are being silenced and Israel itself is being held responsible for how Hamas chose to act – even in spaces which fight for women’s rights. Victimized Israeli women must not be re-victimized.
If we apply the 49-49 principle of Mahloket Matters, we can hold multiple truths: We can say that Israeli women who were raped must be heard and believed, that they are harmed by not being treated by women’s groups which support other rape victims. We can say Palestinian people deserve self-determination, that they are harmed by not having it – just as they are harmed by a corrupt PA or a genocidal Hamas. We can certainly say that Hamas perpetrated great harm – to women, to Israel, and I would add, to the cause of Palestinians.
If we apply all the principles of Mahloket Matters – we actively listen to others in order to understand, we examine our own motivations for what we say, we stay issue driven and, as I’ve just pointed out with the 49-49 principle, we understand that multiple truths can co-exist, then we can engage in disagreements in a more constructive manner.