Jennifer Raskas
Jennifer Raskas
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Talking across the aisle can be holy

What could be more sacred than the Tabernacle, where the Divine Presence rests? Maybe the interpersonal relationships we imbue with that very holiness
'The Jewish Tabernacle and Priesthood,' by George C. Needham, 1874. (Wikimedia Commons)
'The Jewish Tabernacle and Priesthood,' by George C. Needham, 1874. (Wikimedia Commons)

This Shabbat we begin reading Vayikra, Leviticus, the book in the Pentateuch that charges us to create a world where person, time, and space are sanctified. In today’s age of soundbites and polarization, is it possible to bring this sanctification to our most divisive political conversations? What would it look like to honor person, time, and space in our most contentious debates? Is it feasible in today’s intense political climate to create a world where deep listening, and empathy are once again sacrosanct?

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, in his analysis of the structure of Leviticus, illuminates a hidden connection between the first 17 chapters of Leviticus, which are concerned with the laws of the Tabernacle, and the last 10 chapters of Leviticus, which are concerned with disparate laws including interpersonal relationships, holidays, and agriculture. The key to this illumination is the phrase, “I am the Lord your God,” which appears over 50 times in the last 10 chapters of Leviticus, and only once in the first 17 chapters that concern the Tabernacle. Rabbi Leibtag asks, would it not make more sense to continually remind the Israelites that they stand before God when they are learning the laws of the Tabernacle, the place where the Divine Presence rests? Why repeatedly use this phrase for the other, seemingly less holy, laws?

Rabbi Leibtag posits that the words, “I am the Lord your God” remind us that holiness is not limited to the Tabernacle, but rather should emanate from it. He shows that the last chapters of Leviticus instruct us to bring the holiness of the Tabernacle to the realm of person (chapters 18-22), time (chapter 23), and space (chapters 24-26). By learning laws that relate to interpersonal relationships (person), holidays (time), and agriculture (space), with the recurring phrase, “I am the Lord your God,” we learn to bring holiness out of the Tabernacle and into all aspects of our lives.

If this is true, that we should strive to bring holiness to all aspects of our lives, is it possible to better sanctify our increasingly polarizing political discussions?

Through facilitating for Resetting the Table, an organization that supports brave conversations across political divides, I have learned to apply a blueprint of person, time, and space that creates increased pathways for empathy and understanding in our most heated conversations.

Person – When a person states their political beliefs, they often share only the tip of the world of meaning that exists for them on an issue. “Resetting the Table” teaches that when we listen to someone explain their political position, we can listen for “signposts” of what matters most for the person. We can listen for identity statements such as “I am someone who,” the use of metaphors, repeated words, and when their emotions most escalate. Then we can ask them follow-up questions about these signs to “excavate what lays underneath what they have shared.” We can seek to uncover the layers behind the policy — the person themselves, their experience, their underlying hopes for the world. Then we can confirm with them that we have heard and understood the depth of their thinking, which can “stabilize them,” and open them up to listening more deeply to others.

Time – I further learned in my facilitation training with Resetting the Table to watch for and value the moments in time when a difference emerges between two participants. As a facilitator, I was taught in those moments to “name the difference” for participants, while giving them each a strong “reflection” that captures the heart of what they have shared. In fact, it is often when we push the conversation towards the heat and reveal the starkest differences between people that we can most effectively validate what matters to each person. I have seen how extremely validating it is to be heard and understood at the most intense moment of difference with someone else. In this way, we do not have to hide from our differences; rather, we can invite them in.

Space – We can strive to create a space for conversations in which every person is deeply heard and understood, perhaps more deeply than they initially heard, or understood themselves. To do this, we can give space for everyone to speak, to clarify, to ask questions of one another, and to explore what matters most to them. We can then foster a culture of sharing appreciation for what we learned from one another. Through these interventions and more we can offer each person the opportunity to be truly seen, heard, validated, and understood, even in the most contentious conversations.

Rabbi Leibtag illustrates for us how Leviticus creates a roadmap for bringing sanctification out of the Tabernacle and into all aspects of our lives. Following this roadmap, we can better sanctify the intense political differences that exist among us. By honoring person, time, and space in our most heated conversations we can create a more courageous world where deep listening, understanding and validation are once again sacrosanct.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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