When some people are so unreachable

Our success rate at persuading others to change their minds is despairingly low. Actually, the more we try, the deeper they dig in. Perhaps we’re trying to cover too much ground too fast.

Consider how ‘reachable’ you are. When was the last time you were open to hearing new ideas about a subject you know well and feel passionate about? Just bringing yourself to a posture of genuine curiosity about things you reflexively feel are mistaken, is a huge step. Consider how unsuccessful changing minds is in the Torah – not just Pharaoh’s, even the Children of Israel’s. Let’s say you have the discipline to learn something new. Several additional rarified steps are then required. You add it to your belief system. You may need to subtract or amend a long-held view. You make it your own. Then you struggle with how to even begin sharing this new belief with trusted friends who believe it be mistaken (and who have been rooting for you to not have taken every step above). It’s not such a wonder that others are unreachable. In many ways, we are too.

Yet there is still much that can be accomplished. To be clear, nutty ideas do not deserve serious engagement, but what brings people to them certainly does.

Among the more descriptive of the Ten Commandments in this week’s portion of Torah is the prohibition against idolatry (Ex. 20:4-6). One of my favorite rabbinic stories describes an idolatrous King from biblical Israel, Menashe, coming in a dream to the study hall of Rav Ashi, a sage who helped to compile the Talmud. The Rabbi asks him a technical point of law and Menashe gets the answer correct. Incredulous, the Rabbi asks him “If you are so wise, why did you worship idols?” He replies, “Had you been there in my time you would have picked up the hem of your garment to run after me to worship them as well” (San. 102b).

Lived experiences differ a lot between people. Sometimes even more than opinions and information sources do. Beyond taking a walk in someone else’s shoes, trying to peer into the ducts and passageways of their hearts can be telling. It’s not a bad idea. Particularly if we want them to do the same for us.

And this, in and of itself, may be where new content can be found.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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