In late August, as classes resumed around the country, the University of Chicago sent a note to its incoming Freshman class. It read in part: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”1
This was a bold statement and a very public glimpse Into the internal turmoil regarding ‘free speech’ that has exploded at Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and many other universities in recent years. As our college populations have become more diverse---with greater percentages of women and people of color And a greater economic diversity----all great things An uber-sensitivity has developed as to ‘who has the right to speak’ on any given topic. And many professors and administrators but also students are not sure what to do.
On one hand the university-- in the classic sense is meant to be a clearing house of all perspectives- students are expected to engage in bold intellectual inquiry. On the other hand it is also a rotected space for creativity, intellectual growth and cultural change. We as Jews have been both bruised and blessed in these environments. Certainly freedom of speech and religious equality have protected us and given us amazing access and opportunities. But hand professors and guest presenters who espouse anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist rhetoric in their lectures and publications are cause for anxiety and concern.
There is a strong case for making sure that people are protected from hateful speech that hurts and in some cases endangers us. But can that protectiveness go too far?
According to Greg Lukanoff and Jonathan Haidt in their cover article for The Atlantic last September, “The Coddling of the American mind.”2 The desire to create intellectual and emotional ‘safe space’ has led to a ‘vindictive protectiveness.’ This leads to our kids being poorly educated for the challenges of the real world. The shielding of students from unwelcome ideas Is actually unhealthy or the workforce and the democratic commonweal,3 Since they are literally unequipped to respond to perspectives that are different than their own.
We cannot dismiss this crisis as just the self-righteous discourse within elite academic institutions. Because it is a challenge we encounter every day. We are afraid to discuss politics- unless we know with whom we are speaking, we surround ourselves more and more with people who are ‘just-like-us.’ So uncomfortable- have we become- with considering ideas that are different than our own. So unwilling are we…to really listen.
This- by the way- is an incredibly UN-Jewish notion. You know the saying…2 Jews….3 opinions…. Our cultural vibrancy, from ancient times until today has relied on an open sharing of and consideration of a variety of opinions. From a Jewish perspective, dispute is the bedrock of growing and learning. And there is no greater example of this than the Talmud.
The Talmud (Hebrew for ‘study) is the record of rabbinic teachings that spans a period of more than six hundred years, beginning in the first century C.E. and continuing through the sixth and seventh centuries CE. There are many nuances required to understand the sage insights that are contained in this great work of Jewish literature. But what is always most compelling to me is the way the tradition has been transmitted. That is to say, the editors of the Talmud made sure to preserve a variety of opinions even when some of those ideas were in stark contradistinction to what would emerge as the standard practice of the day.
This not only allows for a fluid tradition- enabling subsequent generations to continue the debate about Jewish practice and belief and make decisions that best inform their own realities, But it models a unique respect for the ‘dissenting’ opinion One we seem to have little tolerance for today.
The Talmud takes disagreement very seriously and so relates the powerful cautionary tale of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish.4
The two were study partners but this was only after Yochanan had convinced Reish Lakish to give up his life as a gladiator and bandit, marry his sister and become a Torah scholar instead. (I know….only in the Talmud).
This background information, however, is important to the story I am about to tell:
Both Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish were known to be great scholars and the two took great delight in vehemently disagreeing on most points of law. That is until one day when they argued over a technical matter concerning swords, knives, daggers, spears and the like. For some reason their intellectual sparring got more heated than usual. And Rabbi Yochanan got personal- alluding to Reish Lakish’s past as a reason why he might be more knowledgeable about spears and daggers. “Well a robber understands his trade!” Yochanan taunted. Resh Lakish retorted in kind saying: What good has your friendship and mentorship done for me: In my past life (as a robber and a bandit) I was MASTER and now I am a MASTER (scholar) too. Yochanan’s response is equally as cutting- Because it was me who brought you under the wings of the Shechinah- In other words- I made you a God fearing and honest man.
It was a rough fight. We don’t know where all that anger came from. But the results were disastrous for them both.
Rabbi Yochanan is deeply hurt and Resh Lakish is crestfallen for having been so disrespectful to his mentor, brother-in-law and friend. He is torn up with guilt and regret and falls into such a deep depression that he is on the verge of death. But Yochanan cannot let go of his anger and refuses to forgive Resh Lakish. So Resh Lakish dies- of a broken heart.
And from that moment Yochanan is consumed with remorse and he plunges into deep grief. Rabbi Yochanan’s students try to comfort him by engaging with him in study and discourse but they are no match. They wind up agreeing with everything he says which only makes it worse. And Yochanan laments: When I stated a law, Resish Lakisha used to raise twenty four objections to which I gave twenty four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law. While you say, I have a baratha which supports you. Do I not know myself that my citations are right? His sense of despair for having lost the one person who was learned enough and clever enough to engage in intellectual dispute ….is so deep that he loses his mind and dies as well.
Our tradition is crystal clear: diversity of opinion and diversity of perspective must not only be protected but cultivated. Disagreements can be fierce, but there are deadly consequences When we allow those disagreements to devolve into personal attacks.
But what are the necessary steps we must take To create an atmosphere of respect even in the face of disagreement?
It starts by listening rather than reacting to what other people have to say. We’re all guilty of the latter. While you’re making your case, rather than focusing in on what YOU are trying to express I am busy thinking about what I will say next. How I will try to prove that I am right and you are not.5 I am sure we can all think of multiple examples of how this occurs in our own personal relationships- every day. But when a sharing of ideas becomes a battle in the public square, the impact on our communities….on our country has much larger ramifications. Such conflicts challenge the very ideals that keep our community and our country flexible and strong.
Dr. Michael P. Nicohls, in his book, The Lost Art of Listening explains: We all believe in fairness and respect for the rights of others. We believe in compassion and justice and that everyone has a right to be heard. [Yet it is also true, that] the obligation to listen can be experienced as a burden, and we all sometimes feel it that way. But all of us, no matter how secure and well adjusted, need attention to sustain us. Listening nourishes our sense of worth.6
It is such intentional willingness, to stop focusing on our ‘selves’ recognizing that the people in our lives are eminently worth listening to, that can actually change the tenure of any debate.
The fundamental values conveyed by listening: respect, compassion, and fairness are the same ideals that enable us to honor the dignity and value inherent in other human beings….7 To lift people up, rather than ignore them, or worse tear them down.
This past Spring, Texas Public Radio launched a campaign called #daretolisten. And while I assume this was in response to the presidential election season that- as per usual- has pretty much consumed us all. I think it was also an acknowledgment that something tangible has changed in our national rhetoric in recent years.
Maybe it is because of electronic communications and social media - our ability to ‘overshare’ so quickly and hit send or reply before we have a chance to consider the ramifications of our words. People can be vicious when they are hidden behind their screens.
Maybe it is because of an increase in fear of those different from ourselves…Our lives exposed and therefore more integrated- but seemingly less protected then they once were.
Or maybe it’s the overly scheduled nature of our lives. People don’t gather and spend time face to face as much as they once did. We retreat to our small circles of family and friends and ‘talk amongst ourselves.’
Whatever the reasons, as an NPR nerd I was incredibly excited and honored to be included in the project. Part of my time in the studio was spent talking about constructive listening. How do we at Temple attempt to create a safe space for people? How can we manage the conversation When someone disagrees with a sermon topic, or a board decision or a statement by the Reform Movement as a whole and do so in a compassionate and constructive way? Admittedly it isn’t always easy. But again and again I’ve been impressed by the way so many people Stretch themselves to try and ‘disagree agreeably’.
Constructive listening means we must consider ---as our Jewish tradition requires us to do--- that each person in our community is a good person just as we consider ourselves to be good people. If we acknowledge that we share the desire to make the world a safer, more peaceful place…. then even when you approach an idea from a perspective different from mine It doesn’t mean your perspective is wrong. It is your truth which is rooted in your life experiences. These truths vary, depending on how we’ve been brought up…. the subjects we have studied and where we have lived, the kinds of work we’ve done. Everyone’s reality is based on their own perceptions. So to discount someone else’s reality because you don’t like what they are saying is giving short shrift to the opportunity to learn more and to open up our minds to better understand the nuances of our society.
At Temple…differences of opinion will always be present. Some of us are Republicans, some of us are Democrats, some are libertarian or Green Some just don’t know what they want to be any more….I can’t blame them. Some of us are classical Reform Jews some of us grew up Orthodox or Conservative Some of us have Chosen Judaism or are non-Jewish partners.
But we have much that brings us together. A love of Judaism and Jewish traditions. A sense of pride in our 142 year old congregation, a desire to participate in Gemilut Chasadim- Acts of loving kindness and Tikkun Olam –repairing the world. We all want the world to be prosperous and peaceful in our own lifetimes, a better place for our children and our children’s children as well.
And so we must dare to listen. We as a congregation should commit to creating an environment where everyone feels safe enough to talk about what matters where we are permitted to be honest enough to tell the truth and encouraged to be tactful enough to know when not to.8 And most of all….concerned enough to listen
Conflict won’t necessarily disappear when we acknowledge each other’s point of view, but it’s almost certain to get worse if we don’t.9
So here is my challenge for us all in the year ahead: Find someone who is not like you. A different stage of life…… Someone who works in a different kind of profession, from a different part of town…. If you are brave: Someone of a different political persuasion or religion who sees the situation in Israel…differently than you… And sit down and share your ideas….but also really listen.
I promise you that through respectful discourse and debate something profound will emerge.
When we treat the person in front of us with kindness and respect, when we remove the fear of challenging each other- our perspectives are broadened. By truly listening to experiences and truths that are different than our own, we are made stronger…growing in awareness of ourselves and the world around us.
Our religion, our democracy, our society depend on us nurturing such discourse. So as we move forward in this New Year, navigating the challenging landscape of dialogue and debate that is sure to emerge…
Remember that while it may feel risky to listen. To not listen is far riskier….dare to listen.
1Christopher Mele & Megan Thee-Brenan, University of Chicago Rebels Against Moves to Stifle Speech, New York Times, 8/27/16
2Greg Lukanoff and Jonathan Haidt , The Coddling of the American Mind, The Atlantic Monthly, September 2015
3Nathan Heller, The Big Uneasy, What’s roiling the liberal-arts campus? The New Yorker, May 30, 2016
4Babylonian Talmud-Baba Metzia 84a
5Michael P. Nicohls, PhD, The Lost Art of Listening, p3
6Nicohols, pg 16-17
7Nichols, Pg. 308
9Nichols, p. 3