Just over a week ago, I had the privilege of attending my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. His Torah portion, Emor, taught the principle of talion, “an eye for an eye.” In a bold and unprecedented move, my sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent nephew (can you tell I’m a proud uncle?) taught Jesus’ interpretation of the law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). He then argued how Jesus was being a “good rabbi,” offering a sound interpretation of his Torah portion.
The amazed congregation expected boilerplate: Discussions of the Jewish foundations for a just society, arguments about the Torah’s demand for equality under the law, or thoughts on the rabbinic discomfort with talion that led them to reinterpret the law as requiring monetary compensation. Upon hearing the mention of the name “Jesus,” we expected an argument about why he got it wrong and “we” got it right. But that was not his objective.
My nephew’s point was that we Jews tend to be less than reflective about our orthodoxies. We cling, sometimes ferociously, to one way of looking at a text, of seeing our tradition, of understanding “the” Jewish view on a subject. This myopia leads to failures on all levels – personal as well as communal – to grow, to learn, to understand, to acquire truth, to strive toward peace. True, my nephew ultimately argued why he found the traditional Jewish interpretation more compelling. But he did so without rejecting the Christian view. He inspired us to consider how, in the words of my teacher Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
I bring this story not just to “shep naches,” but also to underscore my nephew’s point. Today, many of us suffer from an inhibiting and dangerous closed-mindedness. We resolve only to speak with those friends and family whose views we share. We block Facebook friends who post opinions with which we disagree. We debate the issues of the day without ever fully listening to the arguments of the other side. In much of the Jewish community, we excommunicate those with differing views on issues ranging from Israel to marriage equality to tax policy to synagogue governance. And it goes deeper: we approach disagreements with co-workers, spouses, children, and sometimes, yes, fellow congregants as battles, seeking out tactical ways of winning disputes. All the while we do harm to our relationships, damage to the fabric of our communities, and injury to our ability to ascertain truth.
We can also see this happening in the broader culture. One of the paradoxes of our age is that we have unparalleled access to the broadest possible spectrum of information and perspectives, yet studies routinely show that we are increasingly ignorant and polarized. We tend not to listen to new information if it does not reinforce our predilections. We watch Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, assuming that the one with which we are predisposed to agree is always right and the other always wrong. We rarely question our assumptions and routinely close ourselves to other perspectives. The cost has been a less peaceful, less virtuous, more vitriolic society.
Last week, at a Rabbis Without Borders seminar, I participated in a wonderful exercise. My colleagues and I were asked to identify a political issue about which we felt strongly. Then, we were told to construct a compelling argument for the opposing view. Many of us were surprised to discover how simple this task was and how persuasive we were able to make views that we would previously have seen as repugnant. Some of us trumpeted Jewish sources that we normally would have used to substantiate our original, opposite, perspectives. Some of us even convinced ourselves of at least partial truth in the other point of view. We learned that most issues can be argued convincingly from different perspectives, and that it is possible to stake out opposite positions on an issue while citing the same statistics, studies, and books as proof.
For some, this will sound like a terrifying exercise in moral relativism. Quite the contrary, the experiment did not disprove ultimate truth, and barely persuaded us that our original views were wrong. It did, however, clarify that the only path to real truth, the only way to foster better relationships, and the only way to build a more peaceful world is to challenge the merits of our own assertions, to learn from others’ views, and to appreciate diversity of perspectives. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught, “the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... the structure of peace to be built without those trends which appeared to be in conflict” (Orot Ha-Kodesh, Vol. 1, p. 330).
Our challenge is to push ourselves to understand opposing perspectives. Doing so will increase our respect for them, improving our relationships and sowing peace. In the process, we will identify the flaws in our own opinions, purify our understanding, and learn new information. As a result, we will move toward a more refined and complete truth, improved relationships, healthier communities, and just and lasting peace.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow. You can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rabbiknopf