Dear TEE community,

This Sunday is Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians (in 586 BCE) and then by the Romans (in 70 CE). According to rabbinic tradition, the First Temple was looted and burned because the Israelites of the time followed illicit practices within it. The elimination of the Second Temple, however, was due to what the rabbis called “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred within the Jewish community. Rather than blaming the conquering Romans, the Talmudic sages believed that the Jews destroyed themselves with vitriolic animosity toward one another.

Jewish tradition distinguishes between constructive conflict (machloket l’shem shamayim, “argument for the sake of heaven”) and destructive conflict (machloket she’eino l’shem shamiym, “argument which is not for the sake of heaven”). The Mishnah states:

Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of heaven, will not endure. Which is the argument that is for the sake of heaven? Such was the argument of Hillel and Shammai. (Pirkei Avot 5:19)

Hillel and Shammai are the most famous oppositional pair in Jewish tradition. When Hillel stated that the Hanukkah candles should be lit one way, Shammai argued it should be a different way. When Shammai maintained that the agricultural new year should begin on the first of the month of Shevat, Hillel taught that it occurred on the fifteenth. Yet, despite disagreeing on significant matters, including those related to the laws of marriage and kashrut, the households of Hillel and Shammai intermarried and ate in each other’s homes. In other words, they continued to act and to consider themselves as a family.

In Jewish tradition, the purpose of constructive conflict is to increase wisdom and understanding, not to “win” an argument. Listening to a different opinion for the sake of learning is a very different experience from just waiting for the other person to finish so you can refute them. This kind of engagement has numerous names such as active listening, compassionate listening, or deep listening. It involves curiosity and compassion and a willingness to expand one’s own horizons. It can be profoundly uncomfortable and even painful but the simple (if not easy) act of truly listening is one of the most important gifts human beings can give one another.

Sadly, we seem not to have learned the lesson the rabbis sought to teach. Within American society and within our Jewish communities, all too often those in conflict perceive their opponents as enemies, and disagreement is understood as a threat. This is especially true when it comes to attitudes about Israel and Palestine.

Understandably, this is a fraught topic. Many Jews see the State of Israel as essential to their own survival as Jews. Other Jews feel painfully ostracized or excluded when they express views critical of Israel. But just as increasing polarization is detrimental to American society, refusal to engage respectfully with the “other” side is harming our Jewish community.

I take great pride in the fact that our Temple Emanu-El family has not created a political litmus test for membership. We welcome Jews because they are Jews and we welcome those interested in Judaism because they are interested in Judaism. Being together in the congregation, we build relationships that withstand specific disagreements. With this experience, I believe we have an important role to play in our wider Jewish community by sponsoring programs that provide a meeting ground for productive conversations around Israel and Palestine.

This Shabbat we will be discussing some of what Jewish sources have to say about constructive conflict. I look forward to listening to what you have to say.

Rabbi Drorah Setel

P.S. For further reading on this topic you might be interested in these websites: