How to Disagree Like Hillel and Shammai

November 18, 2016

Just before Passover last spring, Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote this opinion piece in The Forward detailing how to talk about politics and other contentious topics at family gatherings. More recently, Rabbi Joel Abraham suggested ways we could all play nicely together during election season.

Now that the U.S. election with its stunning outcome is behind us, and we’re once again preparing to gather with family and friends, this time for Thanksgiving, it may be prudent to revisit these rabbis’ most salient points.

  1. Because it will be nearly impossible for any of us to steer clear of politics, we should take pains to abide by the Jewish tradition of machloket l’shem shamayim (argument for the sake of heaven), which demands profound respect for other human beings, even if their viewpoints are fundamentally and unequivocally the polar-opposite of our own.
  1. Each of us was created b’tzelem Elohim (in the Divine image). Even if you disagree with others’ opinions or conclusions, keep in mind that they have tried – like you – to arrive at them in an intelligent and thoughtful way.
  1. Kavod (respect) is a lynchpin in every disagreement. Especially when differences of opinion occur, remember that you and others have put yourselves in a vulnerable place. Here, in such a place, more than elsewhere, respect is paramount.
  1. Countless times in Jewish liturgy we pray for peace. The word “shalom” (peace) is related to the word “shalem” (wholeness). We cannot attain peace – and thus wholeness – without acknowledging differences of opinion. Learning to incorporate disparate views into our understanding of peace and wholeness enables us to be pursuers of peace.
  1. If you must argue, do so not only with respect, but also with anavah (humility). Use “I believe” and “I feel” statements, and don’t presume to tell other people what they are thinking. You can’t possibly know that until they tell you. When they do, recognize that you may need to ponder their view to clarify your own. Hear divergent viewpoints presented in a constructive way can help everyone learn and grow.

Although the two leading first-century sages and their disciples in the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai no longer exist, we Jews continue to question, to disagree, and to differ in our opinions. At Thanksgiving – and always – remember to do so respectfully, civilly, and with care for your opponents.

And, if you would like a lighter argument, wait a few weeks. Hanukkah is almost here and soon enough, the annual applesauce vs. sour cream debate will be in full swing!

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