One of my favourite gemaras from the Talmud (it adorns the “Teaching and Learning” page here on my blog) advocates a fierce commitment to openness to dissent and the ability to learn from a multiplicity of opinions, even those that may diametrically your own:
אף אתה עשה אזניך כאפרכסת וקנה לך לב מבין לשמוע את דברי מטמאים ואת דברי מטהרים את דברי אוסרין ואת דברי מתירין את דברי פוסלין ואת דברי מכשירין.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught… make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.
The Talmud’s argument here is that while a person/community may have a sense of what is halakhically permissible – what is, quite literally, “Kosher,” – one must still open oneself to learning from others why their beliefs are different.
I think the Talmud specifically refers to both “ears” and “hearts” here to encompass the entirety of self that one needs to open to others – this isn’t just about being nice and tolerating a different opinion; we have to open all of our learning senses – our intellect and our emotions – to understand why it is that people have different beliefs and opinions.
I’ve been thinking about this philosophy quite a bit lately, particularly as part of my training through Resetting the Table to bring people together for meaningful conversations across charged political differences.
This gemara also came surging to my mind as I read about the lamentable smear campaign that was launched against Rachel Lithgow, former head of The American Jewish Historical Society. You can read about it in her words on Tablet, or in the recent New York Times article covering the incident.
TL;DR version: Jewish organization innocently (without political motivation) allows people associated with Jewish Voice for Peace into its space; chaos ensues; head of said Jewish organization denies any ideological support for JVP; head is still smeared by a defamation campaign (itself, a violation of halakhah); head of organization forced out of job and/or quits.
Lithgow describes her expunging in stark terms:
It is a Faustian bargain for the Jewish community as a whole to trade talent and passion for some mythic notion of ideological purity that we never enjoyed–and which will never placate this new iteration of zealotry anyway.
She’s right. Goethe, himself, noted this in Faust: “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” he wrote. “You’ll never speak from heart to heart, unless it rises up from your heart’s space,” he warned.
If we are only willing to see in the world what we already believe; if we are only willing to inhabit ideologically pure spaces; if we are unwilling to listen, hear, and understand… we will be condemned to a life in isolation.
A life without learning.
A life without meaning beyond what we think we already know.
But the antidote, the alternative, the voice crying out so loudly from our tradition… is so clear, if we would only hear it:
Attune your ear to the voice of the other.
Attune your heart to be more understanding.
When you feel yourself resisting the words of another, wanting to push that person outside of your circle, what would happen if instead, you drew them closer, asking questions and searching for meaning?
There is, nor has there ever been, any sustainable ideological purity in Judaism.
Our people is strong enough to withstand dissent. Indeed, we are made stronger by it.