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Critical Conversations

Critical Conversations

Critical Conversations

Spertus President and CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis for JUF News talks about the genesis of this important new series.


It has become fashionable to suggest that the last few years in America have witnessed unprecedented levels of divisiveness among political partisans. In Jewish circles, we observe a similar dynamic, with many of our leading thinkers bemoaning historic levels of fractiousness and dysfunction within and between our communities.

While there is no shortage of evidence to support these views, I am not sure that such divisiveness is as unprecedented as depicted. Nor am I convinced that the problem we face stems from a lack of unanimity. One need not be an American historian to acknowledge our country's long history of rupture and partisanship, extending all the way back to the earliest years of nationhood. The same can be said about the historic precedents of deep divisions across millennia of Jewish life — well into our own day.

Indeed, in Jewish tradition deep disagreement is de rigueur. Consider the quip, "Two Jews, three opinions," which bespeaks the value Judaism places on robust debate. Likewise, every page of the Talmud is testimony to a tradition of impassioned argumentation, recording and preserving both majority and minority perspectives, giving credence to both.

As important as the content of passionate divisions, in Judaism it is the means by which people engage and respond that matter most. To this end, Jewish tradition offers its own "master class" on how to argue.

One of the Talmud's most famous accounts describes a particularly complex disagreement over a point of Jewish law between two major schools of rabbinic thought-the schools of Hillel and Shammai (named for fervid interlocutors who rarely shied away from arguments).

In summarizing the episode, the narrative notes that each argument was sufficiently meritorious as to be considered "the word of the living God." Yet, the text concludes, the law (i.e. the resolution of the disagreement) follows the school of Hillel. The rabbinic sages demand clarification. The answer, the text instructs is, "Because they (the House of Hillel) were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the House of Shammai" (Eruvin 13b).

By all accounts, these are remarkable insights, beginning with the assertion that both interpretations, although radically different, represented God's will. Consider how unusual such a functionally equivalent concession would be in our own day. Moreover, in explaining why the law follows the opinion of Hillel's disciples, the Talmud stresses that it was not the brilliance of their argument but the humility and willingness to explore another point of view that made the difference. Scholars sometimes refer to this unusual trait as "epistemological modesty," that is, the ability to say, "I think I am right! But I might be wrong."

Jewish tradition is replete with other examples of passionate argumentation framed in the context of both civil discourse and respectful engagement. This is the background against which Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership will be launching our Critical Conversations series on March 18. Generously funded by the late Eric Joss, the series will bring to the Spertus stage partisans who represent strongly divergent perspectives on issues ranging from gun control to immigration, who are, nonetheless, committed to civility and respect while affirming their individual viewpoints.

Some have asked what is Jewish about this series. I proudly respond that Judaism's insights into civil conversation are exactly what this country needs, now more than ever. Others have objected to one speaker or another, based on polices, perspectives, or worldviews. (Indeed, we have received some pretty snarky comments on social media.) To them I say, thank you, thank you so much for proving our point about the need to embrace passionate dialogue and civility at the same time.

The goal of Critical Conversations is most certainly not to change your mind or to convince you that your viewpoint is wrong. Not at all! Instead, the goal of Critical Conversations is to teach us all how to listen better, how to hear a point of view that may, indeed, be anathema to our own value systems. If it turns out that we can disagree without being disagreeable, or that we can consider the merits of the other side, even if we reject their conclusions, then perhaps we — like the disciples of Hillel — will be able to bring a tiny bit more peace and respect to our fractured world.

The Hebrew word shalom (peace) shares a linguistic root with the word shleimut — wholeness. We who speak of tikkun olam — repairing the universe — as a religious imperative have much to learn about bringing wholeness and peace to the world by listening to those with whom we disagree the most.

More about Critical Conversations can be found at spertus.edu/conversations.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is Chancellor and Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Spertus Institute and principal consultant for Leadership For Impact LLC, a leadership consulting practice that serves the needs of nonprofit executives and their boards.

For ten years, he served as Spertus Institute's President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute. A recognized expert on leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press and is a member of the faculty of the Center For Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. You can follow his blog at Leadership for Impact >