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Introduction to Critical Conversations 2019

Introduction to Critical Conversations 2019

The Jewish Essence of Critical Conversations

On March 17, 2019, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership presented the second installment of Critical Conversations, a major program series in which passionate speakers with opposing viewpoints are brought together to discuss as issue of critical importance inspired by Judaism’s embrace of civil discourse. The topic was immigration. The panelists, representing political views from the left, center, and right, were Governor Bill Richardson, political strategist Ana Navarro, and Senator Rick Santorum. Their discussion was moderated by Candy Crowley. In his introduction, Dr. Hal M. Lewis, Spertus Institute's Chancellor and principal consultant for Leadership for Impact LLC, spoke to the Jewish essence of this important series. Below is a transcription of his remarks. 

In the first century of the Common Era, the Holy Temple of the Jews was razed to the ground by Roman legions in Jerusalem. No event, before or since, was as devastating to the Jewish people. The Temple, understood to be God’s house, was the epicenter of Jewish life—religious, political, and social. Its destruction was cataclysmic. When explaining the cause of such catastrophe, the rabbinic sages did not focus on the superior military force of Rome or on other external considerations. Instead, they offered the somewhat curious explanation that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinom—causeless hatred, the kind of internecine warfare that encourages contempt, and dismisses “the other.”

For the ancient rabbis this was a particularly poignant charge. Anyone familiar with the classics of Jewish tradition knows full well that robust dialogue and “critical conversations” are central to the Jewish essence. In Judaism, impassioned argumentation is a religious desideratum. The old quip, “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” is not just a corny joke. It is a statement of values first embodied by the sages.

How then could these rabbis place blame for the destruction of our most sacred space on “baseless hatred,” when that seems the very logical extension of their “argumentation–obsessed” worldview? To be clear, it was not a fear of disagreement or difference of opinion that troubled the sages. On the contrary, they relished and treasured the fervent exchange of ideas. For them, disputation was not a crime; it was a means of serving the Divine.

What pained our ancient teachers, however, was when disagreement turned to derision, when animated debate became ad hominem attacks and when humility gave way to hubris.

Page of TalmudThese are pages from the Talmud, the magnum opus of the ancient rabbis. Even without knowing the content of the text, its format is striking and instructive. Down the center, along the margins and across the bottom of every page of Talmud are long running arguments and deep disagreements, spanning a broad continuum of issues and ideology.

When you think about it, this is really quite astounding! In the most sacred of Jewish works, the ancient rabbis preserved for posterity not only their opinions, but those of their opponents as well. Long before rushing to resolve an argument in their favor, they studied and esteemed those points-of-view with which they vehemently disagreed, because they understood that discerning the truth means encountering and learning from perspectives other than our own.

Jewish tradition recognizes that even more important than winning an argument is learning to appreciate the arguments of others. It is not surprising then, that the most famous and impassioned of all Talmudic arguments concludes with the profound declaration elu, v’elu divrei elohim Chayim—you’re perspective and your perspective are both the words of the living God.

It is precisely because this is our spiritual inheritance that we gather today, amidst what Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute calls, the “outrage industrial complex” that is poisoning our country. And it is this same spirit that inspired our beloved former trustee, Eric Joss, of blessed memory, to fund this unparalleled Critical Conversations series. His love of Spertus and his belief in the Jewish virtue of robust civil argumentation led Eric, himself an immigrant to this country, who always loved a good debate, to support this effort. We are so grateful to his wife, Ellen, and their children, Dan and Jillian, for their willingness to bring Eric’s dream to fruition and to continue his legacy. We thank each of you for your magnanimous support. And may Eric’s memory continue to be a blessing and an inspiration to all of us.

We suffer no illusions that today’s program will magically eradicate disagreement among thoughtful people. Indeed, nothing could be further from our goal. Today is not about winning arguments; it is about learning to listen and respect, it is about a willingness to challenge and be challenged, to proclaim, “I think I am right, but I might be wrong.” We are the heirs to a tradition that teaches sinat hinam—baseless hatred, contempt and demonization of the other—is what destroyed the Temple, our people’s most holy of holies. It is part of our spiritual DNA, therefore, to reject incivility and hatefulness in our speech, in our religious practice, and in our politics. This day, as we endeavor to listen and learn from those with whom we differ, we can choose to remain deeply entrenched in our “terminal correctness,” or we can opt instead to be informed and inspired by the teachings of our ancient rabbinic sages. And if we do so, we will become better Jews, better Americans, and better human beings.

Image top: Governor Bill Richardson and Ana Navarro debate immigration policy. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019