Monday, March 2, 2015

Middle Ground- Listening to, learning from, and respecting those with whom we disagree

Do we have the ability to listen, really listen, to those with whom we disagree? Are we able to seriously consider our opponent's words, or do we pause, just to be polite, before we can again express our view? What about compromise and finding the middle-ground? Are we willing to be mostly, or only partially correct?

Rav Benny Lau is a creative thinker and a compelling speaker. In addition to the sefairm that he has written on different sifrei Tanach, he has also written a number of books on the chachamim. Recently, he started Project 929, his most ambitious project yet. Project 929 is a program where all of the citizens of Israel, religious, traditional or secular are encouraged to learn one chapter of the 929 chapters of Tanach each day. As I have written elsewhere, I am very impressed by the whole project. Thousands of Israelis have embraced this project, including some, who are learning Tanach for the first time.

Still, the project has not been without some controversy. Some of the essays on the website have been written in a way that some consider to be extremely disrespectful. Some rabbis, including those who  are generally open to bringing Torah to the people, have written articles that are critical of the project. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Project 929 be stopped. Still, despite the criticism, and some bumps in the road, the program continues to flourish.

Last night, I  heard Rav Lau speak for the first time. He is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The shiur was about how throughout history, there has been a dispute over whether the Torah should be brought to the people, or kept exclusively within the walls of the beit midrash. Beginning with Ezra HaSofer’s opposition to the decision of the Kohanim to keep the Torah in the Beis HaMikdash, and continuing through the fight between the misnagdim and the chassidim, Rav Lau showed how there has always been a dispute over who controls the Torah and where it belongs. It was interesting, and thought-provoking shiur. And yet.

When Rabbi Lau moved to the discussion about Project 929, he branded those who disagree as the modern Kohanim, a phrase that was not meant positively. Even when he was encouraged to view those who disagree in a more positive light, he stuck to that term. I have no doubt that some of his opponents have said things that are hurtful and counter-productive. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering whether he might have expressed things differently. Especially considering the fact that his audience was clearly sympathetic to his position, I thought about what might have happened had he, in the spirit of Hillel, expressed in more nuanced terms the position of his opponents. Much would have been gained had he suggested that he respects his opponents passion and love for the Torah.

There are many issues that divide the Torah-observant community. If we are to make peace with one another, we need to listen to what is being said, both spoken and unspoken, by those with whom we disagree. Even if we are certain that we are correct, no especially when we are certain that we are correct, it is imperative that we not demonize, and instead take the time to listen.

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