Like many of you I have read some good books this past year. One was by Ron Chernow, who wrote, a few years ago, a biography of Alexander Hamilton. The new one is about President Ulysses S. Grant. I don’t think it will be turned into a hip-hop musical, but Chernow’s biography of U. S. Grant is a compelling read. President Grant was quite the man.
Of course, long before Chernow, we had a telling of Grant’s life from the great man himself.
General Ulysses S. Grant, former President of the United States, did not begin writing his memoirs until he was dying of throat cancer. He did it for a very practical reason: He had lost his fortune to a swindler who was operating what was essentially a Ponzi scheme, and he wanted to be sure his wife, Julia, would be provided for.
His friend Mark Twain served not only as his editor, but also as marketing director. Twain developed a network of veterans who had served under the old General into a specialized sales force, going out in uniform to hawk copies of the book.
In the final paragraphs, composed at a time of agonizing physical pain, Grant addresses the optimistic prediction that Southerner and Northerner would soon again be able to live together in peace and harmony. He wrote:
I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to “Let us have peace.”
Grant continues: The expression of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people. They came from individual citizens of all nationalities; from all denominations — the Protestant, the Catholic and the Jew; and from the various societies of the land — scientific, educational, religious or otherwise. Politics did not enter into the matter at all.
I am not egotist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it. But the war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end. I commanded the whole of the mighty host engaged on the victorious side. I was, no matter whether deservedly so or not, a representative of that side of the controversy. It is a significant and gratifying fact that Confederates should have joined heartily in this spontaneous move. I hope the good feeling inaugurated may continue to the end.
–Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885-86).
Imagine how difficult it must have been for the two sides in the American Civil War to be able to communicate civilly with each other. The conflicts had not disappeared. The wounds were still fresh. But something in the American spirit enabled the country to move past the past and keep the country whole.
One hundred and fifty years later, I have to ask: What is our culture regarding conflict and conversation? It seems to me that we have failed to keep difficult conversations going, spending too much time talking and not enough time listening.
A few months ago in the New York Times Nick Kristof observed:
We live in two Americas.
In one America, a mentally unstable president selected partly by Russia lies daily and stirs up bigotry that tears our social fabric.
In another America, a can-do president tries to make America great again as lying journalists stir up hatred that tears our social fabric.
The one thing we all agree on: Our social fabric is torn. In each America, people who inhabit the other are often perceived as not just obtuse but also dangerous. Half of Democrats and Republicans alike say in polls that they are literally afraid of the other political party.
Kristoff continues: This is not to equate the two worldviews. I largely subscribe to the first, and I’m a villain in the second. But I do believe that all of us, on both sides, frequently spend more time demonizing the other side than trying to understand it, and we all suffer a cognitive bias that makes us inclined to seek out news sources that confirm our worldview….
It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.
On this New Year’s day it is obvious to me and maybe to you that there has been some tearing down of statues in our country but has there been enough crossing of bridges?
There has been a lot of shut down of discussion. Has there been enough opening up of dialogue?
I am not asking for harmony. But I am hoping for continued conversation.
This past year we lost temple members who resigned because certain national leaders of Jewish organizations spoke here.
In each case I asked the offended members to stay in the congregation and keep the conversation going.
Disagreements do not always need to lead to resentment.
Conflict can also bring mutual respect and more understanding.
So much of it depends on our view of conflict.
Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes. It turns out that Jewish tradition sees disagreement not as a negative, but as healthy and even holy. In one famous story from the Talmud, two rival houses of scholars, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, disagree for three years on certain matters of halakhah, Jewish law. Finally, a Divine Voice calls from heaven, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim hen – these and these are the words of the living God, and the halakhah is according to Beit Hillel” (Er. 13b).
Judaism values a plurality of opinions while also acknowledging the need for standards and rules that the whole community abides by. Both Beit Shammai’s and Beit Hillel’s rulings are divinely inspired, but the law is according to Beit Hillel. This story captures an inherent tension of life in Jewish community: we need diversity and harmony, conflict and resolution.
So we must figure out a way to live with the tension of divergent opinions, how to allow for differences of opinion without letting them tear the community apart. Again, the great sages Hillel and Shammai are our models. Their disagreements are described as “disputes in the name of Heaven,” “machlekot l’shem shamayim,” that is, disputes for a good or holy cause. Hillel and Shammai and their disciples show us the right way to argue: in spite of their disagreements, they still eat in each other’s homes and marry each other’s daughters, showing that they behave with “affection and camaraderie between them.”
The Mishnah also describes several instances when the disciples of Hillel change their opinion and follow the ruling of Beit Shammai, indicating their ability to admit when they are wrong. And finally, the reason that the halakhah usually follows Beit Hillel and not Beit Shammai is because Beit Hillel “were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakhah they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements in deference to Beit Shammai” (Er. 13b).
In short, healthy conflict requires that one engage in dialogue, carefully consider the opinions of the other party, and be amenable to retract one’s opinion. Such conflict also entails that it not be conducted in a hostile atmosphere and that it not in any way negatively affect the personal relationships of the parties involved.”
Easier said than done, these days!
Even the simple act of listening is rarely practiced well.
A story. A little girl comes home from Hebrew school, eager to show her mother a drawing.
Her mother is washing dishes.
“Mommy, guess what?” she squeals, waving the drawing.
Without looking up, her mother responds, “What?”
“Guess what?” repeats the little girl.
Again the mother asks, “What?”
“Mommy, you’re not listening.”
Still not shifting her focus from the dishes, she says, “Sweetie, yes, I am,”.
“But Mommy, you’re not listening with your eyes.”
My message for this New Year is simple: we are failing in the art of listening.
And if we don’t really listen we will not have genuine conversation.
If we are not listening well, we are also not speaking well.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a decline in civility and an uptick in incivility,” said Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor and author of “Mastering Civility,” a book on behavior in the workplace. “It seems like people are not only reciprocating, but we tend to stoop lower rather than higher. It’s really putting us in an unfortunate place.”
Dr. Porath said the current harsh climate was affecting people beyond politics, injecting itself into everyday life at home and work. “We know that incivility is contagious,” she said. “It’s like a bug or virus. It’s not only when people experience incivility, it’s when they see or read about it.” NY Times 6 21 18
In these tense times where shall we find guidance?
The Torah, of course!
Earlier today we read in the Torah of Abraham and Ishmael. Because of harsh family dynamics, a father and his son were forced to part. But did the relationship really end? Perhaps the conversation did not stop after Ishmael was sent away. Not according to the ancient Rabbis, anyway.
Not content to see the breakdown of this father-son bond, we read in a midrash that after three years, Abraham went to see Ishmael his son, having sworn to Sarah that he would not get off of his camel in the place where Ishmael lived.
He arrived there at midday and found the wife of Ishmael there. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She answered him, “He went with his mother to bring fruit and dates from the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and water, for I am terribly faint from the journey through the desert.” She said to him, “I have no bread and no water.” He said to her, “When Ishmael comes [home] tell him this story, ‘the son of a wise man is like half of a wise man,’ and tell him that an old man from the Land of Canaan came to see you,” and he said, “Exchange the threshold of your house, for it is not good for you.”
When Ishmael came in from the wilderness, she told him the story, ‘a son of a wise man is like half of a wise man,’ and Ishmael understood. The wife was sent away.
His mother then sent for a woman from her father’s house, and her name was Fatimah.
The midrash continues: After three years, Abraham again went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not get off his camel in the place where Ishmael lived. He arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s [new] wife. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She said to him, “He and his mother went to graze the camels in the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and water, for I am terribly faint from the journey through the desert.” She brought out bread and water and gave them to him. Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He for his son, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things of the various blessings.
When Ishmael came [home], she told him what had occurred and Ishmael knew that his father’s love and compassion for him remained, as it is said in Psalms: “Like a father has compassion for his children” (Ps.103:13).
From this ancient midrash about Abraham and Ishmael I derive three timely lessons for all of us who want to work through conflict and not be destroyed by it.
First and foremost, we learn from Abraham, when it comes to broken family relationships, don’t stand on ceremony! Get on the camel and get out there.
Make the phone call. Send the text.
Don’t wait until the funeral.
Keep the conversation going.
I know some deeds are beyond the pale but most are not worthy of a lifetime of alienation. When some rapprochement is possible, we are instructed to try. Get on the camel and start a conversation.
In addition to getting on the camel, i.e. keeping the relationship alive, as a Jewish people we also learn from this story a valuable lesson.
The Jewish people need to keep talking to each other.
In the end, Ishmael was a Jew who mattered to Abraham.
Every Jew matters.
They are part of our family.
Even when we are speaking of a subject that is raw and painful for many, i.e., Israel, we need to keep talking. Our tradition tells us that the Second Jewish sovereign state was destroyed two thousand years ago because Jews would not speak to other Jews. And I have to wonder: What might bring down the third Jewish commonwealth? We spend so much effort worrying about outside enemies that we forget how much inner resentment can destroy us from the inside.
It’s so easy to stigmatize the other side for their attitudes, their positions but how often do we take a hard look at our own contribution to breakdown in dialogue?
We Jews in Chicago have all sides in the Israeli conversation represented—we need to be speaking and listening more and shutting out less.
Finally, in addition to reaching out to those who have become estranged, and promoting dialogue within the Jewish community, we learn one more important lesson from the story: The American People Need to Keep Talking.
In other words, we have to get out of our comfort zone and speak to people on the other side. We have to get uncomfortable!
After all, camels are not comfortable! Get on the camel!
This means we get to exercise our free speech and we have to listen to other people’s expressions as well.
At a time when university administrators grapple with debates about free speech on campus and people across the nation witness the consequences of free speech in a polarized political climate, administrators, educators, and civic leaders should promote civility as an important element of constructive conversations. This duty becomes a moral imperative in forums where polemic issues take center stage.
As Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame observes in his book, Conviction and Peril of Our Passionate Beliefs, “Civility is what allows speech to be heard.”
While civility is crucial, it does have limits. Civility does not require engagement with individuals who utter speech that, at its core, has no connection with respect or mutuality. While those who express bigoted views may have a right to free expression, those who seek civil discourse are not required to engage with those individuals. One may simply walk away from the speaker and refuse to listen, thereby denying the speaker an audience.
Civility is not about giving in to those without civility. Yes, it is partly about going high when they go low. But it’s also having faith in the power of real conversation. And of being willing to listen.
Now, more than ever.
Talking with a reporter, author and educator Parker Palmer recited a poem, The Place Where We Are Right, by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Palmer continued: We can talk across lines by talking about what we love, because a lot of us love the same things: our kids and grandkids, our country, the natural world, the idea that people should be able to get ahead in life. Then we can talk about our doubts, because we all doubt that what we love is being served well.
Beginning a conversation with loves and doubts rather than political ideologies opens a new door to dialogue, driven by story-telling rather than political point scoring.
–Parker Palmer, interviewed by David Bornstein, “Reclaiming ‘We the People,’ one person at a time,” The New York Times, September 4, 2014.
There is so much that binds us together as a family, as a Jewish community, and as an American people. That which divides us need not destroy us.
I began with Grant.
I end with Abe Lincoln:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. —ABRAHAM LINCOLN, First Inaugural Address, 1861