By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO.
When I was in college, my journalism professor told us to pay attention to the “white hot arc of a moment.” He said we can see how the most important story of the day gradually takes up less and less space on a page and less consciousness in society until it fades to be replaced by another “critical” daily story. But if you know how to look, the eternal refrains remain year over year.
I have always preferred to follow the larger arc of the human story and excavate for deeper themes—undying truths, rather than focus on the chatter. The challenge of our time around equity and belonging is not new. It is Biblical. Today it is just taking on a new form with greater awareness and urgency.
It was the intersection of justice and spirituality, and the exploration of these larger patterns, that led me to rabbinical school. I have come to approach their complexity with greater appreciation and humility, but that might just be age. These are also the topics we are exploring more deeply within JFS as we strive to expand our collective understanding of each other as a community and organization.
The Talmud—the 1,500-year-old proverbial scrapbook of Jewish legend, law and rabbinic debate—has something profound to teach us today. The ancient rabbis decided to leave the dissenting opinion in the Talmud rather than edit it out. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Is it possible to have a living Torah without the struggle of opposites, without disputes, without the many permutations of ideas and outlooks?” Debate and dialogue, not dogma, is foundational to the Jewish way of learning and thinking.
I was considering this as I read about Bari Weiss’s resignation from the New York Times and the letter on Justice and Open Debate that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Signed by influential writers, musicians, journalists and others from every persuasion of the political spectrum, the letter calls into question the current climate of discourse rocking society from the right and the left. Predictably the “tweetstorm” that followed was swift and harsh. As my son commented, “There is irony in the social media response.”
As a friend recently lamented, “There is precious little communication among those who hold truly diverse opinions.” We don’t have to agree with those views, but we benefit by taking the time to understand them, if only to refine our own thinking. And that understanding takes intellectual effort and requires a willingness to truly expand our horizons—not narrow our vision. As I know from experience, this can be extremely time-consuming and frustrating. And it is very easy to come up with reasons to justify ignoring differing views or approaches…especially if they make us uncomfortable or don’t fit our narrative. But they strengthen our relationships if they don’t break them.
The rabbis challenged us to “Make your heart into many chambers” so we can hold opposing views and see from another person’s perspective. As the Harper’s letter states, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” And yes, some ideas move beyond reasonable and edge toward the extreme, which only makes meaningful conversation more challenging. A heart of flesh can evolve; a heart that has become petrified cannot.
Social media, and increasingly the media in general, can act as an accelerant to this problem. It has a fondness for short “like-able” declarations and hashtags that increasingly offer little substance for reflection. Couple that with its anonymity and global reach, and an avalanche of wrecking balls can be called to rain down upon anyone for the slightest mistake or challenge. We end up not with social media but social McCarthyism. It is easier to diminish people to caricatures than to recognize human complexity, emotion and make the effort to explore nuance.
One of the things I learned as a journalist, a rabbi, and as the CEO of Jewish Family Service is that the story is always more complex than it appears, and it takes time to untangle and understand. As a rabbinic mentor once said, “You have to learn to listen so hard your head hurts.” I’ve been taking a lot of Tylenol these days.
We could transform our society if we were willing to recognize how complicated the story really is, if we learned to listen deeply and left room for dissenting voices or different approaches around the table. As our ancient rabbis understood, debate—and the people who engage in it—are vital to advancing society. They don’t degrade it. We gain nothing by turning debates on ideas into attacks on people. Both are part of the arc of the human story, but only one will elevate our community.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz
Chief Executive Officer