The Conversation About the Conversation
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Conversation about the Conversation
We need a conversation about the conversation.
‘The’ conversation is a fractal; a paradigmatic image of all the overlapping and intersecting conversations in our lives, families and communities that we find challenging. Often, these conversations incorporate or even exacerbate the tensions we experience. From our family life right down to the quality of our civic discourse.
Every person is likely to define difficult conversations differently, depending on personal worldview, circumstance and experience. People are triggered differently. What I have found during my sojourning in the countries that I’ve lived in is that the nature of the conversation varies greatly from place to place. There are different taboos in the Netherlands, my home country, than there are in my host countries of the United Kingdom and the United States. It is incumbent upon the immigrant to learn, relearn and apply these social codes as appropriately and successfully as we can and yes – that can be a challenge. During my ten months here I may have remarked to many of you that I may be a little blunt, a little more direct than the average American and kal v’chomer, the average Midwesterner.
When we enter a new social relationship, we try to navigate those differences fruitfully and you have displayed much graciousness to your new European rabbi.
The point of this exercise is not to list uniquely American triggers, but to deliver a sermon that is interested in a moral and spiritual reflection on what it means to engage in difficult conversations.
Verbal strategies for civilized and controlled debate and dissent are one of the hallmarks of a civilized and healthy culture. It is exactly this point that Mishnah Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, makes in chapter 5:17:
“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”
It is the use of the term ‘maklokhet leshem shamayim’, a dispute for the sake of Heaven’ that continues to endure in and shape the Jewish conversation across the millennia. We Jews tend to pride ourselves on our ability to hold multiple opinions and tensions in our communities. We like to praise our multivocal tradition. We embrace debate, difference and disagreement.
We elevate it as a civic virtue in the microcosm of our community and I often encourage my B’nei Mitzvah students to disagree with me and to articulate what they love and loathe about the B’nei Mitzvah process. Ultimately, we know that honesty, civility and integrity are the best guarantors for meaningful and lasting Jewish engagement.
That’s the theory. We still need a conversation about the conversation.
We all know, in small and bigger ways, that our communities, and by extension, our world, has become a more contentious place. We have witnessed the contention metastasize and turn corrosive. We see in in the algorithm of the Internet to the guardedness we sense at the dinner table. We might even sense it in the ether of our congregation. And many of us may wonder: how do we have the conversation about the conversation? How do we make space for the questions and disagreement, contain the anger and hurt and transform divisiveness and conflict?
This is the overarching question that the Book of Numbers asks of itself. The entire book of Bamidbar is about ‘the conversation about the conversation.’ In a way, Parashat Korach, is a culmination of the themes of Bamidbar as they come to a head. A striking formula in the showdown between Korach and Moses is ‘rav lachem’. Both leaders use it: Korach uses it as an accusation when he claims that ‘kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim’, ‘all of the congregation is holy.’
And Moses uses it defensively when he challenges Korach to make offerings so that God will decide who holds legitimate authority, stating that Korach and his band of rebels have gone too far. So ‘rav lachem’ can be translate as such: ‘you have gone too far’. But Rashi provides an alternate reading: ‘you have taken on too much.’
Doesn’t that resonate with many of us? We’ve taken on too much. There are things in our lives that are ‘rav lanu’, too much or too great for us. Things that overwhelm us. Things that poison our perceptions and undermine our better judgment. Things that stress us out, that feed into our fear. Worries about our families, health, careers, about our countries and our planet. Burdens that will distort the conversations we have and the experiences we share.
There are many explorations and expositions of Korach’s character and motivations. Was he a demagogue? For now, I am not interested in that question because that would be about the conversation – national, international, civic, political. Instead, we are focusing on the conversation of the conversation. What the Parashah challenges us to do, what the entire Book of Numbers expects of us, is to engage with the underlying dynamic. Why do we respond the way we do? Why are we reactive and how are we triggered?
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book (and talk) ‘The Righteous Mind’ identifies three triggers explaining how we become entrenched and polarized in the positions we take:
One: intuition comes first, reasoning second.
Two: there’s more to morality than claims of fairness.
Three: morality binds and blinds.
If we use these metrics to analyze the Torah portion, we can see that this happens with the Korach episode. Korach acts on his impulses, he leverages morality for his own gain and the morality he leverages in conflict with Moses has a blinding outcome for all: the earth opens up and destroys the rebellious community. Although superficially, Moses comes out victorious, the story begs the question: does anyone really win?
Like in our own bruising times, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Part of us taking responsibility for our clashing narratives is to honor that pain across divides and entrenched positions. People got hurt; families are torn asunder – regardless how we feel about their choices. The fire pans on which the rebels brought their offerings are still considered holy: no matter what the other person’s position is, we still honor their intrinsic and inalienable humanity.
There is an interesting resolution deeper into the Parashah when Aaron’s staff blossoms and bears almonds upon his election from among the ancestral leaders of the Israelites. The passage seems superfluous: didn’t Aaron already have a leadership position? Why does the Torah insist on the extra descriptions? Perhaps to teach us that rifts can be healed and that hope can bloom, even in cracks of great brokenness. To teach us that leadership needs buy-in and that true leadership is empowering and transformational for the individual. We are now in the month of Tammuz, only a month away from the month of Av in which we commemorate the brokenness of our world through the destruction of the Temple. Only two months away from the Season of Repentence. May our ability to have a conversation about the conversation, to hold the space, to share love, allow us to honor each other, to bind our hearts together and to heal for the time to come.