The Art of Content Conversations

by Yonatan Ariel

How do we make the Jewish journey compelling? I believe we need to reconfigure the art of Jewish conversation. We need to encourage exploratory, open conversation aimed at strengthening and deepening the foundations of one’s connections to Judaism in the world. For me one of the great treasures of conversation is the unexpected. Not the outrageous, nor the gaudy, but the comment that is the produce of a fertile mind absorbed in the messiness of reality. A sharp observation enriches me – even as I weigh its efficacy.

Between whom should these conversations be taking place? And about what? There is a famous description in Jewish tradition of two types of relationship that people have: between humans and God (Bein Adam l’Makom), and between humans and their fellows (Bein Adam l’Chavero). I want to add to these, three other types of relationship that should be at the heart of the conversation at these times.

Between a Jew and her People (Bein Adam L’Amo) – ethnicities are in decline say the sociologists, while MTV – the seeming epitome of monolithic youth culture – puts out different versions for various parts of the globe. Although there have been attempts to remove the tribal aspects of Jewish life, what gets left looks impoverished. There is now a wonderful opportunity to launch a conversation of the Jewish People, by the Jewish People, for the Jewish People as to what the People as a People should do next.

Between a Jew and his Society (Bein Adam L’Chevrato) – One aspect of Jewish life that has always moved me: be wary of the generality, and look for practical application in a real life situation. It seems oh so easy to love the world; it is so tough though when the issue is how do you love your actual neighbor? Or even more, how do you attend to the needs of the neighbor’s cousin’s neighbor without knowing them? Technologies and globalization undermine the traditional local communities and the values-base upon which they were built, but they also provide a chance to renew civil society and promote social activism. Here the conversation should address what might Jewish collective wisdom and action contribute to fixing society?

Between a Jew and her Homeland (Bein Adam L’Arzo) – What a confusing picture Israel presents – it inspires, alienates and compels. A source of struggle, pride, embarrassment, shame and strength. Yet one has to be stubbornly resistant if you choose to remove Israel from the picture of Jewish life. Whether it is its place in Tanakh, or the history of the kingdoms, or the liturgy or the rituals, Israel creeps back. And the reemergence of the State of Israel is an engrossing and complex story which raises profound issues for Jews in the modern period. There are spiritual, cultural, political and physical matters at stake. We need to be talking about what should be the place of Israel in Jewish life for the next generation?

These ideas and concepts are not unknown – and indeed they are hinted at and present in many ways in current Jewish educational frameworks, from day schools to camps, from Israel experiences to adult education and on-line learning. But they are rarely incorporated with their full-fledged power, the raw and rare quality of nuanced yet primal concern; the imagination of classical textual dispute played out through the major events of our times; the sensitive and stark discovery of hidden treasures that belie the easy categories and bring us to an elevated ethical encounter.

A helpful resource is a slim volume by Theodore Zeldin, entitled simply “Conversation”. As an example, I think it is possible to tie Zeldin’s principles to our efforts to create a new dialogue on Israel and formulate four fundamental categories of questions:

  • What is your definition of a meaningful conversation? When do North American Jews have meaningful conversations on Israel that are not crisis-related? What ambience is favorable to a productive conversation?
  • Should conversations between Israelis and North American Jews be about their similarities or differences? The type of conversation reflects the relationship between the interlocutors: We may have a thin, polite conversation in which similarities are pointed out with a passing interest that remains a superficial exchange; conversely we may have a more determined interaction in which the differences are laid bare risking an abrupt end to communication; or if the speakers have adopted a “family” model, in which Israel belongs to all, then both similarities and differences can be expressed openly.
  • What is your cognitive map of engagement with Israel? What is “your” Israel? Is it the same Israel that you present in your conversations, your interactions? How do our feelings, thoughts and beliefs affect our words and how do they in turn affect our thinking? For example, if we advocate for Israel, does this affect our own image of Israel? What would be your desirable cognitive map of Israel and which conversations are you currently missing to complete the picture?
  • What risks to your own position are you willing to encounter when you immerse yourself in conversation? The fault lines in the Jewish world may well not be along Israeli/Diaspora lines, but rather along other lines (e.g., hawk/dove or liberal/sectarian). One aspiration might be to risk having the kind of conversation in which the other’s truth is heard unhindered, and where one’s interlocutors may persuade you of their position…or vice versa. Are we up to the challenge?

A new Jewish conversation is required to heighten skills in arousing Jewish minds to life, in addressing head-on the values concerns that are expressed, in bringing a wide variety of Jewish voices that conflict into view, in illuminating the concerns from within the mountain of Jewish civilization, and in empowering Jews to actively better, not batter, the Jewish People and Israel.

Yonatan Ariel is the Executive Director of MAKOM, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Jewish Peoplehood HUB.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.