By Dr. Hal M. Lewis
On a crisp and cloudless Sunday in March, only days before the vernal equinox and the attendant promise of spring, Spertus Institute went where few others in our country have chosen to go. On that day, at the opening program in our Critical Conversations series, we welcomed two former state governors – Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) and Mike Huckabee (R-AK) to our stage. The afternoon featured a robust debate on a variety of hot button issues including gun safety/control, immigration, and the role of the media in America. Moderated by former CNN Washington Bureau chief, Frank Sesno, and funded by a generous donor, the purpose of the Critical Conversations series is to present vigorous and unapologetic disputation within the context of civil discourse.
From the beginning, we knew that this program would engender considerable criticism. Why would you bother with such an endeavor? How could you pay money to bring (name of speaker) to your institution? What does this have to do with your mission as an Institute of higher Jewish learning and leadership training? For us, of course, the answer is unmistakable. As Jews we are heirs to a tradition that simultaneously embraces robust dialogue and civil conversation, a tradition with the potential to speak to those well outside of our own tribal bubble, as well. Throughout our literature and sacred writings, our sages insisted that we could disagree passionately while respecting and honoring the humanity of our interlocutors. The old quip about, “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” is not just a corny joke. It is a statement of values.
Given the condition in our country and in our contemporary Jewish community, in which even a gathering of friends or a holiday dinner often degenerates into painful and scarring invective, we draw inspiration from the charge of the Mishna: u’vemakom she’ein anashim, histadel lihiyot ish – “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” That is to say, when surrounded by the absence of tolerance, backbone and decency, it is up to us to model those behaviors for our society and ourselves.
We invited our speakers and the moderator to participate only after securing their willingness to embrace the vision of this program. What we couldn’t have known initially was that their respective terms as governors overlapped in time, and, as a result, they knew each other fairly well. They described themselves as friends, an overused term to be sure, but apparently appropriate in this case. They each reflected that in contrast to their current work in cable television, their service as state governors taught them something about effective listening and a willingness to understand the other side.
Our program was designed to go beyond the spin and talking points that have become standard fare in our highly balkanized political arena. In a world in which Americans, according to Tom Nelson of the US Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise, “no longer distinguish the phrase, ‘You’re wrong’ from the phrase ‘you’re stupid,’” we were committed to ask less about individual policies and more about the underlying values that informed the governors’ positions.
Early on in our planning one thing became abundantly clear. In our country everyone, without exception, believes in the value of civil discourse. And just so long as they do not have to hear from people they disagree with, everything will be just great! From the time we announced the program the early tweets and social media commentary reaffirmed just how much our foray into civility in discourse was needed. We were, to be candid, a bit concerned about the possibility of protests and disruptions from the audience. As an academic and an executive, I must say you haven’t lived until you’ve contemplated a plan for dealing with disturbances, on the one hand, while insisting that any such outbursts be dealt with in accordance with the principles of civility and respect that were the program’s very raison d’etre, on the other.
To be sure, there were more than a few murmurings to be heard from the nearly 350 people in the audience when one controversial perspective or another was articulated. But in general, people comported themselves in accordance with the behavior they witnessed on the stage in front of them – good humor, respectful disagreement, and a genuine desire to speak with, not at, each other.
During my introduction to the program, I projected a color-coded slide of pages from the Talmud. I explained that even without knowing the content of the text, its format is striking and instructive. Down the center, along the margins, and across the bottom of every page of Talmud are long running arguments and deep disagreements, spanning a broad continuum of issues and ideologies. Unlike the popular tendency to conflate disagreement with disrespect, the bubble-busting rabbis of old preserved for posterity not only their opinions but those of their opponents as well. Long before rushing to resolve an argument in their favor, they studied and esteemed those points-of-view with which they vehemently disagreed, because they understood that discerning the truth means encountering and learning from perspectives other than our own. Their gift to us, particularly during these tumultuous times, is the knowledge that even more important than winning an argument is learning to appreciate the arguments of others. Elu v’elu, they remind us, “Both perspectives are,” divrei elohim chayim – “the words of the living God.”
When I walked into the reception following the program, the first two comments I heard captured the day’s essence. The first came from a slightly angry millennial who expressed disappointment that the moderator allowed “Huckabee to go on much too long.” This was followed almost immediately by a middle-aged individual who liked the program except that the moderator’s “obvious liberal bias clearly favored Granholm.” In some significant way, these back-to-back comments proved the point of the day. Naïve as this may sound, something else happened during the reception as well; audience members from across the political divide engaged in serious conversations with both former governors and with others in attendance. To be sure, partisans lined up for photos and discussion with the governor whose position most aligned with their own. But people also went out of their way to ask questions and even spar a bit with the governor they never would have voted for, endeavoring to offer their positions while also listening to opinions other than their own.
The goal of political discourse or even the conversations we have at our upcoming seder tables ought not be about winning arguments. Rather, the purpose ought to be about learning to listen and respect, to challenge and be challenged. Civility in discourse does not mean having to change your mind or shy away from deeply held convictions. It means being open to learning something new about an opposing perspective even if you hold fast to your prior beliefs.
If that happens it does not really matter if red becomes blue or progressive becomes conservative. If even for a little while we can say, “I didn’t really change my mind after talking with her, but I learned something I had never thought about previously,” then to that we might say dayeinu – just that would be sufficient … at least for now.
Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. A sought after speaker and scholar-in-residence, he is the author of Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. He can be reached at email@example.com.