Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

A new book on how to manage disagreements over controversial issues facing Israel and the Jewish world is an important first step but needs more depth in order to have a greater impact.

“It’s so funny, how we don’t talk anymore,” sang Cliff Richard in 1979. I somehow doubt that either Robbie Gringras or Abi Dauber Sterne, the two Israel educators behind Stories for the Sake of Argument, are fans of Richard’s rather schmaltzy version of rock and roll, but their book seeks to get people not just talking, but arguing across the silos, echo chambers and religious-political divides that separate so many of us in today’s world.

The book contains 24 short stories that touch on “hot potato” issues, some of which are global (like the tension between nationalism and universalism, or political polarization within families), while others are more Israel-centric (the security barrier, refusal to serve in the territories, public transport on Shabbat), together with guiding questions to trigger discussions within a family, group of friends, or other contexts.

Gringras and Dauber Sterne are on solid Jewish educational ground that they’ve each trodden on before in different ways. Gringras, for example, has been a solo performance artist/educator for decades, writing and starring in acclaimed shows such as Shabbes! and About the Oranges, which confronted the viewer with deep, rich dilemmas about aspects of Israeli society and politics, and which were often followed by audience discussions led by Gringras in which multiple viewpoints were encouraged and respected. (Disclosure: I have worked with Gringras in many contexts over the years, and often used to hire him as a master teacher and performer for my students). The book’s central claim is about the importance of “machloket l’shem shamayim”, (“argument for the sake of heaven,” a Talmudic phrase referring to arguments motivated by a pure search for holy truth, rather than egotistical one-upmanship, which the book title felicitously alludes to): in other words, that discussive, reflective argument, when done in search of shared broader truths, is a deep Jewish value that has something to contribute to the sorry state of the world today.

Gringras and Dauber Sterne are, it seems to me, trying to offer an educational response to the work of people like Jonathan Haidt. Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, bemoans the fragmented and polarized nature of contemporary society: “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response.” Or, as Gringras and Dauber Sterne put it in their introduction, “Our world requires more of us to venture into the discomfort of disagreement, so as to begin to build bridges of humanity with those whose opinions we vehemently reject.”

Attempting to provide an educational operationalization of Haidtian social psychology is an important and exciting thing to do, for which Gringras and Dauber Sterne should be applauded. The book is an important first step in the right direction, and I could see it launching further iterations in similar directions, but ultimately, as it currently stands, it’s not quite as successful as one might have hoped. I think one of the reasons for this is that it misses something that Gringras himself has written so persuasively of in the past. In an important 2011 essay, Gringras, building from the work of Richard Anderson, an anthropologist of art, argues that Jewish educators, when selecting a piece of art to use in education, must make sure, firstly, that it is “culturally significant,” in other words, “a piece of art that contributes something significant to Jewish culture;” secondly, that it has “skillfully encoded its meaning, displaying talent, craftsmanship, and concision;” and thirdly, that its medium is “affecting and sensuous.”

The stories in Stories for the Sake of Argument, though, don’t really meet any of these criteria. Each is an interesting enough vignette, but that’s the point: they’re not really stories per se, just little snippets, miniature scenes painted with broad strokes that by nature of their brevity and format can only scrape at the surface of enormously complex issues. For example, there’s a story about an anti-vaccination woman whose twin sister requires attendees at her wedding to be vaccinated against Covid, which asks us to discuss “(When) would you compromise on your deepest principles to celebrate with someone you love?” Another vignette has a Jewish Yemenite mall guard troubled over racially profiling an Arab-looking customer, acutely conscious of the similarity of their skin colors (the guiding questions here ask us to consider when safety should be compromised for the sake of equity, and vice versa). And many of the stories paint small, familial pictures, extrapolating larger political questions from them, like the one about a family debating whether to help their newly-homeless neighbor, whose guiding questions take us to debates about African refugees in Israel. On the whole, I’m not sure that the stories are sufficiently thick to carry the kind of educational weight that Gringras and Dauber Sterne want them to.

Perhaps part of the issue here is a lack of clarity about what audience the stories and their activities are intended for. Dauber Sterne includes an appendix at the back of the book with some tips for how to have fruitful discussions with your children, and one wonders if the book could have been focused more clearly on the “Jewish parenting” genre. On the other hand, the book elsewhere talks about college students, who have been a primary audience for Gringras and Dauber Sterne’s significant previous work; but for the reasons noted above, I wonder whether these vignettes will really speak to that demographic in a powerful enough way to motivate them towards the kinds of deep discussions and reflective arguments that the authors clearly want. Perhaps future editions or iterations of the book or its wider project could include richer and more culturally significant texts for “arguers” to get their teeth into.

The book, though, is a genuine attempt to fix something that is undeniably broken in the world today. I noted the connection to Haidt above, and within the Jewish context too, there have been many thinkers and public figures who in recent years have decried the polarization and demonization within the Jewish world. The language of the “Common Good,” brought into the Israeli sphere by the work of Eilon Schwartz and others connected to the NGO Shaharit, which brings together political and social activists from Israel’s diverse communities in order to create a new kind of political discourse, is increasingly used by a wide coalition of actors who see social and political fragmentation as a core challenge faced by Israel in particular and western society in general. Indeed, the Bennett-Lapid government was a political attempt to address this challenge in practice: to create the kinds of bridges and practical collaborations that focus on the 80% we agree on, while shelving or underplaying the 20% that we don’t. Many of Bennett’s speeches during his tenure, beginning with his very first speech to the Knesset as Prime Minister, returned to the motif of the philosophical and political importance of collaboration with those who one doesn’t agree with:

“…Anyone who has ever seen a pair of students studying Talmud together, or a heated debate about a product in the office corridors of an Israeli startup, understands the force for good of “disputes for the sake of Heaven”… I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own.”

The connections to Gringras and Dauber Sterne’s project are clear.

Many, perhaps most, of the vignettes in the book are arguments between different thoughtful opinions, each based on legitimate values or moral positions: the challenges of racial profiling, disputes over the place of Shabbat in the public sphere, the dilemmas of East Jerusalemite Palestinians voting in municipal elections, and others.

But some of the stories and their educational treatments don’t quite work. One of the challenges of the Common Good approach (and perhaps one of the reasons for the Bennet-Lapid government’s ultimate demise) is that when we sweep the 20% that we don’t agree on under the carpet, it has a funny way of tripping us up later.

We see this flaw in a few of the stories, tellingly the ones that touch on the really big issues. For example, in one story, the Arab soccer captain of Israel’s national team won’t sing Hatikvah before games. To my mind, Gringras and Dauber Sterne don’t get the educational framing quite right, sidestepping the real issue: it’s less about the national anthem per se and more about the very definition of Israel as a Jewish state; the analogy to “taking the knee” in the US muddies rather than clarifies the issue.

In another vignette, an Ultra-Orthodox woman feels vexed over how the Women of the Wall activists “push their way into our quiet space” every month, upsetting her own need to pray for fertility. Gringras and Dauber Sterne doubtless chose to frame the Kotel issue in this unexpected way to push readers out of their comfort zone, and that’s a fine and refreshing approach. But their framing boils the issue down to a clash of feelings, an argument between neighbors over the right to play loud music late at night. The real reason this issue is so emotive and fraught is because it gets at nothing less than the essence of Judaism: is it a fundamentalist orthodox religion, almost by definition unable to compromise on core beliefs, or is it a more flexible tradition that considers insights from history, sociology, and other areas of scholarship? By sidestepping the bigger issue, the 20% one, I wonder if we actually do a disservice to the argument, making it more superficial, not more complex?

And this leads us to the core challenge at the heart of Haidt’s work, a challenge that faces politicians, cultural commentators, and, yes, educators, who advocate more healthy arguments. It’s not just that we can’t disagree respectfully; we’re actually past that. We can’t even agree on how to disagree. Which facts do both sides share? What is fact and what is “fake news”? What is hallowed religious tradition, and what is anachronistic ignorance? What do you do if the other side doesn’t accept simple premises or assumptions that are core to your position? Can you even have a fruitful discussion in those circumstances? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but this book, despite its imperfections, has helped me think a little more about them, and for that, I am grateful.

*Robbie Gringas & Abi Dauber Sterne, Stories for the Sake of Argument: Stories to get you arguing with your family, friends, and community. And that’s a good thing!, FSA Publications, 2022, pp. 211

 

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