It’s an old joke within the Jewish community that if you put three people in a room, you’ll hear four opinions.
Commenting works with any size group as long as the number of opinions is at least greater than the number collected. If this attempt at humor has become cliché, it is based on the fact that the Jewish texts have recorded disagreements for hundreds of years.
The Talmud, a collection of rabbinical speeches dated around AD 500, is literally a collection of disputes between rabbis from the 3rd to 5th centuries. Sometimes these disagreements succeed and other times not.
We are now in 2022, and I think it’s safe to say that the reality on the ground has not changed. People, regardless of what community of faith and values they identify, will continue to have differences of opinion, just as the rabbis did long ago.
What has changed – significantly and, in my opinion, not for the better – is the way we act during these disagreements with people on the other side of the debate.
My name, Hillel, is the same as that of one of the most famous Jewish scholars of the time even before the Talmud. Hillel the Elder was known to be wise, compassionate, and almost always at odds with his contemporary, Shammai. And yet, despite the fact that their opinions varied so much, they invariably treated each other with kindness and respect. The students of the two scholars still mingled and weddings took place regularly between the two houses of study.
It would be hard to imagine such a situation happening today when we often feel like we can only talk to – let alone partner with – someone who agrees with us on all points. People seem to walk around with a checklist of opinions to go through before deciding if it’s even possible to strike up a conversation.
Agree on political party affiliation? To verify.
Agree on religion and God? To verify.
Agree on the effects of climate change? To verify.
Do you agree on the diet as a vegetarian or omnivore? To verify.
Agree on who makes the best pizza in Columbus? To verify.
Are there any non-runners? Without question. But is the list of non-starters too long? Without question.
We all lose out when we only converse with people who share our views. Society is weakened if we are only willing to stand next to someone who has passed our individualized litmus test of their opinions.
We don’t need to all agree on every issue. In fact, talking to someone with a different point of view only clarifies our own thoughts and helps us express our ideas. And every now and then a moment arises that demands that we put our differences aside and together stand up for something we agree on.
Such an action can only be possible if we never find a way to talk to and learn from each other. This is how change happens in our world. This is how our hyperpolarized society has a prayer to become a little better in this New Year.
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik is the Senior Rabbi of the Tifereth Israel Congregation on the East Side.
Keeping the Faith is a column presenting the perspectives of a variety of religious leaders in the Columbus area.