Few would disagree that argument and debate are central to Jewish study.
Still, in the aftermath of the highly fraught 2016 presidential election, intellectual disagreements often became emotionally intense and uncomfortable disputes for many in the Jewish community.
So when Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman of Larchmont Temple got together for one of his regular Starbucks meetings with Westchester Day School head of school, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, two days after voters went to the polls this fall, both were concerned about the tenor of discussion surrounding the presidential election.
“We knew our communities needed to talk,” said Rabbi Sirkman.
That led to a “Day of Dialogue.” Hosted by Westchester Day School on Jan. 22, the event featured rabbis from the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and Chabad movements who used a variety of Jewish texts and documents to teach community members about ways to handle difficult conversations.
“Like everybody else, we knew what was going on,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “It made sense to get together and have a dialogue.”
Josh Trump (no relation to the presidential family), school board president of Westchester Day School, added, “Part of the culture of the school is the idea of opening dialogue and building bridges. Westchester Day School is a unifying institution. This is an opportunity for us to bring people together.”
About 20 congregants from the Larchmont-Mamaroneck communities participated.
Anne Goode-Chodosh of Larchmont Temple said she showed up to “determine what the next steps are. Now what? What do we do?”
Similarly, said Toby Sklarew, also a member of Larchmont Temple, “I think it’s very important to tie in to what’s happening in the nation. It’s a microcosm of what’s going on.”
The group, which eagerly embraced the concept of the space as a dedicated beit midrash for the afternoon, selected study sessions to delve deeper into the topic. Rabbi Bethie Miller of Larchmont Temple taught about “The Divinity of Diversity”; Rabbi Sirkman explored Martin Buber’s concept of “I/Thou”; Rabbi Adir Kolkut, assistant rabbi at Westchester Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, discussed “The Constructive Side of Disagreement in Jewish Tradition” and Rabbi Lookstein’s topic was “A Difference of Opinion, but Not a Change of Heart — Biblical and Modern Day Methods of Conflict Resolution.”
Those who delved into the Buber texts confronted the issue of treating people as objects, rather than as other human beings. In Rabbi Lookstein’s group, there was intense text study of letters and statements that responded to such divisive issues as giving away land for peace in Israel, the political climate in Israel a week prior to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Elie Wiesel’s comments on receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985 and Daniel Gordis’ response to the military court conviction of the Israeli sergeant, Elor Azariah, of manslaughter of a Palestinian terrorist.
Conversation remained respectful, but there were definite differences of opinion that emerged during the group discussions.
“We need respectful dialogue for those we disagree with,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “It’s very easy to deal with our issues and get passionate and upset about others … I don’t want to minimize the issues on either side of the disagreement. The arguments that are going on in the country now are very significant. How are people on all sides who are so passionate, how are they trying to make change? I want to emphasize the dialogue.”
No one expected the afternoon to resolve issues, or even to reach consensus on next steps. For many, it was enough to recognize and address the dissension and disagreement. Others urged a renewed focus on both personal responsibility, such as welcoming the stranger and talking with people who hold different beliefs, and taking collective action.
“Do what you can do,” said Rabbi Sirkman. “The way we make a difference now matters. If you can impact one other person now, do it…Respect the dignity of difference. We don’t have the only path. Diversity is divine. Don’t stand in judgment.”
The afternoon provided another way to approach the unfolding issues.
As Amy Goldman, a Larchmont Temple member, said, “I think it’s important that the activism that started continues, and that we can understand it in the context of Jewish values.”