Conflict Resolution: A Spiritual Approach

Conflict Resolution: A Spiritual Approach


It seems as if there is disagreement and tension everywhere. Most days, I feel surrounded by conflicts that emerge globally, nationally, locally, professionally, and personally.

Conflict is not something that exists outside of us. Fundamental to our existence, we are embedded in lives of disagreement and tension. It is in the nature of the self and society. We may hold the utopian ideal that war and famine should come to an end, but we can never hope for the end of conflict, for that would spell the end of the human condition. I often search for spiritual insight on the nature of conflict that is so endemic in the self and society.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great 18th century existentialist rabbi, explains a deep truth about the spiritual nature of conflict, 

The whole world is full of controversy, between countries, towns, neighbors, and even within a household, between husband and wife, or with servants and children. No one pays attention to the ultimate fact that each and every day we come closer to death. Know that all these controversies are one: the conflict between a man and his wife is the same conflict as that which exists between kings and nations. For each one in the household represents a particular nation; their challenges to one another are like the wars between the nations… even one who has no desire to quarrel, but prefers to dwell in peace, is drawn into controversies and battles. Just as one sometimes finds among the kings and nations a country that wants to live in peace, and is forced to enter the war on one side or another (despite its willingness to be a subject nation), so it is with household ‘wars’. For man is a microcosm, and he contains the whole world within him. Surely this is true of a man and his household, who contain all the warring nations. That is why a person who sits alone in the forest can sometimes go mad. This happens because he is alone, but nonetheless he contains within himself all the nations which are at war with one another, and he keeps having to switch back and forth, taking the role of whichever ‘nation’ has the upper hand. This turmoil of the mind can drive him completely mad. But when he is in a settled place, among people, this war can spread out among his household or his neighbors. (Liqqutim II, 20)

Rebbe Nachman explains that we are not only embedded in political and communal conflict, but also spiritual conflict. Further, our personal existential conflicts mirror external global conflicts. We must first learn to examine the conflict and exist in this tension and discomfort. If we do not do this, we risk externalizing our conflict into interpersonal and social tension.

The Jewish matriarch Rebecca felt a great conflict within herself (Vayitrotzuzu ha’banim). The rabbis explain that this internal stirring was not only the wrestling of her sons Jacob and Esau, but the conflict of two great nations. The personal conflict within Rebecca modeled a national and global religious conflict.

Once God created and separated the first two humans, it was inevitable that in addition to unity there would be separation. Although separation makes conflict inevitable, we also see that it is part of the divine plan. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explains that conflict is not only with the other, situated outside of ourselves, but also with the other that is inside ourselves – he calls this “internal alterity.” The Kabbalists often describe these tensions as being between our masculine and feminine sides.

In addition to internal personal conflict, the rabbis caution us not to avoid social conflict, as well:

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land…But if he sits in his home and says to himself, “What have the affairs of society to do with me?… Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!”—if he does this, he overthrows the world. (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2)

When one avoids social conflict and doesn’t take responsibility for communal and global problems, he or she “overthrows the world.” Once again, the individual is a microcosm for the global human experience. The twentieth century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also struggled with and protested against this communal apathy: “O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.” (A Prayer for Peace, 1971)

By embracing the conflicts inside and outside of us we can be a part of the transformation of self as well as world. We can, and must, pursue conflict and peace, one of the holiest endeavors within the human experience. Rav Kook explains that the most sustainable and meaningful peace is one that arises from disagreement and conflict. Ultimately, it requires deep toiling and wrestling to find a spiritual and global peace, a peace that transcends borders and intertwines souls. 

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