Constructive Conflict

כל מחלקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקים. ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקים. איזו היא מחלקת שהיא לשם שמים, זו מחלקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים, זו מחלקת קרח וכל עדתו:

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:17)

Recently I read an excellent piece written by Gil Preuss, the CEO of our local Federation of Greater Washington, about the need for civil discourse. Like him, I’ve been struck by the trend towards shouting loudly without regard for other points of view that appears to have become mainstream in public discourse. As both a parent and educator, I’m deeply concerned by the example that this sets for our children — it is the complete opposite of the social-emotional skills we value and teach at Gesher and other schools throughout our community. Certainly there are appropriate times and places to take an aggressive stand and argue for your beliefs, but that’s not what we are seeing. We watch the equivalent of a kindergarten conversation (“that’s mine!” “no, mine!”) playing out in our news and social media every day. What’s missing here?

In the quote above, we can begin to understand that what is missing is a sense of perspective, a sense of (at least some) humility, and the understanding that your own point of view is a truth, not THE TRUTH. The perspective that is missing is that in most public debates, the goal may be identical (for example, building a more solid economy for all citizens) but the means to reach the goal may be where we disagree. In the cases of arguments between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, the ultimate goal was never far from their consciousness — it was how to most exactly observe mitzvot and sanctify G-d’s world. That is an argument L’Shem Shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Furthermore, while each engaged aggressively in putting forth their argument, they were always able to speak to each respectfully, and even encouraged their children to marry one another.

The wisdom in their example helps us remember that while it can be difficult, taking another’s point of view seriously, listening deeply, and remaining open-minded are crucial skills for civil discourse. When we remember also that the point isn’t to win for personal gain, then we can zoom out enough to consider the big picture, which is usually not limited to our own point of view. These are skills that require practice for most of us, which is why they are explicit taught in schools like ours. With young students we use the lens of Jewish values and the aligned practices of Responsive Classroom to help students understand which choices will help them advocate for themselves while also creating a community of respectful interaction. With Middle School students we use specific texts gathered in the Rodef Shalom (pursuers of peace) curriculum to help students understand and practice constructive conflict as distinct from simple conflict.

We believe in raising a generation that will be committed to arguments in the name of the greater good, not simply to make them feel better about winning, and we can’t wait to see our communal leaders get back on this train. This Shabbat, I encourage you speak with your children (and/or grandchildren, relatives, friends, etc.) about the difference between these two types of conflict. Share times when you have fallen into an argument that wasn’t productive. Ask them if they can think of time when they disagreed with a friend, and how they solved their problem.

Shabbat Shalom,