Let's Disagree More Constructively

Workplace communication, conversation, problem-solving and conflict resolution concept illustration. EPS 10 file. Transparenc
Workplace communication, conversation, problem-solving and conflict resolution concept illustration. EPS 10 file. Transparency effects used on highlight elements.

A few days ago, a religious school student asked me to share my thoughts on what day was the most important on the Jewish calendar. Surprising myself, I did not say Passover,where we remember the Exodus from Egypt, or Yom Kippur, the solemn day of introspection. Rather, the answer I gave was a commemorative day that I had only recently learned about. I responded to the student that I thought the 9th of Adar was the most important date on the Jewish calendar. The student, his peers and his teachers all looked at me strangely. None of them had heard of this day.

According to Jewish tradition, 2000 years ago, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the usual peaceful and constructive disagreements between two dynasties of Jewish thought, known as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, erupted into a destructive conflict over 18 legal matters. They mostly disagreed about issues regarding maintaining insular communities and family purity. The disagreements turned so violent that they led to the death of thousands. The day was said to be as tragic as the day the Golden Calf was created, when the Israelites got impatient waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain following the Revelation at Sinai. Our medieval sages declared the 9th of Adar as a fast day, but it was never observed.

For Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai to have arguments get so out of hand was not the norm at all for them. Even though they had more than 300 disagreements between them, the Mishna teaches that they exemplified machloket l'shem Shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of Heaven (Avot 5:17). Most of the time they conducted their wide ranging disagreements with respect and authentic desire for the common good.

The Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, part of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, dreamed of the 9Adar Project, to re-imagine and re-purpose this date when such tragedy occurred. In addition, they are advocating for a Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, which is happening now, dedicated to "increasing public awareness around the values and skills of constructive conflict as well as awareness of organizations that work to promote these values and skills year round".

The reason that I told my student that 9 Adar is the most important date on the Jewish calendar is because the undermining values and ethics of this day influence every single community with which we affiliate, either by birth or by choice. Everyone argues. Families, classmates, colleagues, friends, boards and, as we see it seemingly everyday, politicians argue. And, we rarely engage in constructive conflict.

For example, this lead up to the current US presidential election is getting uglier with each passing day. Candidates of opposing parties attack each other, and the rhetoric within parties is contentious. The leading candidates are not engaging in conflict like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai usually did, rather, they bring us back to the tone of that historical 9th of Adar. Thankfully, we have not seen any physical violence...yet.

Jewish tradition advocates for machloket l'shem shemayim. With this kind of argument, one can argue with another person while still respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other. When we argue this way, we look for the best solution, and not just to win. Too often when we disagree with another person we care about we speak in absolutes, which leads no room for back and forth, or shaklya v'tarya, the Aramaic term used for give and take in the Talmud.

I encourage everyone to dedicate the 9th of Adar (which falls this year on Thursday, February 18, 2016) to fast, but not to refrain from eating and drinking. Rather, dedicate this day to fasting from destructive speech. Pay attention to your words.

While the Torah teaches that we always speak respectfully to one another and never say things about others behind their backs, let's all try to dedicate one entire day to abstaining from gossip or evil speech about another, whether we know them or not.

Join the 9 Adar Revolution this year. For more information, check out www.9Adar.org.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the Spiritual Leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY. She is a member of the Rabbis Without Borders network and on the Executive Team of Rabbis Against Gun Violence.