Sacred Conversation in the Midst of Conflict

Two Somali-American imams, a woman in hijab, an African-American pastor, and two American women rabbis come to Jerusalem. Sound like the beginning of a joke? It was no joke.

In January, 2016, I had the privilege of leading a multi-religious pilgrimage to Israel and the West Bank: a group of 21 travelers--Jews, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, and a Buddhist practitioner--nearly all of them from Minnesota. The goal was to travel together to a region infused with both sanctity and conflict, all the while practicing the art of rigorous and respectful dialogue. The trip was a resounding success.

Our group visited some of the holiest places in the world, and learned about what these places mean to people for whom these sites are sacred. We encountered many perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meeting with a member of Knesset and an official of the Fatah party, visiting settlements and a Palestinian refugee camp, listening to Israeli and Palestinian parents who had lost children to violence, and reveling in the remarkable work of grassroots peacemakers in both Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Our heads and hearts ached from the pain we encountered and from the dizzyingly different perspectives on the same events. We struggled to reconcile sharply different narratives about history, politics, and identity. We experienced wide swings of emotions, cycling from despair to inspiration, sometimes multiple times in a single day. We yearned to imagine solutions that could finally bring an end to the conflict.

All the while, we talked to one another, in both formal and informal dialogue sessions. The conversations were not easy. Although the travelers were all deeply kind and open-hearted religious people, we had come with different relationships to the conflict and very different views. Most of us were offended by some things we saw and heard. There was nothing easy about the work of dialogue, trying to encounter the humanity of a great variety of people, and participating in challenging conversation across lines of religion, ethnicity, and political orientation.

Remarkably, the acrimony and hostile rhetoric that so often typifies conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was entirely absent. Group members were almost always gentle and caring with one another, leaning in to understand one another's perspectives, working together in the sacred task of discerning truth in a complex and immensely painful situation. We had moments of prayer before setting out each day on the bus, and we shared prayer in multiple religious sites, as well as at several synagogues in Jerusalem on Shabbat. But just as holy as the formal prayer times was the sight of these people engaged in our holy work: insisting on honoring the full humanity of the other, even in the presence of strong disagreement.

Back home from the trip, I returned to my work for the Pardes Rodef Shalom Communities Program, where, among other things, we encourage communities to use the 9th of Adar (this year, February 18th) as an occasion to create communal programming around issues of peace and conflict. Why the 9th of Adar? According to classical Jewish sources, on the 9th of Adar some two thousand years ago, terrible conflict erupted between Hillel and Shammai, famous for their ability to disagree "for the sake of heaven." They are associated with the great Jewish idea of "mahloket l'shem shamayim" - "dispute for the sake of heaven," in which disagreement is conducted constructively, with respect and caring for the other, and with a desire to seek greater truth than any one person can reach alone. Some sources record that there was a threat of violence on that 9th day of Adar in the study hall. Others record that swords were drawn and three thousand people died. Still others say there was no physical violence, but the eruption of dispute was seen as potentially dangerous. The day was declared a fast day, along with other tragic days in the Jewish calendar.

It is by no means easy to be our best selves when discussing highly contentious issues that touch on our most deeply held commitments. Our instincts in such situations often lead us into fight-or-flight mode, in which we react as if the other's words represent a mortal threat to us. No wonder such conversations are often associated with animosity and estrangement.

But there is another way. There is the way of Hillel and Shammai (after they learned the lessons of the 9th of Adar). It is possible to explore these most challenging issues with unfailing respect for self and other, with commitment to the search for truth and deepened understanding. There is the way of "mahloket l'shem shamayim." I am so grateful to my group of travelers, who showed me that it is possible.