Jewish people love to disagree. In fact, there is an old Jewish adage: “Two Jews and three opinions.”
And so I present my favorite story about Jews and disagreement.
There once was a Jewish village in which people had forgotten how to affix the mezuzah (parchment with verses from Scripture) on the doorposts of their homes.
Some said that the proper way to affix the mezuzah was on its side and some said up and down. Each side insisted it was right. “Up and down!” “On its side!”
Back and forth they went until someone suggested, “Let’s ask the rabbi.” And so the townspeople brought their disagreement to the rabbi.
The rabbi turned to each side and listened. Stroking his beard, the rabbi said, “You are both right!”
“How can we both be right?” the townspeople shouted. The rabbi stroked his beard again and said, “The problem is that you haven’t read the instructions.”
He explained, “The first word in the first verse on the parchment is Shema/Listen (Deuteronomy 6:4). You must first listen to one another.
“A mezuzah should be standing up a little and lying down a little. You affix a mezuzah diagonally, pointing inward toward your home.”
And so, each side got what it wanted. For a moment, the Jews of the town stopped arguing and chose to listen first and then to speak.
The story reminds us that we will not always agree. We have different opinions. That’s not bad. It’s good.
Jewish people love to disagree. The issue is not agreement or disagreement. The issue is when we disagree, how do we disagree? Do we shout and stomp our feet or do we listen and try to understand?
The art of disagreement has deep roots in Jewish tradition.
Our weekly reading from the Five Books of Moses (Torah) tells of a disagreeable fellow named Korah (Numbers 16). Korah, along with Dotan and Abiram, disagrees with Moses and leads a rebellion in the wilderness.
Accusations fly: “Moses is a dictator; he is power hungry; he is unreasonable,” Korah and his followers say.
And what does Moses do? He appeals to God to be the judge of who is right, and he also sends for Dotan and Abiram. No name-calling and foot-stomping.
The medieval sage Rashi (12th century France) comments that in sending for Dotan and Abiram, Moses set aside his own dignity and feelings of resentment toward those who spoke ill of him and took the initiative to heal this breach in the community. In other words, Moses seeks to understand then to be understood … to listen and then to speak.
Sadly, Moses is rejected and the rebels meet a terrible end. The earth swallows them. But, this is not the end of the story.
This episode is remembered by subsequent generations. Moses becomes the model, our teacher of the Torah of conflict and disagreement. Moshe, Rabbeinu — our Rabbi — is the model for all rabbis.
The great work of rabbis, the Talmud, is full of disagreement and yet there is coherence and unity. How? By listening and then responding. By respecting the contrary opinion to the extent that it is a principle in the Talmud to always record the opinion of the losing side.
We Americans live in a time of great disagreement. We hear calls for unity.
Certainly, unity has its place. But, in reality, we don’t need unity. We need respectful disagreement.
As the Jewish adage teaches, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, in order to teach us that we should listen twice as much as we speak.”