It’s National Conversation Week and, in the aftermath of last week’s New Zealand terrorist attack, it’s a stark reminder there needs to be change in how we tackle conversations of hate. We all know the adage, “three Jews, four opinions”, and disagreement, when done well, can be a fantastic way to stretch our minds and understand the world better.
But the way we’ve been having conversations doesn’t fill me with hope. We saw last week the outcome of some of these poisonous, hate-filled conversations: murder.
The Talmud is a brilliant example of how Judaism excels at framing how conversations should go: The final decision isn’t always important, the path the conversation takes to get there is more interesting. The voice of the minority is recorded, and valued. Those who mistreat the loser in a debate suffer. And the meaning of what is going on can be continually discussed and revisited, only making them more and more interesting.
That’s not to say the Talmud always specialises in good conversations. Rashi, the 11th century rabbi who authored essential commentary on the Talmud, is in places dismissed, even mocked, by the next generation of commentators, the Tosafists.
But if people of the future were to look at our discourse today, especially what is written, I wonder if they’ll find it far more mocking and dismissive than that of respectful disagreement.
Conversations can be transformative. Interfaith dialogue has taught me that I know what I have said, but I have no idea what you have heard! This has led to conversations going awry, but we as a society have entirely lost the ability to disagree well.
Perhaps we could use the Talmud to demonstrate to the community, and to Britain more broadly, that there are better ways to disagree, and help us enjoy the art of conversation.
Conversations, and feeling heard, are important. But sometimes we need “a little less conversation, a little more action”. When it comes to the horrors of terrorism and mass shootings, thoughts and prayers aren’t enough – we have to act to change the language of hate, to challenge those who hate, to bring more goodness into the world and, as New Zealand’s prime minister of has done, to ensure it is infinitely harder to acquire the weapons that allow mass murder.
- Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at the Movement for Reform Judaism