Kol Nidre 5777: Speaking to those with whom we disagree

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 October 2016

In the autumn of 1954, a group of researchers from the University of Minnesota infiltrated a small cult, led by a woman named Dorothy Martin.  Martin claimed that she was in contact with powerful figures from the planet Clarion who had told her that the world would end just before dawn on 21 December that year.  True believers, though, were not to worry.  They would be saved from the apocalypse – by a spaceship that would pick them up from the garden of her small Chicago home.

The researchers, working on the assumption that this would not be exactly how things turned out, were interested to see what happened when the spaceship didn’t come.  How would this group, with their strongly shared common view, respond when faced with incontrovertible evidence that their belief was not correct?

Their theory was that rather than being dissuaded from their views, rather than acknowledging that they were wrong, the cult would actually become more committed and more vocal.
And this is exactly what happened.
Within a few hours of the spaceship not arriving, and the world not ending, after a short period of disappointment and distress, the group had reinvented the events of the evening.  By the next morning, the apparent failure had been redefined as success.  Through their actions the world had been saved.
As the researchers wrote in the book that followed, titled “When Prophecy Fails” (1), they found an “adequate, even elegant, explanation of the disconfirmation…  The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction”.

The social psychologist who led the research, a man called Leon Festinger, would later come up with a term to explain behaviour such as this.  He called it cognitive dissonance.  The human inclination to either avoid challenging information, or to redefine it to fit with our pre-existing belief, especially where those beliefs are ones we’ve invested in, that we hold with particular certainty.  This being easier than to change our cognition or behaviour.

It is a fascinating psychological phenomenon, one that all of us experience in our lives.  It is one of those things that if we are self-reflective enough we occasionally catch ourselves doing.

But it is more than that.
In our modern day the effects of cognitive dissonance are part of a broader pattern of behaviour that is having a devastating effect on our public discourse and our society.
Where once a group approaching the world with its own understanding of events already fixed, opinions firmly in hand, reinterpreting what they see according to their own model, with a shared, unshakeable certainty would be called a cult, nowadays it is a norm of modern politics.

Look at the vitriol, the anger rather than engagement with the argument, in any online thread under any piece of serious journalism; look at the spin room after the tawdry American Presidential debates (did anyone doubt that Fox or Breitbart would declare Trump the winner on Sunday night); experience the uncompromising passion of a Momentum rally; or live through, as we all had to, the brash certainty of the Brexit debate… and the brash certainty that has followed it.
The possibility of complexity or doubt; the possibility of a real, detailed policy debate; the possibility anyone might change their mind. These feel like wishful thinking.

For a variety of reasons: the inadequacy of our leaders, maybe; the fragmentation of the media, the development of social media, we live in an age which has seen the downgrading, the devaluing of facts, replaced by the new (what an awful word) “perspectivism” where something is right merely because enough people believe it to be so; the rejection of thoughtful, respectful argument in favour of closed conversation with other believers.  The rewriting of events, and evidence to meet our own needs.

In his recent book, “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?” (2), the former Director-General of the BBC, now CEO of the New York Times, Mark Thompson describes the decline of modern political rhetoric.  One phenomenon he describes is the fragmentation of the media in the US.  A paradoxical result of greater political division, he states, is the decline in people actually talking to each other.  “Everyone in any given studio or political website” he describes “would agree with one another.  The people with whom they all disagreed were absent… gathered in a different studio making the opposite case in an equally cosy ideological cocoon where they faced the same low risk of contradiction”

The ideological cocoon is even more comfortable on social media.  This from the most recent Economist (3) about the reality of living in what we now, with terrifying calmness refer to as “the post-truth age”:
“Lies that are widely shared online within a network, whose members trust each other more than they trust any mainstream media source, can quickly take on the appearance of truth.  Presented with evidence that contradicts a belief that is dearly held, people have a tendency to ditch the facts first.”  Or to quote Shirley Williams, who lived politics in a different age: “We are fighting an uphill battle for truth, to be able to base people’s opinions on facts and not on the stuff they have presented on Twitter” (4).

* * *

This impoverishment of our public discourse is dangerous.
It leads to a diminishing of our democracy, and ultimately to bad public policy.  As Thompson puts it, “The zone of ambiguity and flexibility – that zone where almost all political progress takes place – has become rhetorically unsupportable”.
Or to put it another way, how can we possibly answer the big questions of our lives if we can’t have a robust, reasonable, substantive debate; if we can’t see even the glimmer of possibility that we might not be right.

It is dangerous.  And as Jews it is also utterly antithetical to our core cultural values.  As Jews we are heirs to a tradition that stands in complete contrast to these features of modern discourse; heirs to a tradition in which we are duty bound, commanded even, to engage with the other voice in a debate.

Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in what is, to me, the most powerful of all rabbinic texts.  The Tosefta, a collection of early rabbinic traditions asks (Tosefta Sotah 7:12): “Since the House of Shammai declares something unclean and the House of Hillel declares it clean, this one prohibits and that one permits, how then can we learn Torah?”
How do we cope with difference, with disagreement about questions of religious life?
The answer it gives is not that we choose one and close ourselves to the other.  Rather: “All the words have been given by a single Shepherd, one God created them… So make yourself a heart of many rooms. Bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the words of the house of Hillel”.
It is an extraordinary idea:  not just that there is complexity and ambiguity, but that this complexity and ambiguity is divine in origin.   As the Yerushalmi puts it (Sanhedrin 2:2): “the Torah can be expounded in 49 ways on the side of purity and 49 ways on the side of impurity”.
Things are not simple; often there is more than one possible answer to a question; decisions can be, if not arbitrary, then close run things.
And in such a world – and ours is such a world – you need to be able to see and understand multiple viewpoints.

It’s an idea which infuses classical rabbinic Judaism (even though many in the wider Jewish community have lost sight of it).  Excellence to the rabbis was not in certainty, or strength of opinion, but rather in proud poly-vocality, in the ability to hold multiple voices.  To quote the scholar Rabbi David Hartman: “The test of excellence of the Torah scholar was the ability to… explain and defend both sides of a disagreement by offering imaginative and compelling reasons for both positions” (5)

In such a tradition, the details of the debate really matter.  Headlines and spin are insufficient.  One of the most important contributions to Judaism was made by a group of people about whom we know remarkably little.  They are known as the Stammaim.  They lived in Babylon in the period between 600 and 750.  They were the inheritors of a large number of, often contradictory, traditions and legal sayings, brought to them as simple statements in the name of rabbis from the previous half a millennium.  What they did with them would come to define Jewish life.  They took them, and, as best they could, they reconstructed the details of the arguments (6).  It is why the Babylonian Talmud, which was the product of their work, can be so difficult – it is a reconstruction by a group of sages who understood that the complex detail of an argument really matters.

Central to Jewish life, then, is the idea that we sit with those with whom we disagree and argue.
Argument is at the heart of our tradition.

Which is not the same as what we saw the night before last in St Louis.  Or, indeed, in the weeks leading up to the referendum on 23 June.
That was not argument.

Rabbinic dialectic was often robust.  But, when we recognise that issues are complex, this means that we also approach those with whom we disagree with respect rather than exaggeration and abuse, and our arguments are a shared search for truth.
Famously, in the dispute between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai described in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 13b), the argument during which a bat kol, a heavenly voice, declared: “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim” – “These and these are the words of the living God”; famously, Hillel’s views prevailed not because they were louder, more strident, but because they also studied, and respectfully quoted, the rulings of their opponent.

The nature of rabbinic dialectic has much to teach us for our discourse: the absolute prohibition on trying to humiliate the person with whom you disagree, the centrality of honesty, the importance of p’sharah, of compromise, for sometimes it is not enough to be right to reach a good outcome.

I will mention in detail just one more thing we can learn from Judaism.  And that is that it is OK to have limitations to our knowledge.  We don’t need to know everything.
When we are studying bible or Talmud, we very often do so with reference to Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator.  Yet, as the eighteenth century scholar, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, points out, Rashi, with extraordinary intellectual honesty, states in 44 places in his commentary to the Talmud, and 77 times about something in the Bible: “I do not know what this means.”
It is OK not to know, not to be certain.

* * *

So, apart from being annoyed, what are we, as Jews to do about the current state of public discourse?

It is not in our power to save rhetoric and debate from itself.
But it is in our power not to be drawn in, to be better ourselves.
It is in our power to be a critical audience

It is in our power to role model a better way of arguing for our children.  To not merely value their strength of opinion, but their doubt.  To tell our children that it is OK not to know, OK to struggle, OK to have not yet made up their minds.  That complexity is not something to be scared of, but good – of divine origin.  To tell them that it is alright, wonderful, to disagree, but they need to do so respectfully, and learn from one another.  To quote another rabbinic text (Pirkei Avot 4:1): “Eizehu Chacham” – “who is wise?”  “Ha-lomed mi-kol Adam” – “the one who learns from every person”.

* * *

In the research following the observation of Dorothy Martin’s cult, Leon Festinger and his colleagues emphasised that cognitive dissonance is somehow self-generating.  The more we invest in our own certainty, the harder it is, psychologically, to change our minds, the more important it becomes that we are right and the harder it becomes to hear the possibility that we are wrong.  We exist in what Justin Wise referred to in a sermon a few months ago at Alyth as a self-supporting cycle of certainty and fear.

On this evening we have the ability to break that cycle.  On Kol Nidre we “ask to be released from our own failings”, to be given the opportunity to change.
Tonight is a night to break the circle of certainty.
To commit that from today we will read the articles we know we won’t agree with – not just in order to disagree, but to hear the voice of the other.
And, more importantly, to commit to talk to each other.  We have the privilege of living in a community in which we don’t always agree, but can find space to hear and learn from one another.  Let us have the difficult, complex conversations: on politics, on Israel, on Judaism, on Alyth even.  They may be difficult, but these are the conversations that make the difference.
Let us build ourselves a heart of many rooms.

If we live in a bubble of our own making, with unshakeable certainty in our own rightness; if we do not engage with others with whom we disagree; then, when the spaceship doesn’t come – as surely it won’t – then we will, ultimately, be left like the followers of Dorothy Martin: waiting for words from the Planet Clarion, with nowhere left to go.



(1) When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World; Festinger, Riecken and Schachter; 1956
(2) Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?; Mark Thompson; 2016
(3) Post Truth Politics: Art of the Lie; The Economist; September 2016
(4) Quoted in Thompson, 2016
(5) in A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism; David Hartman, 1999
(6) For more on the Stammaim, see The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud; David Weiss HaLivni, trans. Jeffery L Rubenstein; 2013