Noam: Hey everyone, welcome to Wondering Jews, where we will wonder together. That was an alliteration.
Mijal: I am Mijal Bitton. I’m a Jewish spiritual leader, a sociologist, and someone who loves asking questions and having new experiences.
Noam: I’m Noam Weissman, I’m an educator and the host of another podcast, “Unpacking Israeli History.” And this podcast is our way of trying to understand the Jewish world and the world around us, how to understand our present, our history, our ideas, and everything else.
Mijal: And this is how this is going to work. Every week, one of us is going to lead the other one in conversation about a topic that we’ve been thinking about, struggling with, maybe even arguing about. It’ll be respectful, but also hopefully honest and provocative.
Noam: I like that part.
Mijal: But before we dive into this week’s episode, let’s get to know each other a little bit better. Noam, usually we’re gonna take some questions from our audience, but since it’s the first episode, we don’t really have an audience yet. So this week we’ll open with a question from our producer Rivky.
Noam: Okay, I’m ready.
Mijal: So Noam, here it goes. If you could have dinner with any person throughout history, who would you pick? And obviously why?
Noam: I’m gonna cheat in answering this question, as you could probably imagine. Here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna answer it by saying, it’s not the person I wanna have dinner with, but two people I wanna have dinner with, because I want them to be in conversation.
Mijal: No, Noam, no, you can’t cheat.
Noam: It’s what I’m gonna do. Yes, so listen, listen to this cheat. Listen to this cheat, listen to this cheat first. I wanna have Yeshayahu Leibowitz in conversation with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And I want to moderate that conversation and see how that goes. That’s what I want to do.
Mijal: Okay, first of all, that’s just majorly cheating. Second of all, can you tell us, who are these two people, and why do you want them to be in conversation?
Noam: So Yeshayahu Leibowitz is this incredibly provocative, smart, thoughtful Israeli philosopher who had a lot of controversial things to say. But he was a big thinker that people thought a lot about. And he always provokes me to think about my own ideas. So whenever anyone’s doing that, I get going. And then the rabbi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he’s a person who is…changed, I think, the Jewish world forever. Changed it, just changed it. But the two of them have different concepts of what Judaism should look like. And so to imagine them in conversation would just be fun. It’ll just be a lot of fun for me. How about you?
Mijal: Well, that’s an interesting definition of fun, Noam. So I’m going to follow the rules because I tend to be a rule follower. So if I had to choose one person to have dinner with, I keep going back to Abraham Lincoln, actually. Well, first of all, I just love him, just as an example for what he accomplished, where he came from, his leadership, it’s really astounding. But I think he’s someone who saw the dark side in the world, who had to take on major battles, who had to have moral clarity and fight for things. And I think for those of us who feel a little bit the heaviness of this moment after month of October 7th, to speak with a leader who was able to lead a divided country to fight against slavery and abolish it, to go, you know, to lead a civil war in which the North won and to then be able to lead the country forward. I would have so many questions for him for what it meant to live through that and to lead through that.
Noam: I love that. My father’s hero is Abraham Lincoln. So I grew up with so many biographies of Abraham Lincoln in my house. I love the idea of meeting with Lincoln. Maybe your answer is better.
Mijal: 100% my answer is better.
Noam: But I have one more thing to say, look at this. I have a book. This is a book that I read to my six-year-old daughter every night, I’m flexing, and it’s called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. And these women are incredible. Jill Tarter. Jane Goodall. Jane Austin, a name I can’t pronounce, Grace O’Malley, amazing people, Grace Hopper. These are unbelievable leaders, people who change the world. These are all women I would love to have dinner with, with my daughters and these women. So I’m just saying that also. So I cheated a lot, but those are people I want to hang out with.
Mijal: Yeah, no, you seem to have difficulty following rules.
Noam: But Mijal, we’re different. You’re the rule follower between the two of us. But here’s what we’re gonna do. In this inaugural episode of Wondering Jews, we’re gonna talk about questions, okay? We figured that it was apt to ask questions because this show is really all about questions. So we’re gonna start with three questions.
Mijal: Noam, do we have to answer all the questions?
Noam: No, well, you know what? I was gonna say as a rule follower, yes, you have to, but no, we do not have to answer all the questions. It’s okay. It’s okay to leave with some questions. And I’ll tell you, by the way, I study with fourth and fifth graders on every Saturday afternoon, every Shabbat afternoon. And at the end of it, I give awards, and one of the awards I give is Best Question of the Day. Not best answer, best question. I like asking questions. I think it’s really important.
Mijal: You know, I’m very competitive, Noam, I really want that. I really want that award. Best question of the day. Okay, go for it. Yeah.
Noam: I think you’d win. I think you’d win. I think you’d win. So, Mijal, here’s what I want to do. I want to share with you three questions, and let me give you the scenario. The scenario is, since 10/7, Israel has gone into Gaza, and thousands of civilians have been killed. And it’s been incredibly, incredibly difficult to see. Israel’s gonna do what it has to do to win the war. We know that. You’re not a military strategist, but when you hear that scenario that I just spoke about where so many innocent Gazans, innocent Palestinians are being killed, what’s your visceral, your physical reaction to that moment? And how do you deal with that?
My second question is, what do you do with difficult questions like this? When they come up, if you’re with your friends, if you’re in a WhatsApp group, how do you deal with difficult questions in general? Meaning this is one example, but we all have many difficult questions.
And my third question to you is, are there boundaries? Are there boundaries for difficult questions that you feel like some topics are simply outside the boundary? And are there examples of those sorts of questions?
Mijal: Okay, so Noam, you’re asking, how am I reacting when I hear a question like that?
Noam: Yeah, what’s your, what’s your visceral reaction?
Mijal: I mean, I just want to cry. Like we see the carnage, the pain, the suffering. And I think my first reaction is just very emotional. There’s something to me that just feels in pain, and almost wanting to hide under a blanket and like say like, I don’t want to think about this. I don’t want to live in a world where these are the questions that we have. But what’s your take, Noam? When you’re confronted with this question, what’s your first reaction?
Noam: I think depending on the context, I’m different. Like you and I are both, we’re out in the public teaching. And when people ask me these sorts of questions, I know what the right answer is to answer these sorts of difficult moments, you know. But like you said, like there’s a human component also, and the human component is tougher for me because at a Shabbat table, for example, people bring up what’s going on in Israel. And there was one time where at the Shabbat meal, someone brought up Israel and 10/7 and how to deal with it, and the other person responded, let’s call him Devin. Devin said, you know, I don’t want to talk about this. But the other person really wanted to talk about it because it was really difficult for them, the antisemitism going on in the world, the very fact that Israel was massacred and like strong feelings that they have to do what they have to do to defend themselves. And I’m sitting there, I’m hosting this meal, I’m supposed to know how to deal with this, I’m an educator, and I’ll tell you what my feeling was. Awkwardness, awkward. That was my reaction.
Mijal: So you’re saying awkwardness because you have two people who clearly are holding a lot at this moment and they’re reacting very differently. One of them wants to jump in, the other one does not want to engage and no one knows why in this kind of conversation.
Noam: Right, right. Nothing’s clear as to why, but there is definitely a subtext that’s felt that it’s because one person feels strongly about the fact that Israel has to do what it has to do and the other person is much more unsure about that.
Mijal: Yeah, the other thing that comes to mind when you ask this question is that I know there’s like a narrative war going on. And you know, I’ll put my cards on the table. It’s very clear to me what side of things I’m in. So I’ve got like my answer that that has to do with this narrative war and that also understands how much propaganda exists out there. But I’m also a person. We all are, right? And I have my own kind of way that I think and feel, as a human being, as a mother. Like when I look at pictures of mothers, no matter what nationality in the world, I don’t think any of us feels differently about our babies or our children. So that’s really hard to kind of feel like we’re in this war of narratives and also have our own human reactions to questions.
And the other thing that’s really hard, Noam, and I think you began to get to that with your scenario, you spoke about a Friday night dinner, but I’ve had this conversation with Jews, I’ve had them with non-Jews. I’ve been asked this question in an audience that included interfaith groups and Muslims and Palestinians. And honestly, there are such different ways to address this question that is so complicated and painful and tragic, depending also on who you’re talking to. So that just makes it really hard.
Noam: Yeah, I agree. The context definitely matters for all this, but, what I’m struggling with is, and I think what a lot of people struggle with is when you’re in those conversations, what do we say? What do we actually do? Is there Jewish wisdom that helps guide you in a moment like this?
Mijal: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, first of all, I would say I never think there’s like a one side fits all kind of like wisdom for these kind of moments. And for me, a lot of it has to do actually with the third question you posed around boundaries, around when I’m choosing to engage. Because I don’t choose to engage at all times. And I don’t think we should choose to engage at all times.
Noam: When don’t we engage? When do you not engage?
Mijal: So well, first of all, I don’t engage in social media with trolls. OK, whatever. But in terms of like interlocutors, I will not engage with anybody who justifies terror against civilians and against Jews. And I will not engage with anyone who denies what happened on October 7th. If.
If it’s somebody who doesn’t say that terror is justified and if they don’t deny what happened, then I am willing and I have engaged with people who are in really different places. Not everyone can do it at all times and I cannot do it at all times, but if I’m able to, then I actually think it’s not just okay, but it’s really, really important to engage. Do you have any red lines, Noam, or any boundaries?
Noam: In life, yeah.
Mijal: I don’t mean in life. We’re going to get to those at a different time.
Noam: In this context? Okay, fair enough. Well, I could get to those, but I want to stay on this because I’m struggling with it. I want to talk to you about what that struggle is. I want to know what I should have done at that Shabbat table, because I’ll tell you what I did. What I did was, you know, when people are in a difficult position, they either engage, they retreat, or they freeze. So I froze. And then I did what I like to do in these moments. I diverted the conversation and said something probably silly, and then we all moved on. But I know it didn’t solve the issue, not even a little bit. So that’s why I’m asking you, I think this is a very live situation where we have family members. When I think of the Jewish people, for example, I think it was Rabbi David Wolpe, who first described the Jewish people as a Jewish family. That’s what it means to be part of the Jewish family.
Mijal: I mean, this goes back generations. Going back to Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and the rest of the people, yeah, sorry, sorry now, I’m going to get annoying like that.
Noam: Okay, okay. So basically what, I like it. But no, but that’s fine. Please. I’m saying that Rabbi Wolpe is harnessing the history of the Jewish family to demonstrate that, what does it mean to be Jewish? It means part of a Jewish family. Meaning it’s more than an ethnicity, it’s more than a culture, it’s more than a religion, it’s certainly not a race. And what is it? It’s part of this big religious family? The reason I’m mentioning this, whether I’m giving him too much credit or not, a separate conversation, is because…
Mijal: He’s wonderful by the way, big fan. In case you’re listening, Rabbi Wolpe, big fan!
Noam: Okay, okay, there it is, there it is, big fan, Mijal Bitton. So the thing that’s interesting to me though is being part of a family means that, you know, if you’ve ever had for the Americans out there Thanksgiving dinner, you’re not always going to have a great time with your family, but they’re part of your family. They’re going to have different views, different ideas, different everything, but they’re part of your family. To be a Jewish means to be part of a religious family. Some are more religious, some are zero religious, but you’re part of family. And part of that family, we know it’s gonna fray. We know it’s gonna see things differently. And at that proverbial table, how do we deal with this as an extended family? How do we talk about it?
Mijal: Well, but Noam, actually, I think with that metaphor of a family, then diverting the conversation is not a bad thing to do. I don’t know about your family, I’ll speak about my family.
Noam: Okay. Let’s hear about your family.
Mijal: I’m one of seven kids.
Noam: Seven kids??
Mijal: I’m one of seven, I don’t have seven kids. I am one of seven. I have six siblings.
Noam: I understand. No, I got that. You’re one of seven.
Mijal: But we are a very loud Latina family that loves arguing. And we actually have some pretty significant divisions internally in terms of some things that we believe in and politics and think about. And I’ve spent years now thinking about what does it mean to be in family when you disagree really strongly. And very often, if you are at a meal together, the answer is you divert the conversation, right? I think that it’s different whether you’re in a place where you’re trying to answer something or whether you’re just trying to share a nice Shabbat or Thanksgiving meal. And I actually think that that’s something that I do plenty and a lot of people I know do plenty as something good to do. You know what I mean? To insist that we can hang out with each other.
And it’s okay to have awkward moments and it’s okay to say, you know, right now we’re at a Shabbat meal. We’re not supposed to answer or figure this out or do politics right now at a Shabbat.
Noam: Here’s what’s sad to me though. And it’s so predictable, but it’s sad. 10/7, there was shock. 10/8, I think what happened was a unity that we hadn’t seen in a very long time. And you could say it was superficial, short-lived. But now we live in a world in which that unity doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. And the pain that I feel at a Shabbat meal like that is I wish there was more unity. I want Devin to feel what I feel and Mijal, to feel what you feel, which is this unbelievable pain for the Jewish people, this unbelievable pain for the state of Israel, this unbelievable pain. And yes, human pain writ large as well. But I kind of feel as though the reason my other friend was really frustrated was he didn’t feel heard. He felt shut down and it almost feels like there’s it’s paralysis at that moment because there’s nowhere to go because if I’m going to make this person feel okay, the first person who wants to talk about it, then I’m going to necessarily be harming the other person and the other person I disagreed with. I didn’t like that he said, let’s not talk about this.
Mijal: Well, Noam, you have no idea why he said let’s not talk about it. You have no idea, do you?
Noam: I would say I am not sure 100% as to the reason why. But it certainly seemed as though it’s because their perspective they knew would make the rest of the Shabbat table feel uncomfortable, which is why they didn’t want to talk about it. But you’re right, there is a presumption behind all of us.
Mijal: I just think that right now we’re all holding so many emotions. I know there’s times when I don’t want to talk about things because I can’t emotionally or for whatever reason. I don’t know. Listen, Noam, I think there’s also a distinction that I make that’s important to me. I have my circle of friends. I have my family members. I have my community that I will mourn with, bleed with, pray with. And then I have people that I will engage in conversation with. And they’re often outside of that circle.
And I think that those are different and you do different things. So I think there’s some people that I want to be with, be myself fully and just let go and just be able to not have to explain why I feel a certain thing. And then there’s people that I will insist that I want to engage with who are in a very different place. Do you get what I’m saying? Like, I’m not going to treat these two things as the same thing.
Noam: I do got it. I got it. And I think that…
Mijal: And I think you were being a good host.
Noam: Yeah, I may have been a good host. I don’t know. I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. There was no free will at that moment. I just did what my body told me to do, which was to distract, say something funny, and move on.
Mijal: Listen, I’ll give my own example. I was part of a certain interfaith encounter. And the host that invited me introduced me by sharing some words about Israel. And about, I would say, Jews, that I actually felt was really, really hurtful and offensive. Basically kind of like saying something like, I’m gonna maybe caricature this a little bit, but you know, we should turn the other cheek to terror. And I think they were saying it thinking that I wouldn’t mind. And I had this moment there and there was an audience and it was live. And you asked me how things feel, right?
And I am on the one hand, I’m like, my stomach is hurting because he’s saying something that I find so painful. And I had to figure out on the spot, how do I engage? How do I answer? But the calculus that I had in my mind is how do I honor the fact that I was invited here? How do I honor the fact that I really don’t think this person has bad intentions? And at the same time, how do I honor my own sense of dignity as a Jew? And speaking up for my people. So there’s all these different factors.
Noam: So what’d you do? What did you do?
Mijal: What did I do? I’m going to say this a lot, but I try to think, what would Rabbi Sacks do? I had like one minute to figure this out while he was finishing.
Noam: So tell me about Rabbi Sacks. I love Rabbi Sacks, but tell me about him.
Mijal: Okay, I would need like many, many hours to talk about Rabbi Sacks.
Noam: So, no, tell me about him in 30 seconds. 30 seconds.
Mijal: I know, I know I wasn’t gonna, Noam, I wasn’t gonna do hours. He was an amazing thinker, spiritual leader, rabbi, a personal teacher of mine. And I would say he had a voice that could speak across difference. And you know what he would do now in these moments when he was engaging? The first thing that he would do is he would try to acknowledge where the other person is coming from. And even when people like he would disagree with so much.
Noam: What a simple but brilliant tool of human communication. Simply see where the other person’s coming from first and demonstrate, interpret them charitably also, yeah or no?
Mijal: Yeah, yeah. And I would say that you can do this when you have certain red lines, right? So I’m not doing this with someone who’s denying what happened on October 7th. I’m not doing this with someone who’s justifying terror. There I will never do something like this. I think that’s, you know, capitulating to evil, if you want me to be dramatic here.
Noam: I like drama.
Mijal: All right, a little bit of drama. But I tried to do that, Noam, I actually tried to acknowledge that we’re going to agree on some things, disagree on others. I tried to acknowledge where I thought this person said things that moved me and that I had a similar religious impulse and I would agree with. And then I said very clearly where I stand in a different place and I made my case for it. And I spoke there about what it means to be someone who believes in peace and who also believes that we cannot turn the other cheek to terror because that would just increase terror and increase more death and suffering for everybody.
So I had to do this, you know, on the spot. And it was really hard. And I felt like, you know, when you feel like your temperature in your body just goes up and you’re like in fight or flight mode. I really felt like I was in this like fight or flight mode. But I did my best.
Noam: So you were in fight or flight mode, and I said, when there’s fight or flight, I freeze. Your fight or flight, you’re ready to go. But I’ll just tell you an idea that I’ve heard recently that I think really addresses something you did that I just learned a heck of a lot from. There’s this idea that, when you’re climbing a mountain, and you’re at high altitude. It’s very hard to make good decisions because you’re stressed out, your breathing isn’t good. It’s very hard. So if you’re posed with a really difficult ethical decision when you’re climbing this mountain, it’s hard. You’re feeling stress. So what you have to do before you get to the top of that mountain, where you have no oxygen, you have to decide way in advance how to think about something, what your red lines are, what your values are.
So that when you’re in that moment that you’re talking about, it’s actually in many ways incredibly rehearsed already so that you don’t feel uncomfortable. You don’t feel overly stressed out to the point that you can’t breathe, that you don’t have oxygen. That’s what you did.
Mijal: Right. Well, thank you for that. My new metaphor for life, climbing a mountain and preparing beforehand. Yeah, I do. I do think that the more that we try certain things, the more muscles we build and they’re less hard. I guess. But I want to go now to something you said earlier. I think this kind of conversation I just described and your dinner table on Shabbat are so different from each other. And I think they actually require very different things.
Noam: Yeah, you’re right.
Mijal: And my goal, as a host, unless someone says something that I find like morally repugnant, I want people to enjoy Shabbat meal together and to be comfortable.
Noam: That’s the primary value. That’s the number one value. Yeah.
Mijal: So and to me, now you might run very different Shabbat meals. I don’t know. No, I’ve never been invited so far to your meals.
Noam: Not yet, not yet. This is episode one.
Mijal: Yeah, not yet. But I think there’s a real difference there. That’s why I think in these situations you have to…it’s not one size fits all. You have to see, like, who are you talking to? Why are we here? Are there any like consensus that we have? You know, and it’s not, it’s not simple at all. It’s not simple at all to figure this out.
Noam: I have a thought that I want to share. I like to view myself as an educator. And one of the primary ways that I like to teach is to make sure that there’s this paradigm, I forgot the name of the person who came up with it, so I apologize to the person, but it’s not my idea. There’s two ways to address a difficult situation. Way number one is to be a soldier. A way number two is to be a scout. Two different ways to approach something that’s really challenging, really difficult. A soldier defends, a scout explores, right?
And educationally, I like to think that the goal is to explore more than it is to defend. I’m thinking that right now, the only way to go about the educational experience is to be in defensive mode more than exploratory mode. And for me, that’s particularly difficult as someone who has developed curriculum and created a career that is exclusively about exploration and very little about defensiveness. That’s the thought that I have right now. How about you, Mijal?
Mijal: Well, I want to think more about that metaphor, the scout versus soldier. I’ll add a takeaway here, Noam, which is that maybe we have to, you spoke about exploring and being in war mode and I want to actually add a third, which is like diverting the conversation or spending time together. Or like, I think it’s okay to be in a mode that is about being together with each other and not trying to resolve things or explore them or defend them constantly. And I think we need to insist on that.
Noam: I like it. Thank you. That’s good. Thank you.
Mijal: I want to get an invitation to your Shabbat table.
Mijal: I praised you diverting the conversation before, Noam. I don’t know if I do enough of it actually. So maybe an action item for me would be in these situations to not always go into warrior or scout or spy whatever, scout mode, but to also just pass the challah to the next person.
Noam: Just pass the challah. So long as it comes with a dip. How about that?
Mijal: Matbucha and then we’re sold, we’re good.
Noam: Deal. Sold.
Mijal: Ah, ah, or homemade hummus, that I would be okay with.
Noam: Why homemade? It doesn’t have to be homemade.
Mijal: Have you not tried the difference between homemade and store-bought hummus?
Noam: Okay, that was offensive. That was absolutely offensive.
Mijal: That was not offensive.
Noam: This is my red line, Mijal. Do you think I would buy store-bought hummus? Like, honestly.
Mijal: Yes, yes, I do.
Noam: Oh my—oh my god.
Mijal: Just kidding. I actually buy store-bought hummus because I hate cooking. Yeah, I hate being in the kitchen.
Noam: I don’t. No, we don’t do store-bought hummus.
Mijal: Yeah, okay, so don’t come to my house for it.
Noam: I will bring my own hummus when I come to your house.
Mijal: That’s why I’m gonna invite you.