The Power of Healthy Disagreements…with Judah Mischel


What do you do when you feel betrayed? Is it possible to love someone you radically disagree with? What if you just don’t want to “agree to disagree”? This week, join Noam and Rav Judah as they discuss atheism, toxic relationships, and the great green vs black olive debate.

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Episode Transcript


I am not unique. Like most people in 2021, I am both frustrated and fascinated by disagreement. 

Little disagreements come up all the time. Sometimes, in a professional setting, with my colleagues. Sometimes, at the dinner table with my wife. Sometimes, out with friends over a bottle of wine. 

Disagreeing/debating/seeing ideas differently are all a part of life. But sometimes, they don’t just seem like a curiosity – oh, we disagree, that’s interesting, let’s talk about it. They can feel like personal attacks.

People, and yes, I am one of them, struggle with the art and science of disagreement.

To say it has become toxic is well beyond cliche at this point. There are memes, tweets, articles, books, whole tomes on the question of disagreement. So what do we do about this?

In recent years, I’ve become obsessed with figuring out how to disagree with love, respect, and integrity; and I’ve become even more obsessed with thinkers and leaders who push us in this area. And that’s why I had to speak to Rav Judah Mischel, one of my teachers, friends, and yes, one of my rebbes. As you’ll hear, he and I disagree about a lot, and it’s intense.

After speaking with Rav Judah, I realized he has a trait I want to emulate in my life. It’s called humility and curiosity. Adam Grant, a brilliant public intellectual out of the University of Pennsylvania, tells us that “it takes humility to consider information that contradicts your opinions. You’re willing to concede you might be wrong. It takes curiosity to actively seek evidence that challenges your views. You’re eager to find out if you might be wrong.”

How many of us have this disposition? How many of us try to convince others that we are so right about everything and if they only just had the information we had, they would agree? How many of us forget what David Hume, the great philosopher, taught us hundreds of years ago, that it is futile to persuade someone of an idea with logic alone, that does not speak to one’s emotions?

It is so incredibly challenging to be so incredibly passionate about our own ideas on the one hand, and be open to the idea that maybe, just maybe I don’t see the full picture, or at least there are other ideas to consider. And maybe just maybe, the person I am speaking to is a great human being who sees the world differently than me. 

These are the questions I explored with Rav Judah, so ladies and gentlemen, I bring you, Rav Judah Mischel on the topic of Healthy Disagreements. 


Noam: Rav Judah, it is so incredible to have you on the show today on The Power Of. Thank you for joining.

Rav Judah: Thank you so much for having me.

Noam: Rav Judah, there are 10 different topics that we have on the show, The Power Of. I’ve known you for a long time. I wasn’t expecting this to be your go-to topic of the 10. Why did you choose this topic?

Rav Judah: I’ll be honest, the love, success, happiness, I didn’t want to invite stink eye. Fashion… listen, I think I’m doing okay, but there might be other people out there who could be better. Racism, bad for business. You corner me into saying something about how I’m a Jewish supremacist or something like that and I just think that that’s not good for business.

Noam: Hopefully not, but yes.

Rav Judah: Whatever I was saying. So I thought that healthy disagreement… of everything that was left. And also because I feel like it’s something that I’ve been very conscious of and trying over the last number of years to be more mindful and careful with and actually be actively working toward. So I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here.

Noam: I’m incredibly excited to have you here. I’m going to start with Torah. Here’s a piece of Torah I want to share with you. It’s from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, and it goes like this, eizoh hi machloket she’hi l’shem shamayim, what type of dispute is considered l’shem shamayim, meaning I guess, ideal, positive. Maybe that’s not even a great description. And the answer is, zo machloket Hillel Shammai. The answer is, it’s a dispute between and Hillel and Shammai. And what is the type of dispute that is not l’shem shamayim, that is not ideal? The answer is a machloket, a dispute, between Korach v’chol adato, and his entire community.

Rav Judah, break this down for me. What does that mean? What’s the reason, when we think of healthy disagreement in Judaism, why is it the case that Hillel and Shammai in their debate, does the mishnah come to and it says, “Hey, listen, that’s the ideal type of way to have an argument?” Whereas Korach and his congregation is not the ideal. What’s the difference between the two from your perspective?

Rav Judah: So it’s a great question. You know, Hillel and Shammai were bar plugtas, it’s called. They were people who were always, or 99% of the time, were on opposite sides of the perspective of the coin, of the spectrum. And there are over 600 times in Talmud and commentaries where they’re disagreeing. And our Sages tell us, the Talmud tells us, that you would imagine there’d be animosity there, but we know that the students of Beit Shammai, and the descendants of Beit Shammai, the house of Shammai and the students and the descendants of the house of Hillel, married each other. In other words, their disagreements were about ideas. Their disagreements were for a higher purpose toward getting toward the bottom line of really understanding God in the world. And as a contradistinction to someone who was Korach. Korach’s motivations were ego driven. It was about power. It was about status or honor, and had little to do with really getting down to what’s called the emes, so to speak.

Noam: The truth.

Rav Judah: The truth. The truth. So, when we’re talking about what’s l’shem shamayim, what’s for the purpose, a higher purpose, a transcendent purpose, for the sake of heaven, versus for the sake of our own bottom line, our own pocket, our own honor, our own status, those are two paradigms that the Ethics of the Fathers point to.

Noam: I don’t know if the Kotzker Rebbe was the one who said this, but there’s the idea that even mitzvot that are done l’shem shamayim have to be done l’shem shamayim. And so I wanted to ask you, when I think that if you were to ask 80%, 90% of people, if when they’re having a debate are they really acting like Korach, or they’re really acting like Hillel and Shammai? I think most of us, at least at first glance would say, “No, no, I’m not being like Korach. This is about me genuinely believing that this ideal is the right way to go.”

How do you make sure that what we’re doing when we’re disagreeing with one another is not ego driven? What are our checks and balances to ensure that it’s not about me, that it really about the idea and the ideal?

Rav Judah: It’s hard for us to get out of our own way. It’s hard for us to see beyond our own nose. And we often convince ourselves of the righteousness of our position, and most of us lack the self-awareness most of the time to really notice when we are being l’shma, or or l’shem shamayim for the sake of heaven or for the sake of our own, self recognizement, our own ego, our own self promotion. It’s tricky. And this is why we sometimes tend to slide into a very unpleasant place of what’s called sinat chinam, of baseless hatred. Of not understanding that we can disagree with somebody passionately and disagree with an idea or a behavior passionately and deeply without it corroding the basis of a respectful dialogue and relationship.

Noam: Let’s get personal, like Tiesto said, “Let’s get down to business.” Let’s really think about this. I find that very often, we disagree with the people that are closest to us, and it’s most painful when that’s the case, when the people that are most closest to us are the ones having intense disagreements with us. Why do you think that is? And why do you think… do you have examples in your own life where you could turn to, to help us really think about this out loud together? And why do we treat the ones that we’re closest to… why do we often treat them the worst in the world of debate?

Rav Judah: That’s the money shot question right there is, why is it that, when we’re out and about in the street with the people that we work with and the people that we interact with, the strangers, we can act polite and patient and with grace, and then we come home and we can sort of speak, let our guard down. In a place where we really ought to be our best selves we sometimes just regress into this very, lowest common denominator of self and forget about it and go back home and you leave your underwear on the floor again, or whatever it is. And we start mouthing off to our parents and regress to being a 14 year old aggressive. Or their own children, the way one would criticize their own children, versus the way they would talk to somebody else’s kid in a classroom or another context, it’s wild when you think about it.

It’s wild, because like we said, we’re so nogeiah b’davar, we’re so vested and so subjective, and we want so deeply to help and support and love and express. And sometimes we’re just not able to. We just don’t know how. And sometimes the love and the desire to fix and to contribute and to help that person sometimes just overwhelms our ability to be objective. And sometimes a little bit of distance is helpful. When we’re in a home or in a family or in a marriage or with friends or with people that we’re closest to, sometimes it’s like this shared space and shared responsibilities and shared place that there’s… sometimes it’s amorphous, it’s undefined, we’re close to each other and that’s where the lack of definition, the lack of boundaries lie. And that’s why sometimes people that we love and the people that we’re closest to, there’s more of a… we’re more apt to have a machloket, which we get in our own way. It’s about this is my spot, not your spot. It’s less about light and darkness and truth and more about what’s me, where’s my place and what’s your place.

Noam: That’s excellent.  There’s going to be that Freudian narcissism of a little difference perhaps, but you know what, that is the place that I need to say, “This debate that we’re about to have, has to be l’shem shamayim. It has to be for a greater cause.”

And so maybe the antidote,  to having unhealthy disagreements is to assure that the values that we have on the outside are also on the inside.

Rav Judah: I imagine that every marriage in every home and every family would benefit from such a thing.

Noam: I think so. So let’s go through some examples perhaps. Are there examples in your own life that you’ve changed your mind on something? You changed your mind. You saw something one way and I see it differently.

Rav Judah: I do. I do. I change my mind a lot. Changed my mind a lot. Because we grow up. Because the mind of a person who’s 44 and the thought process and the decisions, and the attitude should be developmentally appropriate. And not one that I had 10 years ago, five years ago. We’re in a liminal state of growth and change and we’re always taught to be assessing and reassessing our perspectives. Even within family. I’ve grown to appreciate family members who I, at one point or another, had severe disagreements with and saw the world, and still see the world, very differently or see education differently or Jewish values differently.

Noam: How are you able to have a good relationship with those people? What do you do to make sure that you have a good relationship with people who have hurt you or people who are in your family who have radically different feelings about politics, religion, philosophy? Rav Judah, I know that for example, you and I… and I love you. You and I don’t see eye to eye politically. We don’t see eye to eye politically and yet… and by the way, maybe on certain things we… maybe we do. By the way, I was like, I don’t… I actually… as I was saying that, as I was saying that I was unsure, I said it very confidently, but then I-

Rav Judah: Listen, Republicans buy sneakers too. Like the great Michael Jordan said, “We don’t always have to share our opinions about everything.”

Noam: Fair enough. But either way, there are people that you have strong disagreements with and you don’t see eye to eye politically, theologically, perhaps halachically, religiously. What enables you to have a good relationship with that person?

Rav Judah: So a lot of it, I think, has to do with… again, getting a little bit older. There’s definitely a softening of the edges and a little bit of maturity to realize that maybe the way I felt about you and your opinions had less to do with you and your opinions and more to do with my insecurity and my own self, my own lack of clarity in my own ideology and lack of confidence in my own systems of belief. And felt like in order to define myself, I needed to do it vis-a-vis you and push back a little bit in your place. And as we get hopefully older or a little bit more wise, a little bit more experienced, we can become a little bit more nuanced, a little bit more clear in ourselves and confident and comfortable in our own skin to be able to say, “Listen, this is what I think.”

And I understand that there’s other ways of seeing the world also, and I don’t need to prove myself with this idea over you. When you have a machloket l’shem shamayim, Hillel and Shammai can marry the children to each other. You can get along with your brother, you can get along with your in-laws. You can get along with the people in your house, even if you disagree, because you realize when you don’t, and when I feel that anger or jealousy or resentment, and that impossibility of sitting there and swallowing my food and enjoying a taste of the challah and the dips, because there’s a guy at my table I’m related to who voted differently than me, or sees the world differently than me, or practices Judaism differently, and I can’t swallow him or her, or what I’m eating and enjoying because of them, I know that that’s not machloket l’shem shamayim because the relationship is not with mitkayem, it’s not existing.

Noam: I’m with you. I want to get personal on my end. So there are different types of disagreements. On the one hand… I’ll go from the lowest level. I have a friend and a very close friend of mine that lives here in South Florida, and he likes black olives more than green olives. And I think it’s a ridiculous proposition on his point. I think it’s ridiculous. How could you possibly like black olives more than green olives? Who are you? What’s wrong with you? Green olives are better than black olives. That’s a very low level. That’s not a vulnerable type of disagreement. Then I have… but do you agree with me that green olives are better than black olives or no?

Rav Judah: Republicans buy sneakers too. I’m not getting involved in this kind of stuff.

Noam: That’s too political. That’s too political.

Rav Judah: I have a mortgage to pay. I can’t alienate-

Noam: You can’t weigh in on the color and taste of olives. I’m with you. Then there are people… and I moved from LA to South Florida. And I want to just describe to you two different Shabbat tables that I’ve had, and they’re very real live examples. Example number one is when I lived in LA, I had a Shabbat lunch with close friends of mine. And at the Shabbat lunch, we were talking about politics, mistake number one. And during this conversation, Donald Trump came up and people were talking about President Trump. And I was mentioning that I have many friends who support President Trump. The person at this Shabbat meal said to me, “Noam, I cannot believe that you’re willing to be friends with people who support Trump. It’s actually hard for me to be friends with you, to have a Shabbat meal with you and know that you’re friends with people who support Trump.”

I moved to South Florida. I moved to South Florida. And I was at a meal with somebody and they started the meal by asking, “Right now, who would you vote for, Biden or Trump, Biden or Trump?” I said some like witty answer where I wasn’t… I also have a mortgage to pay. I wasn’t going to jump in there and say, “Here’s my answer.” They were so offended that I did not say Trump. They said, “I don’t know that I could have this meal with you.” And it’s become so intense, so difficult, but there’s something behind that. There’s something behind that. What’s behind that? What’s so difficult? These are good people. I really believe that they’re good people. What’s behind that? There’s pain. There’s pain there.

Rav Judah: There’s exile there. There’s exile there, that we define ourselves in such a small and narrow way. I don’t mean to sound preachy. Not talking about whether a person lives in eretz Yisrael or in America, because we could argue that the definition based on political parties is even more intensive and triggering in Israel today. And there is no party that represents… it can’t be that a Yid, that a Jew, that a human being is represented by a political party. It’s such a limiting of ourselves, of our souls. It’s so small. This is what the exile has done to us. That we have such a limited sense of self, that we’re so worn down, that we don’t understand our place in the world. It’s very hard.

Noam: You’re talking about in the realm of politics.

Rav Judah: I think in the world of olives also, by the way. In the world of pickled vegetables and fruits, the same thing, it’s the same thing.

Noam: I want to ask a follow up question to the olives, but I don’t want our producer Rivky to get mad at me so I won’t. So I’ll ask a different question that is more about Judaism and religion. So politics, you might say that’s small, it’s exile, so let’s ask big. Let’s say you have a cousin who is going to marry somebody and you’re an observant Jew, and they’re going to marry somebody who’s not Jewish.

Rav Judah: True story many times over.

Noam: Let’s say you have a close friend who’s Jewish and going to marry somebody Jewish but they are marrying someone that you really think is not good for them. It’s not good for them. How do you go about that? How do you have that conversation? Someone who is vested and invested in their decision, how do you disagree with them in a healthy way? How do you show or share another perspective? What do you do? How do you go about this?

Rav Judah: So it’s a great question. First of all, when it comes to family, when it comes to people who we’re close to and we love, who we have a direct personal responsibility for, if there’s a real basis and foundation of love and respect and communication, then people could talk, then we could talk.

Noam: Here’s what you’re saying. You’re saying, if you start from a place of love, a place of foundational relationships and say, there is care here, what you taught me years ago and then I’ve implemented it into every single speaking gig I get, into every single time I speak to a school, when I ran a school, Daf Aleph, you start with the relationship.

Before you get to anything else, you start with a relationship. And if you start with a relationship, then you can have intense disagreements about things that you fundamentally have a problem with the other person’s perspective. But it comes from a place of love. And if you start with that baseline, then you can have a really, really difficult disagreement. Is that right?

Rav Judah: Painful, heart wrenched, meaning… I don’t know how open I can be, but the Jewish affiliation with Black Lives Matters as a movement to me was heart wrenching. It’s terribly disappointing and painful and dangerous.

Noam: Why? Say why.

Rav Judah: Dangerous. It’s the intersectionality of a movement that places at the forefront of its ideology, the destruction of the state of Israel and the harming of me and my children and my brothers and my sisters and eretz Yisrael. And I think directly has caused antisemitism and violence against the Jews of the world and undermines Jewish values and Jewish identity and erodes Jewish pride, and a Jewish sense of self. And I have a lot of people in my life who I love very, very, very much who March with Black Lives Matters.

Noam: And you still have a positive relationship with those people?

Rav Judah: I love them dearly. Some people I feel very close to and I’ll share Shabbos meals with them and I’ll interact with them. And I’m terribly disappointed that this is the way they see the world, and elohei haruchot, God is called the master of spirits, and God is infinite and big. And this is their right to be choosers and the right to see the world and interpret the world in that way and it’s hard for me. But it would be harder for me not to give up a relationship, a friendship, a brotherhood, or a sister or a brother. Jews who support abortion laws in the United States that erode the value of life. There’s infinite possibilities here. I can give lists and lists and lists and lists that I have a very different way of seeing the world. And there is such a thing in the world as disagreeing and disagreeing vehemently, not just about, oh, maybe you’re right, maybe I’m right. No, I think objectively. I’m right. I think you’re wrong. I think what you’re doing is dangerous. I think what you’re doing is terrible. I think what you’re doing is reprehensive. I think what you’re doing is treacherous, to give away part of eretz Yisrael. Cut off your arm before you sign such a document.

Rachmana l’tzlan, God forbid. It undermines God’s covenant with the Jewish people. And, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and Rav Shach, and other great sages of Jewish people. And Rav Aharon Lichenstein and many other tzaddikim and gedolei Yisrael felt differently and it’s the legitimate right of a person to believe what they want to believe. And Jewish people have a tradition to have machloket l’shem shamayim. And if it’s l’shem shamayim, sofah l’hitkayem, the relationship can continue and the conversation can continue.

Noam: Amazing. Listen, there were things that you just said that I might disagree with. And I want to just describe my physical reaction to some things that you were saying. My heart started racing, as you were saying some of those things and I still love you. And I agree with a lot of things you said and I’m suspicious about some of the things you said. And so for me, that is amazing. That’s what I meant earlier when I said, “Maybe we disagree politically, maybe we don’t disagree politically on some of those points.” But the reality is it’s really hard for people because what we end up doing, I think, is we end up attaching ourselves, ourself, to that idea. And when we attach ourself to that idea, it’s hard to make room for somebody else because that somebody else’s idea seems to conflict with me as a human being and not me feeling a certain way profoundly about that idea and about that idea.

Rav Judah: This is Korach. Korach’s worried about himself, he’s worried about his place, his ideas. What we aspire to be. And I also, by the way, I also get hyped up. I go from zero to a hundred very quickly. Very quickly. Especially when my kids have different opinions than me. No, I don’t care. I don’t care. Some guy on Twitter’s yelling and screaming, somebody’s writing in caps. I’m like, who cares.

Noam: That’s a generational thing that caps online bit, I think it might be generational, but go on.

Rav Judah: No, that’s my dad. No, that’s my dad. But when I say something, when I give my TED Talk on shabbos afternoon, in my house, or my press conference there, and my wife… and Ora looks at me and I see that look of disagreement. Oh, maybe I took it too far. I right away get defensive. But sofah l’hitkayem means that this is what we do. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years. We discuss ideas. We disagree passionately.

Noam: Can Judaism help this world figure out how to disagree? And if so, what’s a model in Judaism that you look to and you say, this is a model for how to disagree?

Rav Judah: The foundation of all of Jewish life and practice, as Buber said, “All of Torah and mitzvah, all of Jewish practice lives in the light of v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha.” It’s the foundation of love and respect for another person as we would want to be seen and treated. It’s more than the golden rule, it’s a theological expression. It’s an expression of God’s intent in all of our interactions in the world is to love the other, as we seek to be seen and loved ourselves. If that’s the starting point of all of our conversations and all of our debate and all of our development of policy and our perspectives and how we think and act with other people, then we’ll fall back.It doesn’t really matter if you’re right, because at the end of the day, only God knows. Only the end of days will reveal what that ultimate truth is. And on the way to clarifying that, if we treat each other with respect, we see, v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha, I’m not willing to hate you. I’m not willing to.

Noam: I love that. I’m not willing to. And making that decision, I’m not willing to, for me, in my line of work, I’ll tell you where my heart starts racing the most. So what I do when my kids ask, feeling cool and saying, “Abba, what do you do for a living?” My answer is, “I make content.” It’s like, that’s cool, you make content. But here’s the thing on Google Docs, you got to see it’s a… a Google Doc is a dangerous place to be. So on a Google Doc, what you could see as we’re writing a script, we have an opportunity right now, we have multiple voices coming from all different vantage points, coming in to write a script about whether or not Israel’s an apartheid state, whether or not Israel’s an occupying force, whether or not Chmielnicki was a good guy or a bad guy… he was a bad guy, to Jews.

But the point is that there’s so many different places that we could have radical disagreement and how we choose to engage in that disagreement, whether it’s verbal, whether it’s on a document, is a godly choice at that moment. And Shammai and Hillel were able to have these radical debates and also marry… their descendants married one another. That is a really, really important thing as we’re making decisions. I find this revelatory within the world of Judaism. It’s an idea from Amos Oz, it’s an idea from maybe Micah Goodman as well. They point out that atheism does not disqualify someone from participating in the intergenerational Jewish conversation, but ignorance does. And so what they point out is that, Maimonides would say, “Anyone who says God is corporeal is a heretic.

Whereas his colleague or his commentator, Raavad, would say, “People much greater than you think that. What are you talking about?” And at the end of the day, both of them are in the Jewish conversation. So how do we deal with that? They’re going at it with one another, let’s say the Raavad, or the Raivid, and Maimonides, the Rambam. And on the other hand, they’re both part of the Jewish conversation. It’s so deeply Jewish on the one hand to have disagreements as part of our culture and on the other hand, to one another, there is a profoundly intense disagreement to one another.

Rav Judah: That’s what we do. The entire oral tradition of how we understand, how we figure out what to do and interpret Torah law as daily practice, as down to earth daily practices, with all the different tools of argument and clarification of sides with… that’s what we do. That’s not a chiddush, meaning that’s maybe revolutionary in the world.

Noam: This is crazy. It is revolutionary in the world. I once showed a Bible, a Bible of mine to a non-Jewish friend. This non-Jewish friend looked at my Bible and was super duper confused. You know why? My non-Jewish friend brought me her Bible and her Bible had just the Bible, just the text. Text. I showed her my Bible and it had three lines of texts. And the rest was commentary, as they say. But literally, and she was blown away. She was like, what is that? The whole thing is commentary.

Rav Judah: The distinction has been made or the comparison between the way we study versus the way the outside world studies, the other rest of the world studies. You walk into a library it’s quiet, it’s silent. People are studying there and reading on their own. And you walk into a Beit Midrash, it’s a living organism. It’s dynamic, there’s arguments, there’s an openness. There’s a fighting. We’re called baalei treici. We’re called warriors, searching out truth, searching out – baalei traci – searching out-

Noam: That’s amazing.

Rav Judah: … the clarification and every person, like you said, who’s in the conversation has a right to be… every yid, every person, every Jew, has a right, an obligation to be in the conversation. And the foundation of all of that is that we have to be able to be humble before the text and before this search for truth, if we want it to be sofah l’hitkayem, we want our relationships and the conversation to continue inter generationally, then we have to understand that everybody has a voice in it, even if we disagree with them.

Noam: So I would say with two caveats. Caveat number one is that we don’t engage in ad hominem attacks. Because when my heart starts racing, there’s something that happens emotionally. And I almost start getting angry at you, at whomever I’m debating with. And the second I start not having what Malcolm Gladwell calls, generous orthodoxy, and having this attachment to an idea. And on the other hand, this flexibility to say, okay, maybe there are different ways to view this sort of idea. He’s generous in his broadness, but orthodoxy is still attached to something. I think that sometimes what happens is we start attacking the person. And the second we start attacking the person saying, you’re not a real Jew. These aren’t real ideas. You’re just a reformist. I think that that is outside the balance. And I think that by the way, that attitude is a Korachi sort of way to view the idea.

The second thing is not a comment by me but a question to you is, are there ideas that you would say do not belong in your Jewish Beit Midrash, that belong in the library? Are there ideas that you’re like, no, that is outside the bounds of reasonable discourse and reasonable debate and disagreement? Like Larry David just said on Curb Your Enthusiasm, if you’re not holding in this season, Susie says, “Let’s agree to disagree.” And he says, “No, I refuse to agree to disagree. I am not going to agree to disagree.” And that’s his little bit there. No, that idea is outside of the realm. Are there any ideas for you?

Rav Judah: So of course there are ideas that are… there are things which are outside the world of Judaism. There are things which are forbidden. The things that are assur and the things that are false. You could say whatever you want, but you can’t subscribe to Torah if it’s not Torah. I agree with you. And I agree with you regarding ad hominem attacks. I agree with you that… like I said, that was another way of saying, v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha is the beginning. Is that we’re discussing ideas.

And the discussion of ideas can be taken very personally. I take my yiddishkeit very personally. I take my perspectives very personally, but in a beit midrash, in a conversation in the search for truth, everything is on the table. The gemara says, “im paga becha menuval zeh, moshchayhu lebeis hamedrash. The yetzer harah attacks, it seeks to undermine our search for holiness. So drag it into the beit midrash. Let it be more inclusive, let it be open.

Noam: What does that mean?

Rav Judah: That means to bring all of our lower passions and all of our desires into the world of Torah. To address it by learning Torah and the light within Torah will reveal itself and dispel the darkness of that internal feeling or that pull away from the world of holiness. And I feel the same way. I don’t know, we can paint with broad strokes here about movements, but I mean, it’s no secret, I don’t believe that people who subscribe to reform theology or practice are interpreting yiddishkeit, emes l’amoto, according to its truth. Does that place a person outside of the mesorah, yes. Does that place them outside of the Jewish family?

Noam: The mesorah, you mean the Jewish tradition?

Rav Judah: The tradition, yeah.

Noam: So it places them… I interrupted you. It places them outside of the mesorah but not the Jewish family?

Rav Judah: Correct. The family’s family. More than anything, we’re not… what makes us who we are. What makes us who we are. I live in the state of Israel. I believe in it as much as the next guy… a Yid is a Yid. That geography does not determine one’s yiddishkeit. Neither does language, neither does gefilte fish or tabbouleh salad. Neither does pita or falafel or lachmagine. It’s not our food. It’s not our language. It’s not our mode of dress. It’s not our mode of dress. It’s not the hat that you wear, or the kippa that we wear or don’t wear.

What it is more than anything is that we are a family. My own family members, some believe in the divine transmission of Torah and mitzvas others don’t. Some have bought into the state of the Israel as an apartheid state. It’s heartbreaking that people are, but that doesn’t define us. What defines us more than anything is that a Jew is a Jew. We’re part of a family. And we can disagree with family members and family members could have reprehensible ideas and ideas that are not true. And it doesn’t change the fact that they’re just as Jewish and they have a right to be in the Jewish conversation, but like the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged, and Rav Shteinzaltz coined the term, “Let my people know.” For us the real redemptive power in our generation is education. And that’s why what you’re doing is so important. It’s educating and illuminating so that people can have real conversations about real ideas and it not be personal and it not get down to name calling. As soon as it gets the name calling, then it’s already Korach. Then we’re already holding in the world of Korach v’adato.

Noam: No matter how passionate we are, just pause. That’s the advice I’d give myself. No matter how passionate we are we want to go there, just pause for a minute and ask ourselves, reflect, what kind of debate we’re having. I’m going to end this conversation, not an interview, this conversation, with two questions for us to think through. Question number one is… this is intense. How do you want people to think of you?

Rav Judah: The picture, like a snapshot?

Noam: Yes, what’s the snapshot?

Rav Judah: I’d like them to remember me wearing tefillin. I just said this to my kids this afternoon when I was walking around with tefillin at my house. It was later in the day and I was wearing tefillin. So I’d like for you to remember me like this, that I believe in the Jewish symbols.

Noam: Why?

Rav Judah: First of all, the exact example that I wanted them to know that it’s not too late and shouldn’t be embarrassed of fulfilling mitzvot even if it means that you did it out of the proper or ideal context, but a person could always wear. But for this conversation, tefillin is something which we wrap in the name of all of Israel. We bind ourselves to the entirety of the Jewish people by wearing this tefillin. It connects the intellect and the emotion. It’s a bridge. In the head, each one has its own compartment. They’re four separate compartments. In the tefillin shel rosh, which represents our ideology, our mind, our philosophy, our approach to the world, the way we see things, the way we see people, our intellect. Those four parshiot, the four parchments that are on our arm, that we wear on our arm that correspond to our heart, the world of emotion and the way we treat people and our actions are all in one bayit, they’re all together, there’s not separate compartments.

Because when we live as a Jew with this incredible powerful symbol of tefillin, we can have chilukei dei’ot. We have to have different opinions. We have to have different ways of seeing the world. Each parchment in its own separate compartment, each parchment in its own place. We have to disagree. We have to see the world differently. But when it comes to our love of the Jewish people and our sense of being connected, we’re all in one bayit, it’s one heart, and it’s one love, and that’s the way we have to treat everyone. So if there’s one way that I want my family and the people in the world to know, that’s something I strive for. That’s aspirational.

Noam: Rav Judah, here’s my second question. What’s the daily ritual that you ensure to live your best life? What do you do?

Rav Judah: Spending time every day talking to Hashem in my own words. Because when I speak to Hashem, I know that He’s listening and I know that He believes in me and then I feel centered and I feel stable. And when I feel stable and centered and comfortable with myself, then I’m able to go out there in the world and be with other people. When we feel comfortable with ourselves, then we can be with anybody and not be stirred from it. We have a place. We have a place in the world. So hitbodedut, a daily few minutes, just a few words between us and Hashem, off script in a real natural way, sets us on a course of being able to be out there with people. Or being at a family dinner with that crazy uncle who voted for the other guy. If that’s our context and we’re with that with other people and with ourselves and with God, then whatever content is downloaded, then it is fine. You said, you create content. So my kids ask me what I do. I’m like, “I want to be a person who’s a person of contact, in other words to interpret these ideas, to bring people close to each other and to Hashem, that’s our goal.

Noam: I love it. Rav Judah, thank you so much for this conversation. Thank you so much for helping us think through how Judaism and how God and how we live our lives can really influence the way we disagree with one another. Can really influence positively hopefully the way we debate one another and hopefully could help heal this world. A world that is too often right now in a place of disagreement to the point of not having real relationships with one another. So Rav Judah, thank you so much.

Rav Judah: Amen. Amen.


Whew. I’m still digesting this conversation, and I’m recording this a few days later. There’s so much that Rav Judah spoke about that I’m still working through, but I wanted to just share a few key ideas I’m walking away with:

#1: When we operate from our egos, and not from our ideas, we get in our own way. This mishnah that we opened with, discussing the two different types of arguments, one for the sake of heaven and one not. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a novel explanation of an “argument not for the sake of heaven.” He called it “argument for the sake of victory.” This is a direct quote from Rabbi Sacks:

“In such a conflict, what is at stake is not truth but power, and the result is that both sides suffer. If you win, I lose. But if I win, I also lose, because in diminishing you, I diminish myself… Argument for the sake of power is a lose-lose scenario. The opposite is the case when the argument is for the sake of truth. If I win, I win. But if I lose I also win — because being defeated by the truth is the only form of defeat that is also a victory.

I love that line – “But if I win, I also lose.” Because if our egos are involved, there is no winning. I don’t “defeat” my wife by winning an argument. But if when my wife and I disagree, and our goal is to pursue truth, then even if I “lose,” I won, because heck, I gained the truth!

Takeaway #2: It would be strange for other people to have the same opinions as me, and frankly, expecting that from people is kind of narcissistic. That’s why the Talmud in Brachot explains  – “כשם שאין פרצופיהן שווים כך אין דעתם שווה. “Just like people’s faces are not all identical, people’s opinions are also different.”

And speaking of not looking alike, that brings us to the last thing I’m walking away with. I mean, forget looking alike: Rav Judah and I barely resemble each other. He has a huge black beard and lives in Beit Shemesh, which has some stereotypes associated with it. I can’t grow a beard and live in South Florida, which you know has some stereotypes associated with it.

A beard, a place, a specific lifestyle – that is not the be-all and end-all of a person. We can, and must, learn from people who are different from us.

Let me give you an example. Rav Judah recently published a book, called Baderech, on the road. He quotes tons of different rabbis and tells really incredibly moving stories about different people. But he did something that models exactly what we spoke about today. Multiple times, throughout the book, he quotes with love and respect, the Satmar rav, the leader of the hasidic Satmar movement, maybe the biggest religious opponent to Zionism. And on the same page, with the same breath, he quotes, with respect, with love, with admiration, Rav Kook, possibly the most celebrated religious supporter of Zionism. It really took me aback, reading it, because it’s so rare to see. But this is a perfect example, because in doing so, Rav Judah teaches me what it looks like to continue to respect, look up to, and love people different from me.

I want to end with a quote from Berl Katznelson, early 20th century Zionist thinker, whose words have impacted me. This is what he says:

When I see a man walking among us as though he had the solution to every question and every blunder, or as though he had in his pocket a new ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ or for that matter as though he had no need for any such thing since his lucid understanding knows no confusion, I am afraid he dwells in a world apart and not in our vale of tears with its cataclysms and torments and ravaged hopes – unless it is simply that he sells himself on banalities, which are able to straighten out the most crooked line. I confess; a restless groping confused soul is dearer to me than one which is still unstained and secure in Its pristine truths.

Ketznelson is reminding us here about humility. And you know what, if you remember only one thing about this episode, it’s this. We need to stop thinking we have nothing to learn from other people. Maybe we will disagree until the cows come home. But at least, let’s listen honestly, and have real conversations. If we believe other people have something to teach you, and we really listen, with humility, we’ll learn something.

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