On Giving and Receiving Torah: An Invitation to Conversation

Conversation is used to build community. It establishes the capacity to understand a viewpoint not our own and see the humanity of those who walk in the world differently than we do.
May 13, 2021
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I am reading a striking book called “Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism.” It is written by a remarkable man, Kamram Nazeer, who was born to Pakistani parents, raised in New York City and now lives in London. Diagnosed with autism, Nazeer went to one of the very earliest programs that attempted to provide an appropriate education for special needs children. Many years later, as an adult, he decided to visit some of his former classmates to see what had become of them and how they had adapted to life.

The first former classmate adapted to the challenge of conversing by speaking through the use of puppets. The man created a variety of puppets, and when he has specific things to say he utilizes a different puppet. His rules are that the puppet is speaking, not him, and you have to address the puppet, not him.

For autistic individuals, conversation is not something one can just assume but is a skill requiring deep and persistent work. Because of this, Nazeer spends several pages thinking about what it means to be in conversation. And his insights are relevant because the work that we Jews do is participating in and maintaining an ancient and vibrant conversation — with the Holy One, with the generations, with Torah.

Nazeer observes, first of all, that conversation is a form of performance. Conversations cannot flourish when one party sets out to win or destroy the other participant. To enter into conversation means to invite the other person to join with you and can only continue when both parties are participating, when they both are engaged.

Nazeer noticed that conversations are not about conclusions. Most conversations that he overheard between neurotypical people never had a real conclusion; they just moved from subject to subject, dancing around. As I read that description, I thought, How similar to the Talmud!

The Talmud contains approximately 5,000 conversations/makhlokot. Only about 50 are concluded because the action is not in the answer; the action is in the exchange, in the questioning, in the probing, in the exploration. In understanding why someone might see a matter differently than the way we see it, we explore the origins of our perspective while continuing to  perceive it the way we do. The great Jewish philosopher Shlomo ibn Gabirol, in his beautiful work “Mivhar Ha-Penimim,” writes, “Wisdom about which there is no discussion is like a hidden treasure from which nothing is extracted.” Wisdom is made visible by sharing it with others, by bringing it to the light of day and then by batting it around. It is through conversing with others that we bring wisdom into the world, and it becomes something we can own and with which we can live.

It is through conversing with others that we bring wisdom into the world.

Nazeer reflects that conversations are not linear. He writes, “Though conversation may well bring out matters of this sort, it shouldn’t be directed at a conclusion, and it shouldn’t, too formally, be about ‘something’. It should circle, it should break up, it should recommence at an entirely different point.” This is certainly an accurate description of Jewish sacred literature. Our sacred writings routinely circle around, suddenly break up and begin yet again when we least expect it.

Because we never know when a topic will reappear, we never know when a subject will begin, so we need to pay attention at each stage of the conversation. At any moment someone could reveal something you need; someone may introduce a subject of vital importance in the middle of an apparently unrelated topic.

The Talmud notes, “Even the secular conversations of the Sages require study.” Precisely because there is deep insight clothed even in trivial conversation, and because we don’t have access to an objective place to stand, we can only know through our own knowing; we can only converse from where we are. “A judge has nothing to see with save their own eyes.”

Perhaps most important of all, conversation should be fun. You have to relish the opportunity to bring something into the world or to bring something out of your fellow human being. In that exchange, there is deep joy: the invitation to connect to each other, the invitation to connect to our heritage, the invitation to connect to God. As the Pirkei Avot tells us, “When two persons meet and exchange words of Torah, the Shekhinah hovers over them.”

But the process can only be fun if you treat your conversing partner with full respect and with unfeigned affection. There must be civility in our conversations with each other; otherwise, they will shut down. There is a tradition that in the Messianic future, we will paskin, we will adjudicate, not according to the Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, but according to the Yerushalmi. Why is that? In Massekhet Sanhedrin we are taught, “The word gracious is applied to the Sages of the Land of Israel because they are always gracious to one another in their discussions of Halakhah, their discussions of Jewish Law.” It’s not that the sages of Israel are smarter than those of Bavel; it is not necessarily that they have arrived at a greater truth. But their graciousness to each other makes them fitting role models for us in the Messianic times yet to come.

And that insight leads me then to my last point. Conversations are almost never about the truth. Truth pertains to very finite and concrete matters: How much money do you or do you not have in your checking account? Did you or did you not eat your healthy food prior to dessert? But most of the areas in which we work — building community, healing hearts, saving souls, loving our brothers and sisters — are neither true nor false. They are enriching, they are meaningful, they are empowering, and they are healing.

The “Sefer ha-Hinnukh,”speaking about the Hakhel, the Biblically-ordained periodic gathering of the entire Jewish people, says, “It will soon come to pass that among the men, women, and children, some will raise the question, ‘why are we gathered here, all together in this huge assembly?’ And the reply will be ‘To listen to the words of the Torah which are the essence of our existence, our glory and our pride.’ The ensuing discussion will lead to an appreciation of our Torah, its greatness and supreme value, which in turn will arouse great longing for it. With this attitude they will study and attain a more intimate knowledge of God. Thus, they will merit the good life, and God will rejoice in their works.”

Conversation is not used to verify information. Conversation is used to build community. It establishes the capacity to understand a viewpoint not our own and see the humanity of those who walk in the world differently than we do.

I love the fact that in a room full of mourners, what is required is not accurate information but shared discussion. The Talmud tells us that a group of ancient Jews responded to the destruction with extreme mourning and rigid restrictions of any pleasurable food or drink. Rabbi Joshua taught them a crucial lesson: “‘Children come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose upon the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.’ … Therefore, the Sages have ruled: ‘You may stucco your house, but you should leave a corner bare.’”

Rabbi Joshua does not prove his point with logic; he enters into a relationship. He invites the others to step with him into another way of understanding the world and how to live in it.

The contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas affirms what I believe is an ancient and Jewish insight when he notes, “In his capacity as a participant in argumentation, everyone is on his own and yet embedded in a communication context.” To Habermas, an “idea community of communication” entails “The individual’s inalienable right to say yes or no and his overcoming of his egocentric viewpoint.”

The right to say yes or no and the ability to transcend one’s own limited viewpoint is the basis upon which we build relationships, establish community and live in Covenant. This is what it means to expand our vision, to see the views of another, to see through the eyes of the Holy One.

After all, God created the world through conversation, calling the world into being. God reached out yet again to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, inviting them to a conversation. Again, at the height of Mount Sinai, God called the entire Jewish people to a conversation that yet abides, a conversation that involves the give and the take of Mattan Torah and Kabbalat Torah. And our predecessors — the Sages of Israel and its prophets, its mystics and its monarchs — have harvested an ever new Torah through ongoing conversation, a respectful yet vigorous exchange of ideas.

We too, are given the holy privilege of joining that conversation, of adding our voices to those words and inviting our people — some now waiting on the margins, some now excluded, some now binding their wounds — to reclaim their birthright, to rejoin the ancient, sacred conversation that is Torah.

My blessing to all of us is that we should always be worthy participants in this conversation, so that we hold in conversation the Sages and the prophets who have come before us and we hold in our hearts and our minds those with whom we speak and teach and those yet to come. I bless us that our conversations should be vessels for God’s love and light to enter the world, that in our speech and in our deeds, we should invite others to walk on that path of righteousness that has guided us across the millennia.

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. He is a contributing writer to the Journal.

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