Sunday, 6 November 2016

How to talk to someone you disagree with

Trump Tower was completed in 1983 with the help of 200 undocumented Polish immigrants 

We just read about the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:2 “they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another …come let us build  us a city, and a tower with its tops in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we will be scattered all over the world” ( JPS translation)
Here mankind in a valley decide to build a massive man-made structure and their efforts are thwarted by god who makes sure the people speak different languages and so they can’t understand each other anymore.

The Talmud, which is the source of all things wise and wonderful, considers this:  why were they standing in a valley if they wanted to build a tall tower?  (B. Sanhedrin 109a).  Why didn’t they give themselves the advantage that building a tower at the top of a mountain gives you?

And I think the answer is this. In a valley, looking up, you don’t think you know the whole picture. At the top of a tall man made structure, it’s easy to think you see the whole picture.

The Tower of Babel tells of this fundamental distinction.  Before the Tower of Babel, in a valley, we all understand each other perfectly.  There is no difference in language between what is said by one person and what was understood by another. There is perfect understanding and no gap between what you want to say and how it is heard, between speaker and listener, between writer and reader; there is no interpretation of a message needed.  There is always perfect communication.

Pre-babel, when one person said anything, everybody understood the same thing. But then, to stop us trying to get too big for our boots, god made us all speak different languages.  Now we wouldn’t be able to understand each other at all, and not just because I speak English and you speak Japanese.  There’s also the gap between me speaking as a woman and you hearing as a man or me as Jew and you as a Christian or me as a Hilary fan and you as a Trump fan or me as a Pro-choice fan and you as a pro-life fan, for example.    As much as I want it to be true, not everyone in this world sees things like I do western, liberal Zionist, feminist that I am. 

The best experiences I’ve had is when I’ve switched from post-babel standing at the top of the tower thinking the limits of my understanding of the world are the limits of the world, to pre-babel thinking which is a knowing that I don’t see the whole picture, I can’t see the whole picture and that no one else can either.  

For example, I didn’t know that different religions use the same word in different ways – I didn’t know until I listened to a Christian person on a long train journey once that the word faith in god for him is like an either/ or proposition. You do or you don’t.  To me as a Jewish person, it was more like trust; sometimes you feel it more or less than other times.  Who knew? it was exactly the same word understood in two completely different ways! I didn’t have to stop believing what I did and he didn’t either. It was a great conversation because neither of us where trying to convert the other, we were just saying what we understood in the valley.

And then there’s the god idea.  I’m not talking about a simple difference in signs like Adonai, or the eternal and infinite thing, or what will be will be, or Allah or Deo or nkosi as we say in South Africa, but what that sign signifies to each user is almost impossible to explain.  Any name we give god is not god.  To believe that what you understand by the term god is universal is definitely post-babel.   All words separate, including the word for god.  Every time we name god, we fracture the infinite and bind it to a separated form.  We can’t see the whole of the moon.

Happily, we can get back to the pre-babel place for an instant when we feel safe enough to talk honestly without being judged and when we listen to each other the same way.  When we listen not to argue or to wait for my turn to speak or to evaluate the other person, it’s when we listen seeing that this is the limit to my understanding and allowing for the separate space of the other person’s understanding. I’m not talking about self-denial; I’m talking about a movement of self-transcendence.

I tried it with my children once. One at a time, I listened to them without judgement or needing to correct them or to harp on about my agenda; I listened to them in a pre-Babel, whole-hearted way. And it was magical.

We can listen and talk like this to family, friends and even taxi drivers. We can get back to pre-Babel when we say and hear the Shma, when as a community, we all participate in the way I understand god - in the experience of listening and speaking as part of the whole, in solidarity, self-transcendence and in peace.

Potentially I could even enjoy a conversation with a Trump supporter, and really understand how they see the world without trying to convert them.  But it would have to start with neither of us on our lofty perches, and both of us in the valley.  Anything is possible.

Shabbat Shalom