My wife Shirley and I spent this past Shabbat in Pittsburgh visiting my mother. In the morning, I arrived at synagogue and took my usual seat next to where my father, of blessed memory, sat for many decades. Two rows in front of me was another visitor. Slowly, I realized this guest was the many-decades-later version of a dear high school friend.
Just to make sure my analysis of the effect of aging on facial and body features was not flawed, I decided to wait before introducing myself. When he was called up to the Torah, his name and voice confirmed my conclusion. With my analysis completed, I introduced myself and discovered that apparently aging had had a greater effect on my features than on his. But slowly, the light of recognition illuminated his eyes. We embraced and after services caught each other up on our respective lives and adventures.
My friend Dov is older than me. He was a senior in high school when I was a freshman. But in a small yeshiva high school with 75 students, these issues were not crucial in forming friendships. Dov became somewhat of a mentor to me. It was interesting to speak to him decades later and reencounter some of the same qualities that so impressed me as a teenager.
I tell my students it is wonderful to debate one another. The process forces the participants to clarify and to refine their positions. However, debate and dialogue oftentimes fail to achieve this result because the parties are simply not listening to one another.
Each participant is so enamored with his own position that rather than considering the what the other has to say, he blindly promotes his own. The participants are not talking with one another; they are talking at one another. So, in order to enable my students to meaningfully debate and discuss positions, I begin by teaching them to listen to one another.
One way I do this is by insisting that a participant repeat his or her opponent’s position before posing a question or formulating a response. This is not merely a classroom exercise — it is a tool for life. How much conflict would be avoided or resolved if the parties would merely take the time to consider each others’ positions rather than focusing exclusively on promoting their own perspectives!
As I spoke to Dov, I was reminded how he is a remarkable listener. He was not interested in telling me about himself, his children, and grandchildren until he had heard about my family. And he did not just act as if he was listening so as to be polite while his mind roamed the galaxy — he was fully focused.
When we show that level of interest in another person, we acknowledge that individual’s intrinsic worth and sanctity. Speaking with Dov, I realized that by helping my students listen more intently to one another, I am not only helping them dialogue more effectively, I am teaching them to treat others with the deference modeled by my friend.
Sunday night we reconvened, now joined by my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Dov shared a wonderful story about his mother, Evelyn. Evelyn’s grandfather was an ardent Zionist even before Theodore Herzl popularized the concept. Evelyn was raised in a Zionist home and as an adult was a member of many of Pittsburgh’s Zionist organizations; actually, she was a member of all of them. She was active in Mizrachi, the religious Zionist organization, gave a weekly class for Hadassah, served as an officer of the Zionist Organization of America, and paid dues to various other organizations.
At one point, a conflict had developed with the ZOA regarding its direction. Some members felt the organization had shifted to the right and ultimately these members left the ZOA to form a Pittsburgh chapter of a more moderate Zionist organization. Evelyn immediately joined the new organization. She explained that although she was an officer of the ZOA, she would not countenance the existence of a Zionist organization in Pittsburgh in which she was not a member.
In other words, she believed that the issue uniting all Zionists — love for and support of the State of Israel — was far greater than the issues upon which different organizations disagreed.
I believe that this attitude reflects the ability to be a good listener. Evelyn’s attitude required that she look beyond her position in a tense dispute, understand the other party’s position, and recognize that despite the dispute, all the parties shared many of the same fundamental values. If only we could all do this!
I also observe this attitude in my students at NYHS. They come from diverse religious backgrounds. Many are from Orthodox homes; a large contingent come from a Conservative background, other students are members of the Reform community. They represent a unique mixture of perspectives seldom encountered in the adult community. Our students work closely with each other, enjoy their friendships and camaraderie, and deeply care about one another. This is not because they do not recognize their differences. It is because they recognize that the common values they share are far more significant than their differences. They are able to disagree on important issues while demonstrating tolerance and respect for one another.
I am grateful to Dov, my students, and to Evelyn for the lesson they have taught me — to listen carefully to others, hear the other party’s position, and not allow our differences to conceal shared values and perspectives.