Machloket Leshem Shamayim

It’s three balls, two strikes, and one out at the top of the ninth inning in Yankee stadium. The Red Sox are ahead 3–¬2. Up in the right field bleachers, a young couple wearing red baseball caps and Red Sox jerseys watch the game hopefully. She yells, “Go, Red Sox!” Two rows in front of her, another man, wearing a black overcoat and sitting next to another young woman, answers, “Go away.” (Actually, he doesn’t say, “Go away,” but what he says does start with “Go.”) The first woman stands up, her left hand holding a half-consumed beer and her right-hand gesturing and making it clear that the Red Sox are the better team. The Yankee fan stands up among the sea of blue Yankee shirts and begins making his way out of the stadium, right past the Red Sox fans sitting on the aisle. He bellows, “This is our realm.” He shakes his right hand up to the heavens, like Eva Peron addressing her subjects. “We don’t want you here. We don’t want you here.” ” The dispute over territory continues for a few more seconds. Then the male Red Sox fan stands up and leans into to whisper something in the Yankee fan’s ear. I thought he would say something like, “Hey man, keep cool. It’s just a game. We’re all here to have fun.” I was naïve. The Red Sox fan sits down and the Yankee’s fan takes in his words and says, “Oh yeah!, Oh yeah!” As he walks by the Red Sox fan, the Yankees fan smacks the Red Sox fan’s beer out of his hands, knocking it to the floor. Without losing a beat, the female Red Sox fan takes the beer that she was holding and unloads it right in the Yankee fan’s face.

As I watched a recording of this play out, I couldn’t help asking myself, Why are they fighting? What were they even fighting about? Two groups arguing over a game where the stakes are, at best, the ability to brag—and then they would do the whole thing over next year. It’s hard to conceive of lower stakes, but psychologists have tried.

In 1954, psychologists Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif wanted to see if they could watch the origins of prejudice and intergroup conflict. They took twenty-two boys from similar backgrounds, who didn’t know one another, and randomly divided them into two groups. The Sherifs took both groups to a summer camp setting at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Each group worked on its own and created their own flags and names: the Eagles and the Rattlesnakes. The boys were no longer just boys; they were Eagles or they were Rattlesnakes. They identified fully with their groups. After a few days of this bonding, the experimenters put the two groups together for some friendly competition, where the winners would receive prizes and the losers would receive nothing. Within a few days, the Eagles stole the flag of the Rattlesnakes and ripped it to shreds. The Rattlesnakes then broke into the cabins of the Eagles and turned over their beds and stole property. Soon fistfights broke out, and the experimenters had to physically separate the boys. When they asked each boy to rate the talent and intelligence of the two groups, each youth said that his group was smarter, stronger, nicer,—basically better on every scale,—than the other group. All that was needed to create prejudice and conflict was a group identity and a situation where there would be winners or losers. Remember, they weren’t just boys; they were Eagles or Rattlesnakes.

I saw the same dynamic happen in my previous congregation in Mahwah, New Jersey, right on the southern border of New York. Two-thirds of the members live in New Jersey, and the other third lives in New York State. At a Sukkot potluck, one of the members complained to me that the food from the High Holy Days food drive went to the local New Jersey food bank that was just around the corner. I explained that it was so close, and we have a close relationship with the organization. She wanted nothing of it. “I am a New Yorker and I want to help New Yorkers.” The fact that we might be helping the same number of hungry people wasn’t enough for her; she wanted it to be hungry people from her tribe.

Our study of why people conflict with one another has continued unabated since the 1950s and is more relevant today than ever, given the fraying threads that are holding our society together. I personally find these ideas to be difficult and distasteful because they describe me more accurately that I would ever like to admit.

One of the key findings is that we all have groups that we identify with. To discover some of your groups, just complete the sentence “I am a. . . .” I am a man. I am a Jew. I am a Californian. I am white. Some of these groups we identify with more strongly than others. I am a Libertarian or Republican or Democrat. Some identities may be less central to us. You can think of your strongest identities as the tribe you belong to. The fact that we all have identities or tribes may not be surprising. What is more surprising is how hard we work to maintain those identities. I thought I basically held beliefs because my beliefs are based on the best reasons. I would assume you would feel the same about your beliefs. You hold your beliefs because your gut tells you what is right, or your mind evaluates the evidence and comes to the best conclusion. Maybe that’s true for you on some issues. However, after doing countless experiments, psychologists now tell us that we generally hold our beliefs so that we can feel part of our groups. Sometimes good arguments and new information changes our beliefs, but more often than not, our beliefs are shaped by our identity. It’s interesting that if you know someone voted for Barack Obama, you also know that they are prochoice and supportive of gun control. If you know someone is a Republican, you also know they are against most regulation and for increased military spending. I bet we can all think of some people who don’t follows these rules, but I also think you would agree that they are the outliers.

To some extent, it can strengthen a group’s identity if its members shape their beliefs to fit with their group identity, but it has a dark side, as well. We have long struggled with competing political beliefs–that is the marketplace of ideas–but our current political rancor has not been this severe since our Union nearly split in two in the 1860s.

Again, this problem is not new. The Rabbis faced a similar problem nineteen hundred years ago. While we may be trying to work out our political differences, the Rabbis were trying to understand what God was asking of us by creating rules and standards of conduct. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The rabbis began their work in earnest just after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. If they failed to rebuild Judaism without a Temple and sacrificial system, all would be lost. As they worked, the Rabbis tried to understand why they were unable to deal effectively with the Roman threat. Many argued that the reason was because of two simple words: sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Rather than working through its problems, Judean society broke apart at the seams under Roman pressure. And so the Rabbis wondered: Is there a way that Jewish society or any society can work through its problems constructively rather than falling prey to sinat chinam?

As they rebuilt Jewish life, the Rabbis realized that differing ideas existed and there needed to be some way of working through those ideas to find a path forward. There were no prophets to whom we could turn, no priests who could divine answers. It was just them—the Rabbis—and all they had to use were words. They needed to build ideas like an artist constructs a mobile, each item connected to the next. But how to decide which ideas were correct? Which ideas were worthy? The Rabbis realized they would have to pore over the texts and argue with one another. But what if arguing leads again to the vicious rancor of sinat chinam?

Over a lot of discussion, the rabbis began to distinguish between two types of arguments. First is the argument that focuses on furthering one’s own power or ego to the exclusion of other concerns. We all have seen those arguments on cable news or proffered by internet trolls. The second type argument is different. The Rabbis called it a machloket, an argument, leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Rather than simply seeking to win at all costs regardless of the damage that is caused, those who engaged in a machloket leshem shamayim simply seek the truth, wherever that truth may be found. A machloket leshem shamayim is not about winning, it is about discovering.

According to the Rabbis, people who engaging in a machloket leshem shamayim must first be willing to sit down with and explore together. They need to thoughtfully consider the opinions of others and be willing to modify their opinions, if needed. Finally, they need to maintain and foster affection for one another.

As bad as we may think our society is, if we actively look, we can find examples of people arguing leshem shamayim. As much as the Internet was supposed to bring us all together, what it often does is release the mean ten-year-old bully who lives inside of us. And yet, even on the internet, we can find leshem shamayim discussions. One that I have been following can be found on a vast online discussion forum called Reddit. On these discussion forums, someone posts a comment and everyone else adds their comments, and so on. What could go wrong?
One of the groups on Reddit is called Change My View. In this group, people state an idea that they want to explore and then ask people to help them change their view. They might say, “Life begins at conception. Change my view.” One of the most important rules of the group is that one should not post a statement unless one is actually open to having one’s mind changed. It’s not a forum for debating, where one person makes an argument and another person tries to undercut their opponent in any way possible. This is a group about discovering. Other people then posts reasons why the original poster might want to change his or her mind. If this group was on Facebook, people who liked an idea would give it a thumbs-up to show agreement. But what often happens—on Facebook, at least—is that rather than offering thoughtful arguments, people receive more thumbs-ups by insulting the person who posted before them. Not on Change My View. Rather than people being influenced by the crowd, people are meant only to be influenced by the quality of the thinking.

However, groups like Change My View and many others will only have a limited benefit if we are defending our identities rather than considering reasons. That’s why I believe we need greater identity, a higher identity—greater than being a Republican or a Democrat or an American or even a Reform Jew. What I would want our higher identity to be is that of a leshem shamayim Jew: someone who is committed, first and foremost, to respectfully seeking truth, especially with people holding different beliefs.

On Rosh Hashanah, I talked about our desire to create small groups who meet together to connect, to socialize, and, sometimes, to learn and explore. Sometimes the groups may get together just for the pleasure of members’ company, and sometimes they would get together to address some of challenges we see in the world. I have been meeting with groups of congregants to learn about your aspirations for your lives, and about your concerns for your lives as well. One of the topics that is repeated again and again is the caustic political environment we now find ourselves in. I could not agree more. This is something that weighs heavily on my heart, as well. As a congregation, one of the ways that we bring value to our community and our lives is to repair a sense of community, especially among people whose beliefs lay on different sides of the political spectrum. As part of our Small Groups Initiative, we want to create a pilot group so we can learn what will lead to a meaningful community. So, I propose that we initiate one small pilot group now and call it a leshem shamayim group, a group for the sake of heaven. A leshem shamayim group is for people who are excited about exploring ideas openly, thoroughly, and lovingly, where truth is our highest goal. A leshem shamayim group is not for everyone. It’s not for debaters or warriors for any side. It’s for the humble, the curious, and the open hearted. There will be rules requiring respect and prohibiting rancorous debate, and, as the Rabbis suggested, we will spend time just connecting with one another.

I realize that for some people, this group sounds like torture. I respect that. This is only one small example of the kinds of groups we will create in the future. But I also know that there are people whose souls are crying out for a place to be civil and rigorous, to ask hard questions and be open to actually exploring the answers. There are people who do not want to act like animals, like rattlesnakes or eagles.

After the fist fights in Robbers Cave, the psychologists entered a new phase of the experiment. A staff member entered the dining hall and said that a truck carrying supplies got stuck down the road. If they didn’t get that truck unstuck, there would be no food to eat. Every boy went down to the truck, tied ropes around the fender, and pulled with every ounce he could muster. In time, the truck began to move, and so did their impressions of one another. Afterward, the water tank “suddenly” stopped working, and the boys had to join together to fix it. Then they worked out how they could pool their money to rent a film they all wanted to watch. In short, they moved from being the Eagles and the Rattlesnakes to being campers at Robbers Cave.

We can heal the rifts of this country, but it will not happen by itself. It will only happen when congregations and communities lift themselves up above the snares that hold us down. I want to tell you about one of my beliefs that changed as I have been thinking about this initiative. Unlike certain elements of Christianity, Judaism does not have a single, coherent explanation of what happens in the afterlife. But one of the ideas that I always thought was especially strange was the idea that when we die, we ascend through layers of heaven where we would encounter the most prominent of Jewish leaders, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and several others. Each one would have their own yeshiva, a school where people would study around a table, uncovering God’s truth. I thought that idea was a little silly, but then I started thinking about leshem shamayim groups and the possibility of actually having open, honest, respectful, and productive conversations about the most important questions of our time, and I thought, That would be heavenly. I hope you will consider creating heaven on earth, together, so our words can become heralds of truth.