Jonathan Sacks: Conflict Resolution in Judaism.

December 17, 2007

I attended a lecture about conflict resolution in Judaism, given by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the recognized chief Orthodox Rabbi of the United Kingdom. Thought I’d share my notes; he is a very well-spoken person with interesting views on the meshing of Israel – a liberal democracy – with halachic Judaism.

More importantly, Rabbi Sacks is very outspoken about and for conflict resolution practices in Jewish tradition. It was very refreshing hearing a religious authoritative figure discussing conflict resolution in a realistic, proactive way.

The British rabbi recognized two challenges of modern Zionism. The first, the creation of a Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel, has been completed and is considered a task of politics. The second is the creation of a Jewish society in Israel, which is a task of ethics, and so far has not come close to completion.

Rabbi Sacks defines liberal democracy as a society where people lead different ways of life. He believes it is possible to create a liberal democracy that is Jewish – which Jews have never done before. It would be based on something like halacha, but not actually halacha, for the rest of the world – where not everyone is Jewish and aware of halacha as Jews know it.

Judaism is the most individualistic of religions. That is good for surving exile – it’s the ability to stand against the majority and preserve the nation. It’s bad for the Jews when they come together as a country, where collective action and identity is necessary. As a nation of strong individuals, it makes conflict management very difficult within the people of Israel.

On the bright side: the most fundamental form of conflict resolution in Judaism amount to words, language, speech.

His basis for this is that conflict resolution or mediation is essential in the Torah and essential in Jewish history.

In Jewish history, there are three cases of collective exile and all have the same underlying reason:

When Yosef ended up in Egypt: The family of Jacob couldn’t live in peace.

After the destruction of the First Temple: The kingdom split in two after three generations, lacking in unity.

After the destruction of the Second Temple: The schisms between different factions of Jews (for instance, moderates and zealots).

Traditions of conflict and resolution patterned in Judaism:

1. Silence is the sure way to continue and prolong conflict.

2. In order to converse you have to: speak and listen. Jews are “the world’s best speakers and the world’s worst listeners.” Listening is the essence of conflict resolution.

3. Listen to the Other: Teach your opponent’s view before you explain your own.

The grand example of conflict via words in the Torah occurs towards the beginning: the conflict between Adam’s two sons, Cain and Abel. There is a statement that is impossible to translate; it begins with, “Vayomer Kayin el Hevel achiv…” (And Cain said to Abel, his brother…). After that, the statement is fractured and ungrammatical. This teaches something important: When words break down, there is only conflict.

God created the universe by words, and humans continue the universe with words: and when words fail, the universe breaks down.