A Model for Disagreeing, Agreeably

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You’re so left wing! You’re so right wing!

Is it possible to disagree agreeably?

It’s no secret that this question is relevant in the current political climate, and in many ways, the topic of Israel can serve as a strong flashpoint for this question. In this week’s newsletter, we address three smaller topics, which may not have made the headlines in the same way as other stories, but they serve as case studies in how we can all discuss ideas and debate decisions passionately without attacking someone’s character.

Rabbi David Hartman notes that throughout Jewish history, Judaism was never a monolithic tradition, but a series of grand debates and fiery revolutions, and the same can be said of Zionist thought: Theodor Herzl vs. Ahad Ha’am, Micha Joseph Berditchevski vs. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Golda Meir vs. Menachem Begin. Instead of eschewing fierce disagreement, Jewish leaders and Zionist thinkers have always embraced dissent. In our first episode in our new series, History of Israel Explained we will explore Theodor Herzl, his impact on Zionism and how many of his peers and even disciples disagreed profoundly with him. Check it out here and let us know what you think.

In the social media era, the way we consume information is often reflexive. What sells? What catches eyeballs? What entices clicks and gets people’s attention? The answer is often to be divisive, extreme and loud. Yet we’re trying to rebel against that approach, not by skirting the fraught, high-pitched and tense issues, but by looking at them, pausing and considering.

In this newsletter, we are going to explore three moments in the last week that raised some eyebrows and provide you with practical ways to frame them, discuss them and talk them through–all without name-calling.

Take an issue that is fraught, high-pitched and tense, but then look at it, pause and consider the ideas.

What Happened?

  1. Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, posted on Facebook:Left-wing associations funded by foreign and hostile governments, left-wing politicians and the media who always side with the enemy and against the Jewish interest—who care nothing for terror victims, settlers or victims of infiltrators while showing such compassion for every Palestinian rioter hurt on the Gaza border—are traitors!PM Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in and addressed this comment on his own Facebook page: “Prime Minister Netanyahu rejects the use of the term ‘treason’ by any side of the political discourse.” (He did lament, though, that people feel very free to call him a “traitor.”)
  2. Yitzhar Hess, head of the Conservative Movement in Israel, received death threats when he visited the Western Wall. He was there to support Women of the Wall, a group of women who read from the Torah once a month (which is not accepted by most Orthodox Jews). Young men and boys used such violent language toward him that Hess filed a complaint with the police.
  3. The number of Birthright participants has dropped significantly this winter season, down 20-50% from last year. Trip providers told Haaretz that one possible explanation for this is that young Jews feel that Israel acts antithetically to hervalues, specifically regarding the treatment of Palestinians. Recently, 1,500 Jewish college students signed a petition that expressed: “The exclusion of voices of Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel from Birthright runs counter to our core values.”

Practical Classroom Tools

In all of these cases, there is deep disagreement between individuals or groups of people. It is not unusual for news stories to highlight conflict and heated differences. As educators, our work is less about the specific rifts and more about how we deal with them: How can we disagree agreeably? How can people with completely opposing views listen to and respect one another? How can we work together to discuss ideas and accomplish shared goals rather than waste energy bickering?

Is it possible? Yes.

Here are 6 suggestions of how to practice this with your students:

1. Generous Orthodoxy

Malcolm Gladwell quotes the theologian Hans Frei, who talked about what he called “Generous Orthodoxy.” That phrase, Gladwell points out, is an oxymoron. “To be orthodox is to be committed to tradition. To be generous, as Frei defines it, is to be open to change.” As educators, how can we help students find the middle ground? Frei answers that “orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.”

Teach your students about this concept of balance and make sure it finds its ways into your curriculum. How one teaches is often more important than what one teaches.

2. Speak like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong. 

Talmud, Eruvin 13b: “For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.”

Since both “these and those are the words of the living God,” why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

In a think-pair-share exercise, ask your students to review this passage and discuss where in their lives they can follow Hillel more, ensuring that this motto of “speaking like you’re right and listening like you’re wrong” is more than a quotable quote, but an idea that underpins all of our interactions.

3. Rather than listening to respond, listen to understand. 

Talmud, Chagiga 3b: “Make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear” both sides of the argument.

Play this video about Heterodox Academy, a group of professors with a mission to create viewpoint diversity, mutual diversity and constructive disagreement.


  • What problems are the professors addressing?
  • Do you think it is important?
  • Is what they see on college campuses present in your own camps, synagogues or schools?

4. Benefit of the doubt through empathy

Pirkei Avot, 1:6: “Judge all of a person favorably.”

Present two scenarios:

  1. You walk into class five minutes late. How do you explain your actions (to yourself or teacher)? Your classmate walks into class 10 minutes late. How do you explain her actions (to yourself)? Is there a difference? Why?
  2. You’re finishing basketball practice when your coach snaps at you, but you feel you didn’t do anything wrong. What is your immediate reaction? How can you discuss with your coach and view him or her favorably?

Watch Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discuss empathy and argument in conversation with Professor Jonathan Haidt (mins. 23:38-27:40). What is Rabbi Sacks’ perspective on empathy in Judaism? According to him, what is its source (spoiler: not the obvious)? What does he note about society today, and what is your take?

5. Humility in Uncertainty

Watch Julia Dhar’s video on how to find common ground in your disagreement and note the following three ideas:

  1. There is “humility in uncertainty.” Allow ourselves to not necessarily be sure we are always correct. If we open ourselves up to the idea that we may be wrong, it opens room for others. Remind your students about this idea and ask where they can apply it in their lives.
  2. Ask first, “What do we all agree on?” When disagreeing (which can be a really good thing), acknowledge our strong areas of agreement first and then use that as a framework to continue the conversation.
  3. The moment we describe an idea as “left-wing” or “right-wing,” we malign the idea without giving it serious thought. Let’s let the marketplace of ideas win out instead of epithets like “liberal” or “conservative,” or even “Democrat” or “Republican.” Calling someone a name ends dialogue before dialogue even begins, and it’s just a tactic to attack someone without having to think through their ideas. Debate ideas, not identity. Ensure that name-calling is removed from the lexicon of your educational climate.

6. Humanize the Other

As pro-Israel activist Chloé Valdary frequently notes, “Criticize in order to uplift, not to tear the other person down.”

  1. Ask your students to choose a position with which they vehemently disagree, to pause and consider it.
  2. Ask your students to then argue with the perspective, and give suggestions to alter it.
  3. Remind students to zone in on the idea and not the person.
  4. Ask your students how they view that idea and if it has changed by engaging in this process.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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