Earlier this week I participated in one of my favorite rituals—an “Intentional Conversation.” This annual conclave was launched fourteen years ago by Msgr. Royale Vadakin of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Intentional conversations bring together 80-100 people of diverse ages, backgrounds and interests for a structured conversation about personal values and social issues. This year’s theme was, “Can We All Get Along? The Challenges of Civil Discourse and Mutual Respect.” Coming one day after the death of Rodney King, the topic could not have been more timely or poignant.
Intentional conversations encourage small groups of participants to share their own life experiences and how they shape their morals and beliefs—religious, cultural and political. In three “intentional conversations” at my table, nine of us spoke of our values, the key influences in our lives and what we might do to bridge the divide in our society.
I look forward to this gathering for several reasons. Intentional conversations feature an astonishing array of bright, creative individuals—academics, writers, musicians, businessmen and women, professionals, and a handful of clergy thrown in for good (or perhaps bad) measure. I admire and appreciate the ground rules of the conclave. There is no formal agenda and there are no resolutions to adopt. No one is an expert or has all the answers to the questions we discuss. Our task is to think about who we are, what we believe, and what we value in our lives.
By the third small group conversation, my tablemates and I were deeply engaged in discussion of what we can do to promote tolerance and respect in our families, communities and nation. None of us had brilliant solutions to address the precipitous decline of civil discourse in our society. Nonetheless, we agreed that the intentional conversation had brought us to a shared commitment to take small steps to address this challenge. We know that we cannot sit idly by as angry, divisive rhetoric dominates discussions of race, religion and politics and paralyzes communal life. Each of us has a role to play in addressing contentious issues with civility, honesty and respect.
Controversy is an inherent feature of societal discourse. The rabbinic sages famously teach that a controversy for Heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but one that is not for a higher purpose will not endure (Pirkay Avot 5:19). The Torah’s account of Korah’s rebellion is the paradigm of an unholy controversy rooted in demagoguery and motivated by the self-serving ambitions of the rebels.
In contradistinction to Korah, the rabbinic debaters Hillel and Shammai and their disciples argued passionately and vociferously over matters of Jewish law and life. At the end of the day, they ate together, celebrated and mourned together, and lived together as one community. The Talmud records that their sons and daughters married one another, a sure sign of the spirit of civility and respect that pervaded their familial and communal relations.
In former days, members of Congress spent weekends at their homes in Washington, DC. The daughters and sons of Democrats and Republicans played soccer and baseball together, ate in each others’ homes, and even married one another. Most legislators today do not maintain residences in the nation’s capital. Instead, they return to their home districts, families and fundraisers each weekend. Republicans and Democrats dine together infrequently and do not cheer from the sidelines as their children meet and compete in sporting events. Where is the spirit of Hillel and Shammai today?