Too many stakes spoils the broth

I just had another one of those awful experiences talking about Judaism with Jews, at an otherwise successful event called Lishmah – a day of learning and teaching Torah ‘for it’s own sake.’

Problem was, instead of letting me do some Torah exploration, they put me on a two-person panel with a guy who read and hated my book. So, even though the panel was supposed to be about whether or not intermarriage and assimilation are really threats to Judaism (I say ‘no’ because Judaism isn’t about race but about sharing some great ideas beyond the socially constructed confines of a Jewish People), it fast became clear that this guy had been preparing to take me on and put the world out of the misery of having to deal with my ideas.

And I wouldn’t have minded doing a ‘thesis defense’ of my book in front of a bunch of people if, at least, it had been done in a friendly or collegial atmosphere. This was a day of Jewish learning, supposedly. A few people warned me about my panel-mate before I went on, and a few others asked – even begged – me to ‘take him out’ once and for all.

I didn’t know what they really meant until the thing began, and I saw what I was up against. A deeply hostile, closed-minded, and passive-aggressive personality.

So I decided that if I wasn’t going to get to teach Torah that day, I’d try to teach Torah by example. I was as kind as I could be to the man. Though I refused to engage his completely random attacks, I acknowledged his discomfort, thanked him for engaging with me and my ideas, and told him I was honored to be taken so seriously. There was no point in attacking him, since he was already demonstrating the fear and fundamentalism that results from a purely tribal mindset.

But it did make me think about the limited gains of attempting to spread Torah – or any universal philosophy – under a banner that for many means race. I honestly believe that I’m less likely to find people willing to engage with the underlying ideas of Judaism at a Jewish event than at almost any other. Yes, as one rabbi has advised me, it’s because Jews have so much at stake in their positions on these ideas. But that very at-stakeness translates into a closed-mindedness and an inability to engage.

If we do want to engage in a conversation, we all have to see our positions as provisional and incomplete. And that requires we trade in our stakes.