As the world grows more politically divided, it can be difficult to find common ground with people across the aisle. In an environment that is so polarizing, is it still possible to connect with those whose opinions are so far removed from your own?
At this year’s Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Symposium on Sept. 7, Elana Stein Hain argued that not only is it still possible, but that understandings between diametrically opposed groups are a key part of Jewish life. Different groups of Jewish scholars have sought to come to terms with each other over their philosophical disagreements for hundreds of years, dating all the way back to the famous arguments between the Hillel and Shammai schools of thought in the first century BCE.
Hain is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, as well as a teacher and scholar. Her work, such as the Talmud on the Balcony seminar series and her book “Circumventing the Law: Rabbinic Perspectives on Legal Loopholes and Integrity,” often focuses on using Jewish rabbinical thought and teachings from the Talmud to assess current societal issues.
Under the theme of “Together and Apart: Living in Diverse Communities” at the symposium, Hain discussed the art of settling ideological differences to a crowd of attendees from many different Baltimore-area synagogues.
Held at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, the Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Symposium has been conducted by Na’aleh: The Hub For Leadership Learning for the past five years, as long as Na’aleh has been in operation. The event honors the eponymous Cardin, an advocate for Baltimore’s Jewish community who held several leadership roles, including being the first woman chair of the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund of Baltimore and the president of the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations of Maryland from 1965 to 1967.
She also led to the creation of Na’aleh’s ACHARAI: The Shoshana S. Cardin Jewish Leadership Institute, a leadership program also named in her honor.
“She did what she did naturally, and with such ease and such grace … and that was being a leader,” said Etan Reisner, Cardin’s grandson, in a speech at the symposium. “The idea behind a leadership symposium series like this one is really important. Leadership isn’t just something we can count on being there when we need it. It’s something that needs to be cultivated, nurtured and taught.”
He added that Cardin was very invested in bringing members of the Jewish community together in spite of or even because of ideological differences, making the focus of this year’s symposium a fitting one.
“Sometimes we think the questions of 2023 are so unique, but they’re actually perennial human questions,” Hain said at the symposium.
She noted that while recent political events and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic have driven people further away from being willing to reach understandings with each other, Jewish scholars have been contemplating disagreements for centuries.
Over the course of the symposium, Hain discussed scholars who focused on conflicts and disagreements between different subgroups of Jewish people, such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. In Kook’s case, he argued that the existence of different, disagreeing groups within the Jewish people is necessary, as each group represents values imperative to Jewish society.
“The only way to avoid fundamentalism is to talk to people who don’t believe what you believe,” Hain said. “Not so you can become them, but so you can realize there’s something you might not be seeing that other people do.”
Some of the most famous Jewish scholars, such as the aforementioned Hillel and Shammai, would debate for the sake of heaven. Hain noted that while those who followed Shammai’s teachings often fervently disagreed with those of Hillel, they would often defer to the Hillel school’s stances on certain rituals.
Hain maintained that this was not unusual, but that it was simply an example of “one of the most ancient rituals of all, having good manners and talking,” she said.
“In any ritual, performing the act marks acceptance of the convention,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter how you feel about the convention, how you feel about the ritual or not. What you are is in the doing.”