Guidelines for Respectful Conversation: An Interview with Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard
Guidelines for Respectful Conversation: An Interview with Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard

Volume 3 , Issue 3

Jewish Review: Can you tell us briefly what the basic premises of your method of respectful dialogue are?

Blanchard: The first principle is that no two people are identical; you have to assume that people will have differences. The second is that you can't know whether or not cooperation is possible until you actually sit down and talk. The third is that you have to try to work in terms of real, concrete problems and projects. Don't sit and theorize about ?this? versus ?that? kind of Judaism. You must ask, ?What are the problems we are facing? and ?What can we, who are sitting right here, do to try to resolve them (not whether the whole world can solve them).? We must remember also that partial solutions are better than no solutions. The fourth principle I've always used is that cooperation means agreement to joint action, not identical action: we do not all have to do the same things in order to participate in the solution. Is there a role for each individual which accords with what he or she wants? Last, I would say that we can agree to joint action without our all having the same reasons for doing so. You do it for your reasons. I do it for mine. These premises form the basis of my guidelines and, consequently, of my workshops.

Jewish Review: Are these guidelines which you have developed on your own or have they been used previously in other contexts as well?

Blanchard: They are found in the research on negotiation theory. Anyone who has read the Uri and Fisher book Getting to Yes knows that I'm not doing anything that hasn't been researched in university contexts. I came to it from a Torah perspective. Torah itself says, ?Don't say it's impossible. First sit down and see if you can solve a problem.? The Gemara says, ?No two people are identical? and the Torah says you don't have to solve all problems. These are all common sense Jewish things that anyone who is a rav, anyone who is a practicing Jew knows. We know from the Talmud that people often do the same right? thing for different reasons. I came from a Torah perspective, but I later found in my work as a psychologist that these principles are found in bargaining and negotiation theory as well. I went back and put together Torah principles with this kind of psychological theory, and I derived my ?Guidelines for Respectful Conversation.? (see box)

Jewish Review: How do your workshops on intra‑Jewish cooperation operate? Who comes to them? How do you set them up? What are some of the issues you discuss, and what is your role as the leader?

Blanchard: The workshops are usually set up by either a rabbinic group, or a Jewish communal group like Federation, or sometimes by a synagogue group. Sometimes they raise a specific problem which needs to be resolved, but most often they just want to hear about my methods. My role is to introduce the method, teach it and facilitate its use by giving examples and when there is a particular problem, help the parties resolve that problem using the techniques they have learned. My role is not that of an authority figure, but rather of someone who knows a particular method, and who can help to make it work effectively in a Jewish context. I don't come in and say I have the answer. I say I have a method based on Torah principles and psychological research; let's give it a try. And because the method is based on mutual respect, most people are willing to give it a try. Those who don't want to respect others simply don't come to these workshops.

Jewish Review: You have said that your own view on dialogue is rooted in the rabbinic principle dan lekaf zekhut (judge others charitably or give others the benefit of the doubt). Could you explain this principle, and does this provide you with a halakhic warrant for the position you take?

Blanchard: We are obligated in Torah to give others the benefit of the doubt. Mutual respect, while not absolutely necessary for the kind of dialogue I am advocating, certainly facilitates this dialogue. It seems to me that there is a basis for this idea of mutual respect in the concept of dan lekaf, which we find in Pirke Avot. When somebody comes to you in a context in which they are representing a movement within Judaism which you oppose, you should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are coming to you out of good will. I assume that my ?opponents? have arrived at their position out of sincere convictions, whether I like it or not; and that is what I hope they, in turn, will assume about me. I wouldn't want anyone to assume: ?He's Orthodox; therefore he must have adopted his positions for bad reasons.? Some people will go on to prove to you that they no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt, but I assume otherwise until I am proven wrong.

Jewish Review: Why the emphasis on mutual respect as opposed, on the one hand, to simple cooperation, and on the other, mutual understanding? And how can an Orthodox rabbi have ?respect? for a Reform rabbi, when, from the Orthodox perspective, that Reform rabbi violates so many Torah principles?

Blanchard: First of all, cooperation is enough if we can get it, and one can cooperate with people one does not have respect for; those of us who do divorce counseling see that all the time‑people who are ready to kill each other learn to cooperate for the sake of the children, for family but not out of respect. But I think we'll get farther in the Jewish community itself if we can cooperate out of mutual respect as much as possible. You'll get much farther if people feel respected than if they feel that you don't think much of them.

In most cases I have found that I can indeed have respect for a person who is part of another Jewish denomination. Such respect is not based on whether they live in the way that I think Jews should live in the long run, but rather upon my belief that they are sincere in their convictions and act in a manner that is consistent with them. One can also respect somebody for having tried with all of his power to come to the decision that he did arrive at. I would insist on the same respect from the non‑Orthodox. Suppose a Reform rabbi said to me, ?You are so compulsive about your religious behavior that there must be something wrong with you to act in such a manner.? I would respond that it is unfair to begin that way. Let's not begin by assuming that I have some kind of psychological sickness that compels me toward Orthodoxy. Rather, let's begin with the notion that I may sincerely believe that G‑d wants me to live this way, and not reduce me to someone who simply has a ?mental problem.? I would like others to approach me with respect and with the notion that I sincerely believe in what I am doing even though the other doesn't see why. I'm willing to do the same for non‑Orthodox Jews. My respect for another is not incompatible with my belief that they are wrong. My feeling is that G‑d Himself, according to the Jewish tradition, operates in this way, respecting all those who are sincere in their approach to Him, as long as it is an approach shem shel shamayim, in the name of heaven.

Jewish Review: One often hears amongst Orthodox Jews and Orthodox rabbis that while they can have respect and perhaps understanding of Reform, Secular or Conservative Jews, they cannot have respect for Reform and Conservative rabbis who have learned Torah, studied halakha and Gemara, and yet practice a form of the rabbinate in which they encourage people to violate Jewish law under the name of Torah itself. How is it possible for you, as an Orthodox rabbi, to have respect for an individual who holds him or herself out to be a rabbi, and yet condones and even encourages his congregation to violate the Sabbath or eat non‑kosher foods, or who may even officiate at an intermarriage?

Blanchard: First of all, I would say that those who believe that non‑Orthodox rabbis are deliberately deceptive, malevolent and insincere should get to know more Reform and Conservative rabbis. I have not found it to be the case that any one is deliberately insincere and deceptive. Instead of prejudging these individuals, they should go in with an open mind and meet and talk with them over the course of time. As far as people holding themselves out as ?rabbis? yet at the same time encouraging Sabbath violation, I think we should be clear that such a person is not holding him or herself out to be a ?rabbi? in my sense of the term. They're holding themselves out to be a representative of the movement with which they are affiliated, and they're a ?rabbi? in that sense only. I've never met a Reform rabbi who said to me, ?Oh, by the way, I'm, an Orthodox rabbi.? They say, ? I'm a Reform rabbi.? Now the important question to me is whether they do, in fact, stand for the principles that Reform Judaism seems to stand for; if they said they were in favor of worshipping idols then I would say that there is something off‑base about them, because Reform, which is almost obsessed with ethical monotheism, is in its basic principles about as far away from idolatry as you can get. Now Reform rabbis simply claim to represent the concept of the Sabbath that exists in Reform Judaism, and I can respect them for that choice even though I firmly believe in the concept of Shabbat as practiced by traditional, Orthodox Jews. However, in the context of the method I've developed, the question isn't to decide who is right. Let's say, for example, that we're having a federation Shabbat to which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews all plan to attend. The question is how can we work the day out so that we can all have Shabbat together. My method doesn't resolve theory, but rather enables us to deal with a practical problem such as this. The principles I've outlined in my method enable us in more cases than not to arrive at a win‑win solution where we can all be happy. I should note that people of integrity are found in all movements, as are people without integrity.? It's certainly the case that you can work better with people of integrity, but I should tell you that my method works even with people who don't have integrity, and the reason for this is that you can appeal to their self‑interest, their own goals. This method can do real estate deals; it certainly can put together a Shabbat.

Jewish Review: Your notion of it being halakhically permissible for Reform rabbis to perform many of the functions which they regard as ?rabbinic? is an intriguing one. Do you see this as a potential element in the resolution of conflicts over personal status other than divorce, such as conversion?

Blanchard: I certainly do. There are, of course, Orthodox rabbis who hold that it is halakhically inappropriate to have any dealings at all with non‑Orthodox rabbis. I'm not in that camp. There is an equally strong Orthodox group that says it is appropriate for mutual benefit to cooperate with rabbis of other groups. I'm obviously in that group halakhically, and I think that this idea of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis performing functions in cooperation with us and which fits their conception of what is an appropriate role for them is a good one. In fact, it is a good way to open up dialogue and in many cases is the way we ought to go. As I've told you, I've found that strategy very helpful in dealing with the problem of get, religious Jewish divorce. If you start off by assuming that it is all right to include the non‑Orthodox rabbis in ways that make sense to them and which do not require the Orthodox or anyone else to compromise, you are much more likely to get an agreement on Jewish divorce. Neither the Orthodox nor the non‑Orthodox should be thought of as ?bad guys? because they have certain commitments. This will not work with everybody. Some people say, ?Until you let me do what I know you won't let me do, we can't agree. Some people, for example, come in with what they perceive as the solution: they have to have, for example, a ?National Beit Din.? Now, who says a National Beit Din is a solution? Stop defending solutions and let's focus instead on the problem to be solved. In the cases I've dealt with, it turns out that, if we examine the problem fresh, without a pre‑arranged agenda, it is not in the interest of someone who does not believe in an Orthodox Beit Din to sit on one. Similarly, to be perfectly frank, it is not in the interest of an Orthodox rabbi who does not believe in certain Reform principles to be required to validate them. What you must do is work together based on the fact that you have different conceptions of Judaism, not try to arrive at a conception with which you all agree.

Jewish Review: One of the things that is striking about the divorce issue, for example, is that even amongst those who do not believe in the halakha, who do not believe in the Beit Din, there is the assumption that the power or the religious ?punch? is invested in the Beit Din role.

Blanchard: That's the mistake. If you start fresh without such assumptions, you can give equal power and validity to all the steps of Jewish divorce, one of which, for example, is counseling. Why is counseling any less important than a formal get procedure? In fact, from the point of view of a non‑halakhic Jew, the formal get procedure isn't all that important and is only adhered to, if at all, because of its effects upon the Jewish people.

Jewish Review: You see this kind of solution sometimes with Brit Milah, circumcision, where an Orthodox mohel performs the circumcision and a Reform rabbi does some kind of ceremony prior to it.

Blanchard: Of course, that's exactly what happens. In cases where you have some family members who are traditional and others who couldn't care less about Orthodox tradition, but who want some kind of ceremony that makes sense to them, you can put the Brit in a wider context. There are times where we can't agree on a common ceremony, but very often we can, as long as we don't do anything that is offensive to each other. We have discovered time and time again that with some of us it is possible to do things jointly based on our mutual goals. The goal might be to get a particular couple happily married. In such a case, I would say that I have certain requirements as to what a halakhic witness is. The non‑Orthodox rabbi need not have the same requirements, but if we are trying to put together a wedding ceremony that is going to work out for all involved and I have to be part of that ceremony, should we not start with a rule that says, my needs must also be respected?

Jewish Review: Is this kind of cooperation really only possible in small communities where there is really only one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform rabbi? Isn't it much harder to achieve in a place such as New York, or in Israel where any of the solutions or joint ventures arrived at will be seen by the watchful eye of the parties' respective organizations?

Blanchard: Of course, any place where you have turf defense, my dialogue method is not going to work. Because the method assumes that you are not defending turf, but rather acting upon genuine religious commitments. But it's not only a small town issue. Large cities are composed of a lot of small areas and small scale, everyday problems need to be resolved there as well. But you are right; wherever you have a watchful eye of turf defenders who are going to say, ?You did this. How terrible! How terrible!?, it's going to be hard to have respectful conversation. The observers have to agree to drop the ?How terrible! How terrible!?, and ask ?What has really been done? How was it done? What problem was solved, and was it solved in a manner which was respectful of the values which each party brought into the process?? Only then can we hope to resolve any of the major issues which divide the Jewish community today.


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