How To Create Change According To God And The Berdichever Rebbe

To communicate effectively with people who disagree with us - especially those who are on the fence and can actually be won over - we must tailor our words to the listener. 

We live in alarming times. No matter where we place ourselves on the political spectrum, we can all identify something that needs a change. And the more alarmed we get, the more effectively we need to advocate for that change with people who don’t share our views.

Successful advocacy opens people’s eyes and touches their hearts. It requires a special kind of communication, and it’s not easy.

In his recent article, How Could Modern Orthodox Judaism Produce Jared Kushner? Peter Beinart deems presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner a moral failure for joining the Trump administration and hosting a Shabbat dinner for Cabinet members on the same day President Trump issued his ban on travel from seven Muslim majority countries.

Mr. Beinart also indicts the Modern Orthodox community for producing Mr. Kushner, with particular emphasis on the Frisch School in New Jersey. Mr. Beinart then accuses these two communities of being more stringent regarding ritual lapses than ethical lapses. He doesn’t offer supporting evidence, but simply asks, “Why do many Modern Orthodox Jews shudder at the thought of eating nonkosher cheese, yet proudly support Trump?”

He ends the article by calling on Mr. Kushner and the communities which produced him to examine their actions, and presumably to change their ways.

What has Mr. Beinart accomplished with this article? Let us assume for the purpose of this discussion that he’s is right about Mr. Kushner’s father-in-law. Imagine, even if you disagree, that President Trump’s policies endanger America and the world. The question is, has Mr. Beinart advocated effectively for his viewpoint?

I believe Mr. Beinart has no chance of reaching Mr. Kushner’s heart with this message. Few people will enter a conversation with an open mind if you start by calling them a moral failure. So perhaps the article is only intended to inspire the Modern Orthodox community and the Frisch School to change their ways. If so, the piece is incompetent.

Mr. Beinart himself would be the first to reject any argument that a Muslim community and a Muslim school are responsible for the actions and ideology of a particular Muslim. That in fact is the basis of Mr. Beinart’s outrage at the president’s travel ban. So why does he hold these Jewish communities responsible for Mr. Kushner’s actions and ideology?

Does Mr. Beinart mean to hold Jews and Muslims to a different standard? If so, his piece is either deeply flawed or anti-Semitic, and that would make it surprisingly incompetent for a writer of Mr. Beinart’s stature.

I give Mr. Beinart more credit than that. He’s a very competent writer. So I conclude that his goal in writing this piece is to rally like-minded Trump opponents to his side by leveling accusations at his own community. He thereby elevates his importance in the Trump-opposition camp and attracts more like-minded people to his bylines.

And that is what makes it such a poor piece of advocacy.  He’s accomplished nothing of real value. If the country and the world are as deep in trouble as he posits, he needs to convince people who don’t already share his views.

We all do, no matter what our politics are.

To communicate effectively with people who disagree with us – especially those who are on the fence and can actually be won over – we must tailor our words to the listener. We need to understand where they are, respect the process by which they reached their position, and speak so they will listen.

We can learn a few lessons about  effective advocacy from the greatest communicator of all time, God. In the Jewish people’s yearly cycle of Torah reading, we are currently transitioning from the human stories that characterize Genesis, to the interweaving of laws and narrative that characterize the rest of Torah. The great rabbinic scholar Rashi opens his commentary on Genesis by noting that the Bible could have begun in Exodus, when the children of Israel are about to leave Egypt, and they start receiving the commandments which will serve as their national code of conduct.

In other words, God could have omitted the Creation story and much of what follows. Torah stories like Adam & Eve, Noah & The Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, etc. are the province of mankind. Even specifically Jewish stories like The Binding Of Isaac, and Joseph’s Coat have the power to touch everybody. But it is the laws of the Hebrew calendar, of Shabbat and the Jewish festivals, of kosher diet and fringed garments, as well as many other commandments, which require specific action by the Jewish people and no one else.

We undertake these actions because, and only because, God asks us to do them.

God does not hold a gun to our heads. He gives us the power to refuse, and indeed countless Jews have turned their backs on the Torah during the millennia since it was given. The amazing thing is how many Jews do follow the Torah’s code of conduct. Despite its strictness, often-overbearing inconveniences, and lack of apparent rewards, millions of Jews follow these laws and we have done so for thousands of years.

How did God communicate so effectively? Here are six tips we can take from the Holy One for creating change, followed by an incident that demonstrates how one person reached another with successful advocacy.

1.     Create a sense of shared history. God includes the stories of Genesis in His book of laws because it reminds the Jewish people where we came from, and how our lives have been intertwined with God’s creation from the beginning. If we want people to hear us when we advocate for change, we need to show them we’re in it together and always have been.

2.     Speak to people where they are. The Torah begins the giving of laws with, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying…” (Exod. 12:1). We already know they’re in Egypt – we’ve just spent twelve chapters on the story of Moses and the plagues. Why does God remind us that Moses and Aaron are receiving the laws in Egypt? To teach us that this message was tailored to the people of that time, while the overall message was tailored to Jews for all time.

3.     Expect disagreement. No change that is steamrolled onto a people ever lasts. Americans have hotly debated the requirements of the U.S. Constitution since its inception, just as Jews have always debated the requirements of Torah. Our Sages teach that God loves this kind of debate, and in it we have a continuing opportunity to hear and converse with God’s voice. The trick is to inspire debate rather than offense.

4.     Paint a picture of a shared future. God doesn’t just say,  “Do this and save the world, or do that and destroy the world.” God’s Torah spells out in vivid detail what our national life will be like if all Jews would follow the law. We haven’t witnessed such a blessed state in thousands of years, but we dream of that era and work toward it.

5.     Make the message shareable. Sound bites are effective. Was there ever such a quotable book as the Bible? Give your listener some choice pearls they can use to spread the message themselves.

6.     Know when to stop. God stopped creating after six days, stopped plaguing after ten miracles, and stopped talking
before everyone got onboard. God didn’t reach everyone with Torah, and God was ok with that. Likewise, we can’t convince everyone. And even the people we can persuade will only change their views when they’re ready. Overbearing advocacy fails. So we deliver our message, and back off to let the listener think about it.

Now, if I were reading this article, I’d be thinking that’s all well and good for God. God can summon plagues to prove a point. I can’t. So let’s take a look at how one person who initially failed to reach his listener finally got through.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was the beloved Rebbe to the Jews of Berdichev, Ukraine around 1800. One day, he sent for the richest man in town. When the rich man entered his office, the Rebbe said, “A poor man desperately needs our help. Everyone has pitched in to create a fund for him, but a substantial sum is still needed. I have no one else to ask but you.”

“Rebbe, it hurts me to refuse you. You know I obey every commandment, but I never give to these special causes. Please don’t ask me again. I hate to dishonor you by turning you down.”

The Rebbe saw it was hopeless, and let the rich man go.

A few months later, the Rebbe received a visit from the rich man’s brother, who was very poor.

“Rebbe, I have so many mouths to feed, and now my oldest, my daughter, cannot get married unless I provide a dowry. How can I disappoint her? And how can I tell my wife we are too poor to arrange her marriage? Please, Rebbe, help me.”

“Have you asked your brother for help?”

“Yes. I knew it would do no good, but I went hat in hand and knocked on the door of his mansion. His servant poured me a cup of tea, and that’s all I received.”

The Rebbe thought about this for a long moment. Then he suddenly smiled and said, “Don’t worry, I know what to do.”

The next day, the Rebbe appeared at the rich man’s door. The man was honored to receive such a prominent guest, and escorted him into the salon. He personally poured the tea. The Rebbe thanked him and smiled.

The rich man waited for the Rebbe to explain why he had come, but the Rebbe just sat there smiling.

After an hour, he got up and left.

The next day, the Rebbe knocked on the rich man’s door. Once again, they sat together for an hour with the man waiting for the Rebbe to speak, and the Rebbe just smiled.

On the third day, the rich man became very uncomfortable. He tried to make conversation with his esteemed guest, but the Rebbe only smiled and said nothing. When the hour was up, the Rebbe got up to leave.

“Rebbe, please! I can’t bear it any longer. Why do you just sit here, day after day, and do nothing but smile?”

“Ah! I’m glad you finally asked. Scripture teaches, rebuke a wise man and he will love you, but do not rebuke a scoffer. (Proverbs 9:8) From this our Sages derive that we are commanded to give rebuke where it will be heeded, and we are commanded not to give rebuke where it will produce no positive effect.”

“As the Rebbe of Berdichev, everyone takes my teaching very seriously, and thanks me for guidance. If I’m forced to give rebuke, they’re even more respectful, and quick to act on my words. So I have fulfilled the first commandment hundreds of times, maybe thousands. But you, my friend, have given me something I never had before. I smile with pleasure because I have finally fulfilled the second commandment. I have withheld rebuke where it will have no positive effect!”

The rich man turned red with embarrassment. And his poor brother received a big check the next day.

My pals, in these difficult times, may we merit to learn from the Holy One and the Berdichiver Rebbe. May we use the six tips as we reach out to friends who don’t share our views, and may we patiently create the change this world needs.

The tale of the Berdichiver Rebbe is adapted from The Rabbi’s Smile

Image: Labor Parade in New York City 1909, courtesy Library of Congress

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