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When conversations with friends can have real power

It can often feel pointless to talk about politics with someone who disagrees with you; it can lead to a heated argument in which neither side budges. Especially with friends and family, many people opt to avoid the conversation to protect the relationship. But those conversations are the most impactful. Below, Jonah Sanderson, a rabbinic student and lifelong Republican, talks with Alisha Pedowitz, a Jewish educator and progressive feminist.

Jonah: I am a rabbinic student, a lifelong Republican, and someone who strives to live my life deeply steeped in Torah values. One of the tantamount values of the oral Jewish tradition is machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. But what does it actually mean?

Over a year ago, I met Alisha Pedowitz at a synagogue in Los Angeles, where she was leading a session for parents of Jewish teens on “Gender, Sexuality, and Consent” on behalf of the organization Moving Traditions. Sitting in that discussion, I was deeply moved by her presentation and also, deeply uncomfortable.

The Talmud says that if one can sit in dialogue with those they disagree with, even when they find themselves squirming, God’s presence can truly be made manifest. Sitting there that night, I knew this wouldn’t be my last encounter with Alisha.

Alisha: When I first met Jonah, I definitely would not have predicted our friendship. I am everything that Jonah is not: a progressive feminist and liberal Jew, a survivor who speaks openly about how my experiences as a girl and woman have shaped me personally, professionally, and politically.

I am also a Jewish educator who strives to bring the full integrity of Jewish wisdom to youth as a source of strength and meaning as they navigate the complexities of society. Which is where we connected. Over the course of our many conversations since that first night, I have found in a Jonah a similar desire to be rooted from a place of integrity of Jewish values, text, and actions, and an openness to understanding new perspectives to use as a lens to re-examine what integrity to those deeply held values looks like.

This is what I think machloket l’shem shamayim actually means. The idea of “civil discourse” is often used as an argument for, “Let’s just agree to disagree; both of our ‘sides’ are equally right and just.” But this is an oversimplification of differences. In fact, it’s the opposite. And it takes starting with a belief that the person you are sitting across from is genuinely striving to figure out how to actualize their values with integrity, with a shared willingness to look one another square in the eye, diving headlong into the complexities of your different understandings. It is a shared pursuit toward expanding and sharpening your thinking around your values and ideals, where pursuit of integrity of those values is your shared goal, not convincing the other of your own rightness, or simplifying differences for the sake of agreement.

Which brings me to September, when he told me he planned to vote for Donald Trump.

Jonah: I have been an ardent Republican since I was 18, when I cast my first vote for a God-fearing Christian, George W. Bush, with whom I shared a love of God, a love for Israel and stances on many issues. And then came Trump, who had appeal because he was neither Republican nor Democrat. He felt like a man of action. I have not loved everything he has said or done over the past four years, but, since a safe and secure Israel remains at the top of my list of key issues, I felt that sticking with him and my party was best.

Alisha: Hearing that Jonah planned to vote for Trump “for Israel” stopped me in my tracks. Not only do I disagree on the point of Trump being best for Israel (in itself a full conversation), but as two Jews in America making a decision about the country where we reside, its people, and its future, it concerns me how this one issue shuts down consideration on all of the others.

And then I thought about everything I know about Jonah — his tireless work around suicide prevention, mental health and caring for people in our community, and the many values we have discovered that we share.

So I leaned in and started pushing him to explain how voting for Trump aligned with each of those values. We dug in, hard, on multiple issues, continuing to come back to voting “for Israel.” I finally hung up, feeling despair and wondering if our conversation was emblematic of Jews across our country right now, unable to see and hear one another across this void.

Jonah: I hung up on that call as unsettled as I was the first night I met her. I was thinking about everything she said, through the standpoint of what I know of her and what I believe of myself.

And then, I saw Trump and Bibi on TV, shaking hands unmasked — when more than 200,000 Americans, including my uncle, have died of coronavirus, and while cases also surged in Israel. I began to cry because I knew he was heartless.

Then came the debate. I have never seen anything so outrageous and so hurtful as when President Trump took that stage. Suddenly everything Alisha had challenged me on came into sharp focus. I could no longer look past the harm he has caused through his rhetoric, actions and policies.

This realization came through uncomfortable conversations that taught me Torah across deep political divisions, for the sake of humanity. In Deuteronomy, we read Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha, kehillat Yaakov — Torah belongs to us all only if we can put aside our differences in order to truly understand the other.

Alisha: Politics aside, when Jonah called me to tell me that our conversation had so drastically changed his political perspective, I was moved by the hope it gave me to realize that conversations across deep divides can truly expand and sharpen the thinking of the two people sitting across from one another. I’m grateful to this unlikely friendship for sharpening my thinking of what machlochet l’shem shemayim can truly mean: abandoning the urge to simply say “we’re both right” in order to share in a pursuit for integrity and expansion of understanding, for the sake of heaven, and of humanity.

Alisha Pedowitz is a Jewish educator and communal professional who works to bring the richness of Jewish community, ritual, tradition, and wisdom to help youth thrive in relationship with one another. She holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management, a MAEd with a Concentration in Experiential Education, and a BA in Hebrew Letters from American Jewish University, as well as a BA in Psychology from Stanford University, and serves as the California Director of Moving Traditions.

Jonah Sanderson is in his third year of Rabbinical school at the Academy for Jewish Religion California. On top having his BS in Criminal Justice, he is a tireless advocate for suicide prevention.

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