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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Stop wasting your breath

Daf Yomi Yevamos 49

I was once invited to sit on a panel with a Conservative rabbi and discuss prayer from our different perspectives.  Figuring it would be a good opportunity to provide non-Orthodox Jews with an Orthodox viewpoint and reach out to them, I obliged.   I prepared the subject thoroughly and explained the traditional meaning and incredible power of power.  The other rabbi, by contrast, spoke off the cuff and described prayer as little more than an opportunity to gather as a community.   I was patting myself on the back and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve wiped the floor today!’  You can imagine my surprise when, following the debate, my colleague’s congregants all came up to him congratulating him on a job well done!

The following week, as Divine providence would have it, I was invited to debate a Palestinian professor on Middle East peace.  Again I obliged and found myself in a lecture theatre packed with people covering the spectrum – from Jews to Arabs to curious Canadians.  While I did a decent job, I thought that my interlocutor, who was an expert in the field, really gave me a run for my money with his uncanny ability to quote statistics and UN resolutions verbatim.   Exhausted by the end of the evening, I was suddenly mobbed by members of the Jewish community who congratulated me on clearly winning the debate!

Shimon ben Azzai says: I found a scroll in Jerusalem wherein it was written, ‘Manasseh killed Isaiah.’  Rava explains: First he judged him, then he killed him, based on the following incriminating evidence.

Said Manasseh to Isaiah: Your teacher Moses stated in the Torah, “For no man shall see Me and live.”  And yet you declared, “I saw G- sitting on the high and mighty throne!”   Your teacher Moses stated, “Who is like Hashem our G-d, whosoever may call unto Him.”  And yet you say, “Seek out G-d where He may be found!”  Moses your teacher stated, “I shall complete the days of your life.”  And yet you said to Hezekiah, “I shall add fifteen years to your life!”

Isaiah said to himself, “I know that he will not accept whatever response I offer him.  And so if I say anything, I will only cause him to be culpable.”  He therefore uttered the Divine name and was miraculously hidden inside a cedar tree.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can say to change people’s minds.  They’ve already arrived at their own conclusions and you can debate and convince till the cows go home to no avail.  Their minds are already made up.  Isaiah realized that Manasseh was merely seeking an excuse to have him executed and the ‘evidence’ against him was nothing more than a kangaroo court.

In fact, Isaiah decided not to respond to Manasseh for fear of incriminating him in the Heavenly court.  Better to avoid debate than have Manasseh lose the debate and still proceed with his vilification of Isaiah, because some people are just not willing to listen to what you have to say, no matter how right you may be.

Nowadays I am much more cautious before accepting an invitation to serve on a debate panel.   I first debate in my own mind who the audience will be and what I am aiming to accomplish.  And the same is true for any debate challenge even if it’s just over Kiddush at shul on Shabbos.  If somebody forcefully offers their opinion on current affairs and the like, most of the time you’re better off just agreeing with them and validating their points.   There’s no use arguing because they’ve already made up their minds.  Especially when it comes to matters of belief, you can't convince someone to believe something they don't believe.  

Anytime you debate someone, you need to ask yourself what ultimate outcome you’re hoping to achieve.  If you probably won’t change their mind and it appears they’ve already decided how they feel about the issue, the best option is to simply smile, nod in agreement and be their friend.  Most fights and arguments people have over differences in opinion on issues cause more strife than it’s worth.  If you feel they’re open to listening, then fair game.  But if not, why bother getting your stress levels up for nothing?

When you’re talking to opinionated, atheistic, or antagonistic people, most of the time they’ve already made up their minds.  You’ll do a lot better for your own sanity and stress levels if you simply offer them a smile and a hug!

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