Practicing “Better Arguments” in a Jewish Community

October 3, 2023

The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides—not by papering over them but by helping people have better arguments. Rabbi Joanna Samuels participated in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, an immersive, fellowship-style program designed to equip participants to bring the project to their communities. Rabbi Samuels, CEO of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, spoke to the Better Arguments Project to share her experience and perspective. 

A white woman with shoulder length straight brown hair, glasses, and a navy shirt stands at a glass podium. She is smiling and looking to her left into the crowd. Why do you think it is important to find healthier ways to disagree and exchange ideas—and why did you step up to become a Better Arguments Ambassador? 

Better Arguments are a powerful tool for personal relationships and also for our broader society. In personal relationships when we have disagreements, it can create anxiety and disconnect because we are just trying to convince someone of our point of view. And it’s frustrating that people do not believe everything that we believe! Being able to dive right into the disagreement and treat it almost as a third party in the conversation is, ironically, a way to be connected to someone more deeply. We can probe into what they think and ask how they came to those conclusions. 

From a societal standpoint, we are living in a world that is telling us how divided we all are from each other, as though that state of affairs is a given. We are not provided with the tools or the opportunity to see something else: that actually, there are a whole bunch of things that lots of people agree on, and that even across our disagreements there are ways of finding the humanity of another person or the wisdom of another side of an issue.

I like the phrase you evoked around the anxiety and the disconnect that disagreement can cause. How does that appear in your context? 

On a personal level, families, social groups, and houses of worship all experience this tumult around political issues. For instance, there’s a big issue right now around judicial reform in Israel. And in my segment of the Jewish community, there is probably some consensus about it, but that does not mean that 100% of people feel one way or another. So, we are seeing that people feel this anxiety, asking themselves, “Well, what does it mean for a person to disagree with me on this issue? Does it mean that they do not love Israel in the same way I do? Does it mean that they are not a person who I want to have in my community?” 

I feel like there is a role to hold a community together not by a pretend consensus but by creating opportunities for people to wade into these disagreements.  

How does your faith inform your views on argumentation or the role of arguments in society?

A core value to my faith—which is shared by other religious traditions as well—is that people are created in God’s image. That means that I have a responsibility to approach them and understand them in that light. That puts a huge responsibility on me as a person to not discount the human being or not to think that someone is less than. Instead, I must see them as fully endowed with potential and creativity that is limitless. 

Also, if I am created in the image of God, it puts a lot of responsibility on me for how I behave and how I interact with the world. I can put myself in a community where everyone believes the same things that I do. But by doing so, I’m missing out on some experience of living in God’s world, which is a world of infinite diversity and of infinite creativity that leads people to take the same set of materials and go in different directions with them. It does not mean that I want to be friends with people who have beliefs that I find abhorrent. But it does mean that I must see them as part of a sacred effort of being alive.

And within the Jewish tradition, we have teachings and foundational texts that speak to the power of dissent, particularly as a way of getting to the truth. There’s a famous story about the two major Rabbinic powers in the ancient world. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai represented two schools of thought that were in opposition and constantly disagreeing with each other over how to interpret Jewish law. And the question for us to grapple with is, “How did Beit Hillel ultimately become adopted as the norm?” The moral that we teach is that Hillel prevailed because he presented himself humbly and would always pay credence to the opinions of Shammai before sharing his own. The story speaks to the way in which we engage our interlocutors. We must engage with people with whom we disagree by at least acknowledging that it is possible to look at something in multiple ways, so that we can have the full truth conveyed in the dialogue. 

How are you implementing Better Arguments concepts into your work at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan? And does success look like to you? 

We have done a series of public programming to surface the complexity of issues where people often think that there is a kind of orthodoxy or that they are supposed to believe a certain thing. For example, we have hosted a series of talks regarding recent Supreme Court cases.

We have also done work to teach and norm the habits of constructive disagreement. We constantly evoke the Better Arguments principle “Take Winning off the Table.” With both our staff and our community members, we are working to set expectations about what open, honest, and productive disagreement looks like. That can apply to something as straightforward as a conversation with our staff about our website redesign, or something fraught like a conversation with our community about how to approach the current situation in Israel.  

Our ultimate goals are to continue to offer opportunities for our community that help them feel safe in questioning beliefs and orthodoxies of all kinds, to put them into community and conversation with people who may feel differently about issues than they do, and to equip everyone with the tools to do that work civilly and collegially.