A More Perfect Union
Concepts in Chassidus / Essays 2019
The Chassidic Approach to Conflict Resolution in the 21st Century
The preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America sets out the vision for a fledgling country. A country founded on the ideals of justice, peace, liberty, and most of all a “more perfect union.” But what does that mean? For a country founded on such a strong belief in unity, it seems that the U.S. has drifted further and further from ‘more perfect’ with every passing year. What once united us, now divides us. And the strains of conflict that poison our national discourse seem to seep ever-deeper into the bedrock of our communities, our families, our homes. So what are we to do about it?
For the past three years, I have been studying psychology, sociology, and criminology at Bar Ilan University. In the course of my studies I have found that though their approaches differ, each of these schools of thought occupy themselves with the same thing: understanding conflict. Conflict is everywhere. From the bus driver shouting at a rowdy passenger to the couple at wits’ ends over who should do the dishes, it causes us pain and anxiety in our daily lives. On a grander scale, global conflicts over politics, money, and land uproot the lives of millions and devastate whole civilizations. What is it that prevents us from living united with one another in peace? Why can’t we avoid conflict entirely? And most importantly – how do we deal with it when it arises? This essay will explore some of those concepts – both in academic thought as well as through the lens of Chassidus – and will endeavor to shine a light on the Torah’s deeper paradigm of conflict resolution; It will cover how we can attain that goal of a ‘more perfect’ union in our own lives.
CONFLICT: An Organizational Approach
Organizational behaviorists are a group of social scientists who focus their research primarily on the workplace. Over the years, they have developed two divergent theories of conflict(1). The traditional school of thought views conflict as undesirable; an obstacle to optimal workplace performance and something that management should seek to eliminate. Through that lens, workplace disagreements, differences of opinion, and insubordination are all considered antithetical to healthy organizational functioning. Over the past thirty years, however, a new approach has been adopted. Modern organizational behaviorists look to conflict as the measure of a company’s health – not it’s dysfunction. They view conflict as the key ingredient to development and growth. Organizations without conflict will eventually stagnate, they postulate, and this stagnation is the first precursor of organizational death.
Now, that is not to say that all conflict is inherently good. Indeed, organizational science has dedicated years of research to understanding what creates ‘optimal conflict environs’ and a few basic ground rules have been established: (1) Too much or too little conflict in an organization is bad news. If no individual or department is ever at odds with another, something is likely preventing them from speaking their mind – and whatever that something is, it probably contributes to a toxic work environment. (2) People have different approaches to conflict and they run the gambit from disengaged and non-confrontational to aggressive or proactive. Learning how to manage these different types of conflict resolvers will determine whether or not a conflict strengthens or weakens a team. (3) Not all conflicts are created equal. Some arise over miscommunications, other over issues in organizational structure, or due to personal problems. Understanding where each side is coming from is the key to real conflict resolution.
This is what contemporary social science has to say on the matter, but just as these theories have evolved and shifted stances over the years, they are likely to change shape once again. So the question arises: what is the Torah’s timeless wisdom on conflict resolution?
HINEI MAH TOV U’MA NAIM: The Torah’s Approach
At first glance, the Torah seems to be at odds with modern day organizational behaviorists. Jewish literature is rife with examples that highlight the danger and destructiveness of discord. We are taught that the Holy Temple, the Beis HaMikdash, was destroyed in part due to a dispute that arose between two Jews living in Jerusalem at the time – Kamtza and Bar Kamtza(2). For the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuos, we observe a period of partial mourning in memory of the plague that took the lives of Rabbi Akiva’s students(3) over their lack of respect for one another(4). Going further back into Jewish history, we need only look at the division of the Kingdom of Israel to see another travesty caused by conflict – this time, over who would take the throne(5). And in Bereishis, the Torah dedicates an entire Parsha to the story of Korach’s rebellion(6) against Moshe, and the destruction it wrought.
In addition to its warnings against conflict, Jewish thought does not lack examples extolling the virtues of harmony and oneness. “Hinei ma tov u’ma naim,” the scripture writes(7), “Behold! What is good and pleasant?” “…shevet achim gam yachad,” – “…brothers sitting together in unity.” This concept is highlighted in Parshat Noach(8), when we learn of two parallel generations that sinned against G-d: the generation of the flood, and the generation of the tower of Babel. While the first generation was entirely destroyed, the builders of the Tower of Babel were only dispersed across the earth(9), a seemingly lighter punishment for their sins. Our sages teach us that this difference in punishment came due to the unity with which the latter generation affected their plan. Unity, it seems, trumps even the act of sinning against G-d Himself!
So, are we to understand from all of this that conflict is inherently bad? That it is something to be avoided at all costs? That’s one possibility. But chassidus takes a deeper approach. Through zeroing on on three of the examples provided above: the tower of babel, Korach’s rebellion, and the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, we can begin to form an outline of how Chassidic thought treats the idea of conflict. In several discourses given between the years 5722 – 5748, the Lubavitcher Rebbe transforms these three incidents from admonitions into guideposts, showing us to see the path towards healthy and transformative conflict resolution.
Let us begin.
THE TOWER OF BABEL: What happens when we avoid conflict
Mentioned briefly above, the story of the tower of Babel is recorded toward the end of Parshas Noach(10), after the world is destroyed in a flood. This destruction, our sages teach us, comes as a result of the sins of the generation that lived at that time. They behaved inhumanely toward one another: lying, cheating, stealing, and even resorting to murder. This discord caused G-d to wipe out the entire population of the earth, sparing only Noach and his family. So, when the earth began to rebuild and a new generation arose, they looked back at the behavior of their predecessors to see how they might avoid the same fate. What did they find? Discord, conflict, infighting, and hate. Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past, they set out on a new course – this time they would present a united front. As the scripture states, “And now the whole world was of one language and uniform words.(11)” There would be no infighting among their ranks, and instead the would work together to ensure the safety of all of humanity – how? By building a tower. A tower that would establish their name for all eternity – so that they could not be forgotten from the face of the earth(12). So why, the Rebbe asks, was this plan so offensive to G-d that He went to such great lengths to prevent its completion?
Because in their unity, they lost sight of the bigger picture. They treated harmony as an end, not a means, and in so doing they completely missed the point of creation – to create a home for G-d (or, in other words, a ‘more perfect’ union) – not an edifice to their own greatnes. This story comes to teach us what happens when we prioritize ‘not rocking the boat’ over doing the right thing. No one took up the mantle of dissent in that generation, and what was left was a unified action that led to destruction. The Rebbe explains that “…the positive forces which they drew down through their love and care for each other were turned over to the realm of evil.(13)” We cannot achieve peace by simply avoiding conflict. When we see something wrong, it is our duty to speak up. If we fail to, we have not achieved peace but rather given even more strength to the forces of discord – an outcome that harms not only ourselves, but also all of those around us.
Takeaway Lesson: Avoiding conflict is not the same thing as resolving it. Don’t shy away from an argument if you’re standing up for what’s right. If you find yourself dodging confrontations at the expense of your own wellbeing or the wellbeing of others, then remember: We were given the power of dissent so that we could challenge one another to be the best that we can be. By taking a stand, you are creating a healthier environment.
KORACH’S REBELLION: When conflict gets out of hand
Three books later in Sefer Bamidbar, we learn of a man named Korach and the rebellion he staged against the leader of the Jewish people at the time – Moshe Rabbeinu(14). In this scenario, a conflict was not avoided but rather taken up with too much zeal when Korach challenged Moshe’s right to lead and Aharon’s right to the priesthood. In the ensuing mutiny, over 250 men joined Korach’s cause and later, as a result, perished. This calamity was deeply tragic and seemingly unnecessary. Korach, as the Torah states, was a Levite. He was eligible for service in the Mishkan and, had he not fomented a rebellion, would have retained a senior position amongst the ranks of the Israelites at the time. So how did things go so incredibly wrong?
The Rebbe teaches that Korach’s desire to become a Kohen Gadol – a High Priest (a position unattainable by someone not of Aharon’s direct descent) – was essentially good(15). In fact, Moshe Rabbeinu told Korach that he himself, shared that basic wish and that all of Bnei Yisrael – the Jewish people – should strive for greater levels of divine service Yet where Korach erred was in the direction of this desire. Rather than utilizing his power to strengthen the unity of the Jewish people, he placed his own ambition ahead of the greater good. He should have instead lent his support to Moshe and Aharon, and shown subservience to the leaders chosen by G-d. Korach instead created conflict where one did not have to exist and in so doing, he created a rift that caused the entire nation to fall. By jumping to the most belligerent course of action, rather than looking at other ways of resolving a conflict, he failed to do himself – and those around him – justice.
Takeaway: Don’t instigate unnecessary conflict. Before engaging, check to see if you’re entering into a quarrel because it’s the right thing to do or because of some ulterior motive. If you always seem to find yourself in the middle of one fight or another, step back for a moment and consider how you could handle the situation peacefully, without stepping on anyone else’s toes.
R’ AKIVA’S STUDENTS: Conflict without empathy
In the times of the Gemara, Rabbi Akiva was a great sage and scholar. Known for the maxim, “love your neighbor as yourself,” he is widely associated with the concept of Ahavas Yisroel – loving your fellow Jew. It is therefore surprising that many of his students – over 24,000 – were wiped out in a plague caused by their lack of just that trait. Their death is attributed to the disrespect they showed to one another, when disagreeing over certain concepts in the Torah. But why? Anyone familiar with the structure of the Talmud would come to recognize that disagreement is an integral part of Torah study. The Talmud is built upon layer after layer of disagreements between Sages throughout the generations and Ibn Ezra declares that there are “70 faces to the Torah”. So what did Rabbi Akiva’s students do that warranted such a harsh and unforgiving punishment?
Their problem, the Rebbe teaches, was that they didn’t just disagree with one another. Rather, they lost respect for each other – the basic ability to recognize another human’s inherent worth and potential – and for that, they were punished.
When we cease to respect each other, we are going against G-d’s plan for creation. He created each individual with such care, and imbued them different mental and emotional processes. These differences were not intended to create division or strife, but rather to “allow for the higher level of peace and unity that can be established within a place where there is the potential for difference.(16)” It is okay to disagree – we are all different, so it is only natural that we will have different thoughts and opinions – but we must draw a line when those disagreements prevent us from seeing and appreciating one another.
Takeaway: When engaging in a conflict, don’t lose sight of the ‘other side’s humanity. Disagreements can create a deeper unity, but only if they come from a place of empathy. Even when you’re ‘in the right’ in an argument, take a moment to focus on something positive that the other side has to offer. “Who is wise,” says Ben Zoma, “He who learns from all men.(17)”
NOTHING BUT G-D: A deeper look at conflict
These three keys to ensuring productive, rather than destructive, conflict, share a common thread, as they all stem from the critical shift in perspective that lies at the core of Chassidic teaching. The premise of the seminal work of Chassidic philosophy, the Tanya, is that “Ein Od Milvado” – there is no other existence other than G-d. Thus, Chassidus emphasizes Bittul, submission to G-d’s will – that recognizing the oneness of G- must result in a clear sense that life is not about one’s own ego or self-interest. Rather, the dominant question at all times is, to paraphrase the Alter Rebbe(18), “What am I needed for?” Throughout the Rebbe’s sichos, one of the most often-quoted teachings of Chazal is “Lo nivreisi ela l’shamesh es koni” – “I was only created to serve my Maker”.
Only when we are focused on G-d’s will and our purpose in this world, as opposed to our own selfish needs or feelings, can we truly engage in conflict at the right time and in the right way. We will do so for the sake of the goal, not for personal victory. We will keep it constructive and respectful rather than personal. And we will not be afraid of it either; the question will only be “What does G-d need of me?” Thus, we create a new G-dly unity, one which will outshine the ‘placid’ unity that existed prior to creation. And we can do that through our conflicts – our own moments of collaboration and triumph within ourselves and with the world around us. And then we will merit to see the messianic era, when G-d’s oneness is known across the world – not because we have suddenly been exposed to it, but rather because we have taken part in forging it ourselves.
Takeaway: To be human is to constantly be in conflict – with oneself, with one’s surroundings, and with one’s community. And that state is not a curse, but rather a blessing. Our conflicts are our greatest opportunities for us to step out of ourselves and grow. So whether its an argument with a bus driver or a problem at work, remember that each moment is another chance at creating that ‘more perfect’ union.
In this essay, I hope that I have shed some light on Chassidus’s views on conflict resolution. While contemporary scientific views seem to line up well with the approach laid out by the Rebbeim, they lack much of the depth that Chassidus provides. Because while organizational behaviorists are seeking to improve workplace performance, the Torah’s goal is far greater – to create a ‘more perfect union’ with the Divine in this physical world.
And going back to the original question that sparked this essay – why should America pursue a more perfect union, rather than aim its sights at a perfect one? The Rebbe explains that when an idea is revealed in Torah, it is also revealed and felt in the rest of the world(19). So perhaps in some cosmic way, our founding fathers understood a bit of the paradigm shift that was taking place across the ocean at same time as they penned those words. They understood that a ‘perfect’ union is possible only at the cost of the individual. That the world’s so-called “perfect” unions are no more than totalitarian regimes, whose unity is proclaimed not through their robust dedication to the same goal, but rather through their broken subservience to those in power. Instead, we could attain a greater unity through making the most of our differences. That through conflict, we make ourselves stronger, we allow the brilliant and unique possibility of each person to shine through, and we thereby better all of our futures.
May we merit to see the most perfect union, in which all of our individual paths will converge and we will become ‘one’, with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days, amen!
This essay was developed with the help and encouragement of several teachers, peers, and friends – too many to mention without writing another two thousand words. But it would have been entirely impossible were it not for the work of one man, and the organization he dedicated his life to: Rabbi Yonah Avtzon A”H, director of Sichos in English. His work in translating and publishing the Rebbe’s words is what first allowed me access to the world of Chassidus, and provided the sources from which I drew most of my inspiration in composing this piece. It is my hope that we merit to see the fulfillment of his life’s work -”when all of the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d,”, with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days! Until then, please help keep Sichos in English alive by visiting sie.org/partner.
לעילוי נשמת הרה”ח הרה”ת ר’ יונה בן הרה”ח הרה”ת ר’ מאיר ע”ה אבצן
1 Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 13,265-274 (1992)
2 Talmud, Gittin 55-56
3 Shulchan Aruch. Section 493:1
4 Talmud, Yevamot 62b
5 Melachim I, Ch. 12
6 Bamidbar, Ch. 16
7 Psalms 133:1
8 Bereishit, Ch. 6 – 11
9 Bereishit, Ch. 11:1-9
11 Ibid. 11:1
12 Likkutei Sichot, Volume VI – Bereishis, Noach
14 Bamidbar, Ch. 16
15 Sichos in English Vol. 45, Shabbos Parshas Korach (5750)
17 Pirkei Avot 4:1
18 HaYom Yom, 5 Tammuz
19 Likkutei Sichot, Parshas Mishpotim (5752)