Ahavas Yisroel / Essays 2019
We all want healthy, amicable relationships, but most if not all relationships end up involving disagreement and conflict. Deep, genuine disagreements can wound relationships, and, often, trying to resolve a disagreement by talking it out often escalates the conflict and wounds the relationship further. An indirect approach to conflict resolution may be the key to healthier relationships.
This essay will explain how Chassidus can be applied to transcend disagreement and conflict. Specifically, we will discuss a simple, one-step conflict resolution strategy that can be implemented in three different ways. This strategy is based a maamar of the Alter Rebbe in Likutei Torah and a maamar of the Rebbe Rashab. 1 2
Why can’t we get along?
Human beings vary in myriad ways. Almost one thousand years ago, Maimonides described diversity of character in his Laws of Personality Development:
Each and every man possesses many character traits. Each trait is very different and distant from the others. One type of man is wrathful; he is constantly angry. [In contrast,] there is the calm individual… There is the prideful man and the one who is exceptionally humble… There is the greedy man, who cannot be satisfied with all the money in the world… [and] there is the man who puts a check on himself; he is satisfied with even a little… the overly elated and the depressed; the stingy and the freehanded; the cruel and the softhearted; the coward and the rash, and the like… 3
Two people with different character traits and under different circumstances can have conflicting ideas and priorities. Even positive qualities which make us unique and beautiful can cause conflict. Take, for example, a pair of learning partners in Yeshiva: one wants to learn more deeply, and his partner wants to cover more ground. Both are correct and even praiseworthy; nonetheless, a conflict arises, and there is no one right answer! Another example: imagine a relationship in which the husband wants to send the kids to one school, where he thinks they will get the best education, and the wife wants to send them to a different school, where she feels they will develop better social skills. They both want to provide the best for their children, but they disagree on how. A third example: a mayor and his town legislature reach a stalemate on social issues, each party refusing to compromise its dignity or misrepresent its voters. In all these conflicts, both opinions are justifiable and perhaps even commendable. The recurring problem is that different individuals with different priorities and values sometimes have conflicts of interest.
Often, I find myself disagreeing with friends, family, and peers, and sometimes our disagreements seem unresolvable. We may try to “agree to disagree,” but if a disagreement is particularly fundamental, I have found that it is very hard to move past it and maintain a healthy relationship. Directly addressing the issue at hand often escalates the conflict, because it can trigger sensitivities in a way that makes both parties defensive. The Yeshiva students just disagreed about how to learn, but after trying to talk it out, they fight and decide to learn on their own. The husband and wife only disagreed about where to send the kids to school, but after repeatedly fighting about it, they can no longer stand each other’s presence (and all too often this ends in divorce). The government parties just disagreed on a certain social issue, but after passionately arguing about it in public for months, the parties have become so opposed that they can no longer work together on any new policy. In all three examples, the relationship is much worse off as a result of their deliberations and discussions attempting to resolve the issue.
Actively addressing a disagreement in such a way can have explosive, polarizing consequences. Just a glance at the current United States political environment vividly illustrates this point, in my opinion. The twenty-four-seven news cycle constantly revisits and rehashes differences of opinion (i.e., refugee policy, abortion, gay rights), thereby fanning the flames of polarization. The world at large could benefit greatly from a new attitude toward conflict resolution.
The mainstream approach to conflict resolution
Dr. Lisa Firestone is a clinical psychologist, author of several books on healthy relationships, and a sought-after lecturer. She proposes a six-step strategy for resolving interpersonal conflict:
- Unilaterally disarm. As she explains, “Stop the blame game and start taking responsibility for your own actions.”
- Observe before reacting. When conflict arises, pause and calm down; then, reassess the situation.
- Identify patterns. “By noticing patterns to what causes you to feel stirred up (anxious or enraged), you get to know yourself better, and you can deal with these emotions in a healthier manner.”
- Look to your past. Firestone proposes that we must correct past feelings which we project onto new experiences.
- Have compassion.
- Communicate what you feel. 4
Firestone’s strategy is complex. Steps one and two seek to disarm conflict, steps three, four, and five seek to introspectively correct the individual’s flawed psyche and outlook, and step six entails addressing the conflict directly in an open, honest way.
In my opinion, there are two issues with her strategy which make it insufficient or even, in certain situations, counterproductive. One issue is that in many conflicts, one or both of the opponents are unwilling engage in introspection or self-improvement (steps three through five). They may simply not want to change. The second issue is that by being open and honest (step six), fights can ensue and permanent barriers can be erected.
The Chassidic approach: hiscallelus
Chassidus offers a simpler, revolutionary, one-step conflict resolution method called hiscallelus, or unification. Through hiscallelus, conflict is transcended by focusing on commonalities and unifying factors, allowing two members of a relationship to overcome their differences without addressing conflict head-on. Hiscallelus is revolutionary and advantageous over Firestone’s method in two ways. Firstly, hiscallelus will never escalate conflict, because it does not involve risky open discussions. Secondly, hiscallelus is easier to implement because it does not require anyone to change their outlook or views.
In general, there are three practical strategies to achieve hiscallelus:
- Committing to a common purpose.
- Focusing on common values.
- Accepting a mentor.
1. Hiscallelus based on common purpose
A vivid illustration of hiscallelus is found the Torah, when G-d smote Egypt with hail. The Torah tells us there was “fire flaming within the hail,” and Rashi explains that although fire and hail (water) are natural opposites, nonetheless, “to perform the will of their Maker they made peace between themselves.” This is the prototype of hiscallelus based on a common purpose: 5 when a higher mission is introduced and emphasized, differences become irrelevant. The opponents are still just as intrinsically opposed to each other as they were before—the fire did not become any less hot, and the water did not become any less moist. However, the intense urgency of the common mission imposes a ceasefire.
Practical hiscallelus is illustrated by a story told by Rabbi Shmuel Lew of London, England. There once was a certain Jewish leader in England who happened to publicly oppose one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mitzvah campaigns. Rabbi Lew discussed this matter with the Rebbe, and the Rebbe explained that this Jewish leader’s opposition was based on a misconception. Immediately, Rabbi Lew made a mental resolution to confront the Jewish leader in order to correct his misconception. The Rebbe then spoke up and said, “It’s not a good idea for you to confront him about what I told you.” Cleverly, Rabbi Lew mentally considered instead sending a friend to confront the Jewish leader. The Rebbe said, “It’s also not a good idea for you to send a friend to confront him. There are six-hundred and twelve other mitzvot; you should work together with him on those mitzvot instead of arguing with him about one.” The Rebbe was telling Rabbi Lew: don’t address the conflict directly; instead, transcend it. More progress is accomplished by focusing on six hundred and twelve common priorities. Furthermore, by cooperating on those priorities, the controversy over the one mitzvah becomes diminished to the point of irrelevance.
One anecdote illustrates how this strategy is applicable today to society at large. In 2016, Ken Stern, the former staunchly liberal CEO of NPR, embarked on a cross-country journey to experience conservative America, visiting evangelical churches, NASCAR races, conservative think tanks, and Tea Party gatherings. His experiences of overwhelming warmth and agreement ultimately became the subject of his book, Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right. In Portland, Oregon, he met Sam Adams, an openly homosexual mayor who works closely with the local evangelical community. Adams explained to Stern how to cooperate with ideological opponents: “There are things we don’t agree on as a liberal Democrat and as an evangelical leader, [but] we can agree to disagree on gay marriage and disagree on abortion but we probably agree on eight of 10 things that are important to society.” Indeed, Adams and his evangelical peers were able to mobilize over 26,000 volunteers for charitable causes including city park renovation, counseling for at-risk individuals, feeding the homeless, and adopting a struggling school. In this way, the polarized 6 American political parties should work together towards our common priorities—i.e. infrastructure, public health, and public safety. Furthermore, in the long-term, this cooperation itself may affect a deeper hiscallelus until controversial issues become less important or even irrelevant. 7
2. Hiscallelus based on common values
Hiscallelus can also be achieved by focusing, emphasizing, mentioning, or meditating on common values. By becoming consciously aware of the commonalities in a relationship, the instigative aspect of each opponent can become nullified, like the taste of milk becomes nullified when mixed with sixty times as much meat. Taking a second, minute, or day to focus on common values and goals in a relationship can greatly diminish feelings of disagreement and opposition.
The Kabbalah relates that, before Creation, in the Divine world of Tohu, G-d’s ten attributes existed rigidly. Kindness (chesed) could not cooperate with severity (gevurah); severity could not cooperate with kindness; intellect could not cooperate with emotion; etc. The world of Tohu exploded and became the root of all evil in the world. By contrast, in the Divine world of Tikkun, which is the root of good, G-d’s attributes find common ground. Kindness is aware of what it has in common with severity, and severity is aware of what it has in common with kindness. Thus they are able to cooperate. 8
Practically, hiscallelus based on common values might be applied to the case of the husband and wife mentioned above, who disagree on where to send their children to school. Perhaps, they should put their disagreement on the back burner and go on a date with each other. They should try to give each other nachas (pleasure) and perhaps talk about their ultimate aspirations for the children. By becoming consciously aware of the fact that their argument stems from a mutual desire to give their children a good education and a mutual love for their children, they likely will be able to avoid a fight and reach a reasonable compromise. Although the compromise might demand that one or both parents make a greater investment in their children, they will both willing and even excited to commit the extra effort after reminding themselves of the ultimate goal.
The famous chapter thirty-two of Tanya teaches that to fulfill the mitzvah of loving a fellow Jew, one should focus on that which one has in common with one’s fellow Jew, i.e., their common Jewish soul. Secondly, one should de-emphasize that which separates one from one’s fellow Jew, i.e. their separate bodies. This exercise is a specific example of hiscallelus based on commonality. In actuality, hiscallelus based on commonality is much more widely-applicable than chapter thirty-two of Tanya. The strategy of hiscallelus discussed in this essay can even be applied to professional partnerships or friendships involving non-Jews.
3. Hiscallelus by means of a mentor
The Alter Rebbe explains that hiscallelus can be imposed by an authority figure. An authority figure limits the instagative behavior of either opponent and imposes peace. For example, two secretaries in the president’s cabinet may have conflicting priorities and motives; however, when standing in front of the president in the Oval Office, they get along perfectly. Furthermore, mindfulness of the president’s power, oversight, and expectations guides the secretaries’ actions outside the Oval Office and enables cooperation.
In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe calls this type of hiscallelus “Oseh Shalom Bimromav” (“He 9 who makes peace in His heavens”). Michoel, the angel of kindness (chesed), wants to give 10 sustenance to every being, including those who are unworthy of receiving it. Gavriel, the angel of severity (gevurah), wants to withhold sustenance from every being, including those who are worthy. At G-d’s behest, Michoel and Gavriel achieve a compromise: to give sustenance only to beings who are worthy. They themselves do not change, but G-d’s presence enables them to 11 work together.
In the same way, human beings can achieve hiscallelus by accepting G-d as authority. Indeed, Torah and mitzvot have served to unify the Jewish people under G-d for thousands of years, despite numerous attempts to dissolve us. G-d dictates the way we work, eat, marry, 12 relate intimately, educate our children, and more; thereby, we are united with an unbreakable bond.
A man and woman can also achieve hiscallelus under G-d through Torah and mitzvot. In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva observes that the Hebrew words for man, שיא, and woman, השא, 13 have in common the letters aleph (א) and shin (ש), spelling fire. The remaining letters, yud (י) and hey (ה), spell one of G-d’s names. A relationship can be an all-consuming fire, but, when G-d is allowed into the relationship, man and woman emerge complete.
Religious observance alone does not suffice to solve most specific disagreements, such as a disagreement where to send children to school, when both options are totally kosher. Such specific disagreements may be addressed by asking a capable rabbi. In the Chassidic tradition, Chassidim have relied at least partially on their Rebbe for this type of individualized guidance. In truth, every Jew should have a personal rabbi, as we are instructed in Ethics of the Fathers: “Provide for yourself with a rav (rabbi) and free yourself of doubt.” 14
In many relationships and for many people, accepting G-d or a rabbi as a mutual authority is not feasible or appealing. Instead, a mutually respected secular mentor, counselor, or consultant can help couples and groups achieve hiscallelus. By giving advice, imposing guidelines and rules, or instilling a sense of purpose, a mentor can drastically and deeply improve cooperation in personal and professional relationships. For example, a husband and wife might avoid a painful conflict by agreeing to accept a mentor’s recommendation which school is most suitable for their children’s needs.
Repetition, repetition, repetition is key
As we have explained at length, Hiscallelus is transcendental and does not involve directly addressing a conflict. This is an advantage but also a disadvantage. It is an advantage because it is easy and risk-free. It is a disadvantage because it is, in a sense, a temporary solution: in absence of the unifying factor (i.e. common goal, awareness of commonality, mentor), the conflict can resurface. A common goal lasts only until it is achieved, and a mentor is not always available. Therefore, to achieve enduring hiscallelus, the unifying force or forces must consistently be re-emphasized and renewed, and it can be good to combine several unifying forces. 15
A Jewish parable pointedly articulates the short-term nature of hiscallelus and the need to consistently emphasize the unifying factor:
A non-religious man once asked an Orthodox Jew why he prays to G-d three times a day. “Because I love Him,” answered the Orthodox Jew.
“Well, why do you have to tell him three times a day? Isn’t one time enough?” replied the non-religious man.
“Tell me,” said the Orthodox Jew, “are you married?”
“How often do you tell your wife you love her?”
“Several times per day.”
“Why so often? Didn’t you already tell her at your wedding?”
In a relationship, love must be felt; therefore, we repeatedly tell our loved ones that we love them. So too, hiscallelus cannot endure unless it is constantly felt; therefore, common goals and unifying values must be emphasized repeatedly. For example, a could should constantly be working together (first and foremost, raising children). They should consistently reflect on and discuss their common values and priorities, and they should maintain frequent touch with a mentor or mentors.
This essay has proposed three strategies to achieve hiscallelus in relationships, each strategy emphasizing a different unifying factor:
- Devoting to a common goal or purpose.
- Focusing on commonalities.
- Allowing a mentor to give advice and impose boundaries.
Each type of hiscallelus can be used as a short-term strategy to avoid a specific conflict or fight; however, to have enduring effects, hiscallelus requires consistent renewal and re-emphasis. Practically, it goes without saying that every relationship is different, and different circumstances demand unique and nuanced strategies for hiscallelus. Several examples have been mentioned in this essay.
Chassidus recognizes that some conflicts are intrinsic, since different people have different priorities. Therefore, hiscallelus does not involve convincing or persuading. The Talmud relates that despite the countless polar disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, “eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chaim” (“both opinions are the words of the Living G-d”). Hiscallelus 16 helps two opponents realize that they are both correct, move past the conflict, and work together. The strategy of hiscallelus transcends conflict instead of confronting it, in accord with the famous saying of the fourth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Maharash: “The world says: If you can’t go under [an obstacle], leap over; I say: In the first place, go over!” Hiscallelus leaps over conflict in the first place. May it be G-d’s will that all conflict be resolved permanently with the coming of Moshiach, our righteous redeemer.
1 Printed in Likutei Torah, page 74, “Biur Al Passuk V’Heinif HaCohen Osam.” See also Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 12.
2 “Vayomer Elokim Yehi Rakia,” Tav Reish Samech Hey. This essay was also influenced by shiurim of Rabbi Yossi Paltiel on this maamar, found on www.insidechassidus.org
3 Mishneh Torah, Moznaim Translation, Eliyahu Touger, 254-256, Hilchos Deos, Halachos 1-2.
4 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201301/6-ways-you-can-fix-your-relation ship-your-own
5 Exodus 9:24. See also footnote 12.
6 https://abcnews.go.com/US/evangelicals-team-portlands-gay-mayor-charity/story?id=15218876. See Rashi to Exodus 14:10 for an example in Torah of hiscallelus based on a secular political goal.
7 Some empirical studies indicate that the United States is not actually any more ideologically polarized today than thirty years ago; rather, Americans just feel more negatively toward members of the opposing party (www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psych-unseen/201809/why-has-america-become-so-divided). Hiscallelus can nullify those feelings, even if the political issues at hand are not actually resolved.
8 See Likutei Torah, Parshas Emor, cited above.
9 Job 25:2. This verse also concludes the Amidah and Kaddish prayers. See also the next footnote.
10 Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 12. This teaching is based on a Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 5:12; Tanchuma, Vayigash 6) explaining the above-cited verse from Job (“Oseh Shalom Bimromav”): “Michoel is the angel of water and Gavriel is the angel of fire, yet they do not extinguish one another.” The Alter Rebbe explains that Chesed is called water because water naturally descends toward the earth, symbolizing giving, and Gevurah is called fire because fire naturally soars away from the earth, symbolizing restriction.
11 This compromise is achieved by means of the Divine attribute of mercy (rachamim or tiferet).
12 See Likutei Sichos, vol. 4, p. 1141-1143, for three different levels of Jewish hiscallelus.
13 Sotah, 17a.
14 Avot 1:15.
15 See Likutei Torah (Parshas Tazria, p. 23, amud 3), where the Alter Rebbe explains that, in general, chesed and gevurah exist individually and independently, but, at a “time of need,” by accessing G-dly revelation (through the attribute of tiferes), they temporarily unify themselves in complete hiscallelus.
16 Eruvin 13b.