Humility Is The First Step To ‘Shalom’ On The Web

Nobody likes to admit they were wrong, that they jumped to conclusions and acted or spoke unfairly. Doing so reveals our foolishness and ignorance, and nobody likes to admit that they’re those things. Combine that with the “online disinhibition effect” and the apparent anonymity of the Web, and humility becomes an even rarer quality online. We rarely consider that we might be wrong, that our thoughts, beliefs, and narratives may be skewed or inaccurate, especially if they’re regarding a group of people with whom we have serious differences (politically, theologically, philosophically, etc.).

Which is why Daniel J. Solomon’s recent article for The Harvard Crimson, simply titled “Shalom”, is such a breath of fresh air. In October 2012, Solomon had written another piece—“The Hillel Problem”—that was a scathing takedown of Orthodox Jews in the Harvard community. A few of Solomon’s conclusions included:

  • “Our faith is about the only thing Reform and Conservative Jews share with the Orthodox, and what the Orthodox stand for is anathema to us.”
  • “[T]he Orthodox busy themselves more with medieval concepts like mesirah—a prohibition on ratting out Jews to secular authorities—than with tikkun olam—the Jewish idea of social justice.”
  • “When the Ultra-Orthodox engage in the electoral process, they are rarely concerned with the welfare of the body politic; in fact, in their parochial zeal, they often hurt the communities in which they hold office.”
  • “Some have tried to draw sharp distinctions between the East Ramapo and Williamsburg crowd and the ‘Modern Orthodox.’ Those differences are cosmetic, not ideological—the Grover Norquist snarl to the Paul Ryan smile. There’s nothing modern about keeping men and women separated at prayer services, or preventing women from singing Torah. There’s nothing modern about embracing strict interpretations of Jewish law.”

Not surprisingly, Solomon’s article generated quite a bit of controversy, if only in the article’s comments section. Jump ahead several months, and now Solomon writes this, in “Shalom”:

At the beginning of last year, I penned an op-ed called “The Hillel Problem.” The piece lambasted Orthodox Jews and their religious practices. Additionally, it derided the Reform movement for its nascent embrace of tradition. For days on end, it was the most read article on The Crimson’s website, the object of pillory and plaudits.

A few months later, I regret ever having published it. Looking back, I made facile assumptions about different streams of Judaism, conflating Reform with Conservative and Modern Orthodox with ultra-Orthodox. Depicting the Orthodox as a monolithic group, I proceeded to make grave charges against them, both explicit and implicit. I caricatured them as undemocratic, insular, medieval, threatening, and disloyal. When it comes to some ultra-Orthodox factions, these criticisms clearly hold. However, the application of these descriptions to the whole Orthodox community was fatuous, journalistically shoddy, and intellectually lazy. It also bore the mark of bigotry. It was wrong. I apologize.

What brought about his apology? Basically, he continued to spend time with the people he wrote about, and debated and discussed the concerns and questions that he had (emphasis mine):

Since “The Hillel Problem” was published, I have had conversations about these issues with members of the Modern Orthodox community at Harvard. The people to whom I have spoken think deeply about these matters. They are by no means hardened zealots; their love of debate is as legion as any Jew’s. I am not sure whether our differences can be resolved, or whether they should be. But I do know this: Dialogue is more constructive than diatribe.

Look at that last sentence again: “Dialogue is more constructive than diatribe.” It’s so true, and yet so hard to pull off.

Think about those you like to criticize and poke fun at, be it on your blog, via captioned photos you post on Facebook, or the links you share on Twitter. They could be liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats, Christians or atheists, complementarians or egalitarians, gun control advocates or Second Amendment defenders, or any other group or faction. Whatever group that might be, how often do you actually converse with people from that group in real life? How much time have you spent actually getting to know those you demonize, as opposed to indulging in caricatures put forth by people on your side of the cultural divide?

I suspect that if you did, your disagreements might not diminish. In fact, you might even find that your disagreements grow as you gain a clearer understanding of what, exactly, they believe versus what you believe. But what you might also come away with is a newfound appreciation of them as people, neighbors, and friends—as individuals lovingly created in the image of God. You might learn that, even with your disagreements on Serious and Important issues, you—gasp!—actually enjoy each other’s company, and find them more difficult to caricature. All good things.

You might even discover that you have some apologizing to do, and that would be a good thing, too.

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  • Well, in the first place, you’re absolutely wrong–and a bigot. In the second place…oh, oh wait, never-mind, this was great. Humility is key to the development of a virtuous intellectual life. One of the signs of a great thinker is their ability to change their mind, consider new realities, and repent of folly. Basically all the stuff that Proverbs talks about. Great write-up and analysis.

  • Rod

    While negative pre-empting and over-generalizations are never a good thing, we should be careful when muteing opinion based on fear of offending others. We also need to be careful not to understate the observerations we make purely because it does not lie with an affirming howls of the wolfpack majority. For example: I do not have to live with certain people groups or get embedded in an ideology in order to present empirical proof that they can be dangerous.