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The Dialogical Mentality

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

from Paradigm Shift

This piece was prepared for a meeting when we, a group of professors and graduate students from Temple University under the leadership of Professor Leonard Swidler, traveled to German universities to meet with our counterparts. It was first offered in German and then translated into English. One can discern a verbal gestalt patterned after the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians 13. The classical form is used here to wrap a radical content, in much the same manner as the original material, which departs from the established norms.

You have been told that the dialogical mentality consists of the ability to allow for another’s point of view. But I tell you that unless you have the ability to see beyond the Pharisees Hillel and Shammai you have not entered into that Kingdom.

You know well the oft-quoted story of Hillel and Shammai. The Greek goes to Shammai and wants to learn the whole Torah while standing on only one foot. Shammai beats him with a builder’s rod. The Greek leaves and goes to Hillel. He responds: “What you don’t want to be done to you don’t do to someone else. All the rest is commentary; go and learn to the finish.” And the Greek became a Jew.

You have been told that the dialogical mentality consists of the ability of Hillel to teach not only the point of view of its own school but also that of Shammai – and this, by the way, is why Hillel’s opinion prevails, because in his school the words of both Hillel and Shammai were taught.

But I tell you that the dialogical mentality really consists in knowing that “the words of these and of those are the words of the living God.” Beyond the tale of “you are right” and “you are right” – “how could they both be right?” “You, too, are right.” Beyond this, to the point of knowing that if Shammai had not hit the Greek. Hillel’s pointed “don’t do something to someone else that you would not have done to you” would not have convinced him on one foot. Only because of the Greek’s resentment of Shammai’s builder’s rod did Hillel’s verbum touch him so deeply. The dialogical mentality knows somehow that the Greek’s pain at Shammai’s beating carved the space for Hillel’s teachings to flow into his awareness.

You have been told that there is negative theology and positive theology. There is the negative theologian who would strip God of all the attributes and whose certainty grows as he strips them one by one, saying neti neti. Then there is the positive theologian whose certainty grows as she invests God with omni attributes. This and That and more. But I tell you that the dialogical theologian is the one who sees that what the negative theologian discards is what the positive theologian picks up for attribution. He then realizes how the process of divesting and investing is what gives the certitude and not the arriving at the goal that is inexhaustible and endless.

The dialogical mentality differs from the disputational mentality. The disputational mentality begins with premises that it is uncritical about. They precisely serve as premises because as PREMISES they have a regression stopper built into consciousness. You cannot and may not ask me how I arrived at the premises because they are not conclusions I arrive at. You assume the assumptions; they are given, not taken. Now when you have a given in the mind of one who disputes with another who has another given, then all you can do is convince the other to give up that given in favor of your given, but you cannot have a dialogue. Like in the “pick up” the question is, “Your place or mine?” The turf of the game decides the outcome. In the disputation I want to impose my turf, my given, my one and only true hermeneutic, once and for all abrogating all others, and I have a proven one, self-coherent and strong. The dialogical mentality you have been told is greater because it has made relative all turfs and rules and leaves them open for consensual negotiation.

But I tell you that unless even the assuming of the assumptions is open for inspection by awareness there has not been any dialogue – only a sporting event.

Dialogue does not happen where we are adversaries.

Dialogue is collaborative.

Dialogue sees that there is better sight in two eyes than in one.

Dialogue seeks to communicate.

For where there are turfs they will be laid waste.

And where there are rules they will paralyze themselves into constriction.

But where there is dialogue there is a process that even when it passes away continues in that passing.

In dialogue there is a sharing of reality maps in which two seekers share experience – both as Erlebnis and as Erfahrung, in an ever-clearer seeking of understanding one another rather than overstanding one another.

Dialogical mentality is at home anywhere in the Uni/ Verse.

When it moves Toward the One it seeks the polarity of the Uni.

When it moves Toward the Many it seeks the versatility of the Verse. Its Universe of discourse courses back and forth and is independent of either polarity.

You have been told that dialogue implies two dimensions. But I tell you that the dialogical mentality, being aware of them both, implies three dimensions and transcends them in the Self.

You have been told that it is the substance of dialogue that matters. But I tell you that it is also the form that needs minding.

Dialogue is aware of mutual form and loves each other’s form because it gives depth to the cognitive dissonance and helps one to really get to see the out- and in-lines of one’s own cogitations. So, as the structural strokes of this presentation are appreciative of the beatitude of the peacemakers, the substantive issue calls for a new beatitude: Blessed are dialoguers, for in their concerned sharing they fulfill what is written (Malachi 3:16): “Then did those who respect God [more than their own creeds] talk with one another and YHVH attended and listened in and wrote it in a book before Him titled: THOSE WHO FEAR YHVH AND RECKON WITH HIS NAME.”

Amen, Alhamdullillah, Shanti, Om