Diversity Is The Remedy For A Stiff-necked People


I have always wanted to know the truth. About everything. I just want to understand. This passion for knowing, for understanding, has driven me my entire life. It has made me curious, it has made me seek to learn. And, while I know that at age 61 I am supposed to have figured out some things and drawn lots of conclusions about life’s mysteries, I find myself less sure about absolute truth than ever, and more open-minded about the range of possibilities.

In my work helping to run an investment firm, I often reflect on the fact that while I have been working at my profession now for nearly 40 years, I realize more and more how little I really know. I often interview people in my work. I spend an hour or more asking questions and listening to the candidates’ responses, trying to draw some sense of the person and whether I can envision each as my colleague. I cringe as I recall my confidence when, as a young person, I was all too certain of my ability to see into the souls of these candidates. Today I am struck by the vagaries of human judgment and the difficulty of knowing.

Sadly, we live in a time where everyone seems so certain that they know the truth. This certainty stops dialogue, stops relationships, stops people from wondering, stops us from being curious. In the U.S. we have stopped talking about politics with people whose views do not totally align with our own. In Israel, the Orthodox monopoly on religious life means many people are unfamiliar with the spiritual, theological and humane richness of other expressions.

This tendency to participate only in like-minded discussions has become the norm in many places throughout the world. It is almost as if our investment in being right is stopping us from wondering whether at times we might be wrong.

Traditionally, each day during the month of Elul, and then nine times on Yom Kippur, Jews recite the Vidui prayer—a listing of sins comprised of behaviors so normal that few of us are able to escape committing most of them. Perhaps that is why our sages structured our siddur to repeat the prayer so many times.

One of my rabbis, Rabbi Ari Lucas, reflected on one among the list of sins this year: kishinu oref, whicg translates to having been stiff-necked or headstrong. It connotes being stubborn or obstinate.

The prophet Jeremiah uses kishinu oref in the following context, “They [ Israel] would not listen to me or give ear, they stiffened their necks.” (7:26)

The 15th-century Portuguese philosopher Abravanel argues that it refers to people who can’t look behind themselves and don’t learn from past mistakes. And Seforno, the great 15th-century Italian philosopher, rabbi and biblical commentator, says someone with a stiff neck can’t look left or right for improvement even when told of their failings. As a result, he writes, “there is no hope that they will change.”

It is all too human to fear that of which we are not sure. We wear invisible cervical collars around our necks impairing, even making impossible, consideration of any input from either side of us. We conclude we must therefore be right, because we see only that which we already know, that which is straight ahead of us. To consider other alternatives is to acknowledge our frailty and the impossibility of ever knowing the whole truth. Entering this humble place of not knowing threatens our very sense of self. But that is exactly what we must do.

Our tradition is filled with the benefit derived from great debates among human beings. Rabbis, often with diametrically opposed views, have nevertheless engaged meaningfully with one another. I believe that our sages documented these debates to show us that it is possible to disagree completely and yet find honor and truth on both sides. Indeed, engaging in these debates can occasionally cause nuanced change within our personal views. Today we use pejoratives to describe those with whom we disagree. In contrast, the Talmud refers to those with dissenting opinions as rabbis – teachers.

That is why we started The Honey Foundation, to help Israeli rabbis from different backgrounds build communities by partnering with a wide range of institutional networks. So far we support nearly 150 community rabbis in networks across the religious spectrum in Israel. We are leveraging the existing infrastructure of institutions — Midreshet Lindenbaum, the Masorti and Reform movements, the Shalom Hartman Institute, Beit Hillel, Bina and Ha-Midrasha —  and provide salary stipends, professional skills development, and the benefits of collaboration within a professional rabbinic cohort. In the process, we are helping to professionalize the role of community spiritual leader in Israel, enabling Israeli Jews to see that all of their fellow Jews have authenticity and possess some measure of truth.

Each of our communities brings a much-needed voice to the Jewish people. Together they reflect a whole that is much richer and more inclusive than any one voice.

We humans never actually get to know the entire truth; that is the province of God alone. But it is up to us to shed our cervical collars, allow ourselves to truly see our colleague on our right and on our left, and to consider the implications of their points of view. Then maybe we will get a little closer to the truth.

Bill Lipsey is the President of Pzena Investment Management and is the co-founder of the Honey Foundation for Israel.