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In the heat of the argument, raw emotions, everybody trying to be very polite and professional,  N. muttered one simple ‘but’  that totally negated the other opinion – and all but crashed the conversation. It took a lot of shooshing to get us back on track.

When it comes to arguments  on matters big or small, the culture of respectful conflict is a rare and precious art. Here in the Middle East, let’s say, it it particularly volatile and can go from cool to heatwave in no time at all.  One gesture, one word, can be interpreted in different ways and build a bridge or burn it down.

Like the word ‘but’  which can be so neutral – or a total F YOU put down of what came before.

It happened this week:  I was part of a fascinating, important and heated debate at Machon Shechter, the masorti Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem I am attending this year.


The topic was the Hebrew Matriarchs – should they be mentioned in the daily prayers? The bigger issue here is religious progress and pluralism- how and when is it too slow or too fast?

Jewish liturgy has evolved over the generations, canonized as ‘proper prayer’ about a thousand years ago, printed, proscribed and mandated by various traditions with only somewhat consistent views. Social changes have always entered and altered the reality of the prayer text and in recent decades Feminist reality has been demanding equality not only in the work place but also in the prayer space.

In more liberal Jewish contexts God is no longer just “God of our Fathers’ but also of ‘Our Mothers.’ Not everybody is on board.

The first blessing of the traditional Amida prayer, for instance, chanted three times daily, includes the three patriarchs only. What about our mothers? Can the text be changed?

Many liberal Jewish communities have adopted the feminist approach and added the names of the matriarchs (most often four,  and sometimes all six.)

The  Conservative/Masorti Movement has been debating this issue for years, resulting, in line with consistently complex and honest pluralism, with different customs practiced in different congregations. Some are more comfortable with changing the traditional liturgy, some not so much.

In many ways, this debate reflects the tensions that refine and define the current moment in the movement – and in the Jewish world at large: How does change happen in an ancient religion? How can we agree to disagree – and still co-exist as one?

Some of the major  leaders of the Movement  oppose the change and are willing to accommodate more subtle ways of altering the liturgy and inserting the Matriarchs into the prayer book.

Others, possibly the majority of students and faculty are on board with a sweeping change and a new modes of prayer, honoring men and women, then and now, alike.

Fueled by a petition from the students, the debate was brought to the main floor, heated, emotional, and inconclusive. It’s a healthy if slow process: More time will be needed for the leadership here to decide the next step. Will Sarah and Co. be included officially, as a legitimate option, or continue to be optional – or still personas non grata in public prayer space?

Never mind right now the results of the discussion. Time will tell. What I’m interested in here is the nature of debate. Some of us, self included, have very strong opinions – but can we truly own the ‘but’  in the debate- honor the other side, listen carefully and with respect to the other strong conviction?

(In the car going home from this debate I turn on the radio  -another  debate  – the conscription issue in the Knesset – the Ultra orthodox men will be drafted to the IDF –  will the objectors be fined or jailed? The government almost toppled yesterday over this issue. Very little patience for the ‘but’ – the other side, the valid opposition. )

And in this week’s Torah text, Shlach Lecha, the big but  shows up big time yet again.

12 tourists/spies are sent by Moses to scout the promised land. They come back with conflicting reports of how great it is, not unlike how many  view this place today

2 of them say yay – it is a land of milk and honey. Let’s go.


10 say nay – the land is filled with heavily armed locals, giants and tall walls. Let’s not.

The But here is loud. The Hebrew word is EFES – later used as ‘zero’ – plain negation of what is. Another translation is ‘Never-the-less.’

The ten who refute the two are adamant – the argument is about nothing less than the future, and  about faith itself.

Faith or reality? the facts on the ground are tossed aside for the big vision. The two are favored by Moses and God, the land will be entered, like it or not. The people are weeping, this will not end well.  This is one case where majority opinion is not what settles fate.

How do collective decisions get made? then or now? Can a more sensitive attention to the culture of conflict make for solutions that honor all voices and opinions and prevent further splinters and fights? Could Moses have handled that differently? Can we do better with conflict today?

Or is the ‘but’ essential, a core feature of reality looked upon by different eyes?

One of the main features of Feminist thinking that I’ve been privileged to learn is that the ‘either/or’ can be replaced by ‘and/both’. A more expansive and inclusive mind set serving greater goals.

In this conversation, Matriarchs and spies and religious soldiers and all of us in this together – I hope that we can do a bit less ‘but’ and a lot more better.


Shabbat Shalom.



Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

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