Hal Boyd: A Jew, a Mormon, a Muslim and a pagan learn to be agreeable by disagreeing at dinner

Andres Kudacki, Associated Press

A Lubavitch rabbi prays while viewing religious text on his cell phone as thousands of Orthodox rabbis, from 86 countries, gathered nearby for group photos at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Americans disagree about healthcare, tax reform, foreign policy, immigration, the president and whether football players should kneel during the national anthem.

How can we mend an evermore-divided nation?

A few years back, a friend invited me to start attending Jewish Shabbat dinners at Shabtai: The Jewish Society at Yale. The experience proved to be a true locus amoenus during a season of life that my wife Holly and I fondly refer to as the “graduate school gauntlet.”

Presided over by a wise, wry-witted rabbi, Shmully Hecht, and his equally intelligent and winsome wife, Toby, the couple curated the kind of conversations around the Shabbat table that brought together secular and sectarian, poor and rich, Muslim and Jew, student and scholar, Mormon and pagan and jock and genius.

As you might imagine, there were strenuous disputes and genuine disagreements.

But as ideological foes shared soup and served each other a succulent all-Kosher spread, something seemed to change. Intellectually opposed interlocutors encountered each other face-to-face. While they broke bread and observed Shabbat rituals, debate morphed into dialogue and disagreements became, well, more agreeable.

By the end of the evening, former foes evinced goodwill and mutual respect.

“The first word of the face is the ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” writes the Jewish philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. “It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face … at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all.”

Put another…

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