Change My View – Balak 5777

This week, I heard an interview of Kal Turnbull, a young man from Scotland.  In 2013, when he was 17 years old, he asked himself what leads a person to change his or her mind.  He wanted to create a forum in which people were able to openly grapple with views about which they were embarrassed.  He also wanted to keep conversations civil and substantive.

So Turnbull created a Subgroup on the website Reddit called “Change My View.”  For those who are not familiar with it, Reddit is a website that serves as a discussion platform.  Users can submit content, post ideas or questions, and comment on postings by others.  The site prohibits harassment.

Turnbull established several rules for both submitting and commenting on a post.  His goal was to create a space in which users could really get into the details.  If someone wants to submit a post, there are some rules, including:

• The submitter cannot just make a claim.  He or she must also include the reasons for the claim.

• The submitter must personally hold the view and be open to it changing.

• The purpose is to encourage lively debate, so a submitter should only post if he or she is willing to have a conversation with those who reply within 3 hours of posting.

There are also rules that apply to anyone who wants to make a comment, including:

• Direct responses to a post must challenge at least one aspect of the stated view or ask a clarifying question.  In other words, I can’t simply agree with the previous person’s post.

• No rude language or hostility.

• No low effort comments.  I can’t just write, “I agree.”

Submissions and comments that do not follow the rules are reported by users and promptly removed by editors.

If a person who submits a post ends up changing his or view, he or she gets to award a Delta to the person whose comment prompted the change.  The Greek letter Delta is the symbol for change.

I was intrigued.  It seems to me that one of the problems we face is that too many of us stubbornly hold on to our views without being open to other ways of thinking.  We do not like to change our minds.  To do so is seen as week, or wishy washy.

The internet encourages this kind of intellectual siloing.  We get our information from sources that already agree with us.  We ridicule and look down on those who do not share our opinions.  Much of the Talk Back and comment sections that follow articles seem to devolve into insults and hate speech.  The irony is, that these kinds of aggressive writing rarely change minds.  Quite the opposite, they tend to encourage further entrenchment.

But there are many of us that want to engage in polite, substantive, and open conversation with people who disagree with us.  We recognize that receptive exposure to different ways of thinking makes us better.  What is so great about “Change My View” is that it forces users to put forward their best arguments, and to respond thoughtfully to others’ best arguments.  It seems to have struck a chord.  There are over 300,000 subscribers.

Through these rules, “Change My View” has reversed the normal reward structure of the internet.  Now instead of winning by insulting or belittling one’s opponent, a person only wins by taking one’s opponent seriously and responding respectfully.

In the great Jewish tradition of arguing, it is supposed to be this way.  Since the days of the Talmud, Jews have been arguing back and forth through the issues, recognizing that Truth emerges through the dialectic.

In this morning’s Torah portion, which is named after him, the Moabite King Balak sees the approaching Israelites and determines to prevent them from passing through his territory.  He sends a delegation to Balaam, intent on commissioning him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  Balaam is known as a Prophet whose blessings and curses are fulfilled.

The delegation makes it pitch, and Balaam has them stay overnight to receive his answer.  That night, God appears to Balaam and instructs him in no uncertain terms that he is not to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed.

The next morning, Balaam informs the Moabite messengers that it is a no-go, and they return home.

Balak will not take no for an answer.  He sends an even more distinguished delegation to Balaam, promising to reward him richly.  Balaam responds, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”  (Numbers 22:18)  Nevertheless, he invites the messengers to stay overnight.  Perhaps God will change God’s mind.  This time, God permits Balaam to return with the men, but reminds Balaam that he must do whatever God tells him.

Upon waking, Balaam rises and departs with the Moabite dignitaries.  God is furious, and sends an angel to interfere with his journey.

On the surface, Balaam seems to have done everything right.  He repeatedly insists that he can only do what God tells him to do.  Eventually, God tells Balaam that he is allowed to go.  So why is God so angry with Balaam when he actually does it?

Rashi, reading the text closely, says that there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Balaam is sending subtle messages to King Balak to indicate that, indeed, he is more than willing to curse the Israelites.

With the first delegation, when God tells Balaam “Do not go with them,” Balaam responds, “All right, then I will stay right here and curse them,” according to Rashi.  The next morning, Balaam tells the messengers “The Lord will not let me go with you.”  According to Rashi, Balaam is hinting that he wants King Balak to send higher ranking dignitaries because he is so full of himself.

With the second dignitaries, Balaam does not simply say no, he adds the bit about Balak giving him his entire house full of silver and gold.  Somewhat sneakily, Balaam has actually just named his price.

So why does God allow him to go?  According to the midrash, God is not going to prevent a wicked person from continuing on the wicked path to which his heart leads him.  Why does Balaam choose to go?  Rashi says that he thinks he will be able to change God’s mind.

Of course, Balaam cannot change God’s mind.  Three times he tries to curse the Israelites, but God places words of blessing in his mouth.

Balaam is duplicitous.  He presents himself as an easy-going guy.  He does not just send the messengers away.  He suggests that, perhaps, if they spend the night, he can convince God to change God’s mind about cursing the Israelites.  He asks God for permission.  But when God says no, Balaam does not really accept the answer.  He leads Balak’s emissaries on in a ploy to negotiate a higher fee, all the while saying, “Hey!  It’s not me.  I’m just the messenger.”  In reality, he is an arrogant profiteer.  Balak may be wicked, but at least he is honest and up front about his intentions.

Balaam is not interested in changing his mind.  If he was as open-minded as he claims, he would accept God’s declaration that the Israelites are blessed.  Instead, he has to learn the hard way, as God takes over his faculties of speech and forces words of blessing to come out.  Even afterwards, Balaam still plots against the Israelites, advising Balak to lead the Israelites astray by sending in women to seduce the Israelite men.

Balaam has not gone into this episode with a willingness to have his view changed.  Rather, he thinks that he can manipulate everyone around him so as to change their views.  Perhaps this duplicitousness explains how he has gained his reputation as a successful Prophet.

Sadly, this kind of closed-mindedness is all around us.  We ourselves fall victim to it.  We take an attack on our beliefs or views as an attack on our persons.  We belittle those who disagree with us, calling them uneducated, backward, naive, elitist, or out of touch.  And we often are not prepared to acknowledge that people who disagree with us might have really good reasons for doing so.

But maybe it does not have to be this way.  Intrigued by the “Change My View” project, I decided to join the group and post a comment.  I suggested an idea that I have an opinion about, but about which I do not feel confident enough to speak with certainty.  I stated that a National Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax in the United States is the best option available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Without going through my entire post, it does not unfairly penalize the poor.  It is simpler to implement than a Cap and Trade system.  And it is politically more likely to win approval from both liberals and conservatives.  Even ExxonMobile has recently come out in favor of it.

Within four hours, there were eleven comments -not a single insult among them.  No words in ALL CAPS.  Most of the comments were quite well-informed, and helped me think about the issue in more depth.

I awarded one delta to a commentor who explained how a Cap and Trade system could do a better job of letting the market determine an appropriate price for carbon, whereas a fixed tax would be somewhat arbitrary and would not be able to adjust to changing circumstances.  I conceded that there might be room for some sort of hybrid system, with taxes on commodities that consumers see directly, such as gasoline, and Cap and Trade for big industry applications.

It was a great experience to be able to have a conversation with educated people with thoughtful opinions

In the interview, Kal Turnbull agreed that the rules for the website are really rules that ought to guide our disagreements out in the real world:  Make your claim.  Back it up.  Respond to others with substance.  Don’t insult.  Be open to change your mind.  Acknowledge when another person has made a great argument.

I am not sure that I have time to become a regular contributor to “Change My View.”  But I do know that I crave more opportunities to have my ideas challenged, and to challenge those of others – but only in ways that bring us together.  I suspect that all of us want that.  For that to happen, we need to start with a willingness to let the other person “Change My View.”

7 thoughts on “Change My View – Balak 5777

  1. Dear Rabbi Berkenwald,
    I enjoyed reading your sermon about “Change My View” and the story of Balaam! I appreciate your desire to encourage open minded conversation and a deep willingness to change based on information that is in harmony with our values. This implies that we have strong awareness of our core values and are not identified with the “positions” we take. In the Bible story, according to Rashi’s interpretation, Balaam was not really listening to God. This implies he was not harmonizing with core values.

    This is a great lesson for all of us. But I wonder if these lessons are enough to change behavior. It’s easy to hear a lesson like this, agree with it, and then go on with daily life with no change. The story then may serve to make us feel good but keeps us complacent. I worry about this.
    I wonder if you have heard of Nonviolent Communication? Given your interest in open mindedness and change, I think it fits with your core values. It helps people explore how they feel and what values they care about and explore what others feel and what values others care about. It then helps them explore solutions that harmonize with the values of all parties. This practice, I have found, helps people change their minds and their behavior.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read my sermon and comment on it. I am not familiar with Nonviolent Communication as a particular practice/program. I certainly can relate to what you wrote about messages sounding nice, but in reality behavior is difficult to change. I have been intrigued by an organization/method called Living Room Conversations, which sounds similar to what you describe. I have been considering how I might be able to implement it in our synagogue as a way to foster constructive conversation on difficult topics. It begins with a discussion of core values before delving into the details.

      • Dear Rabbi,
        Thank you for your response about Nonviolent Communication and for recommending Living Room Conversations! I had not heard about them previously, but looked them up. I agree. Their intentions and format follow similar value structure and intentions because they encourage curiosity, no judgment, active listening and learning, and development of relationship rather than winning debate points. If you are interested in starting a group like this and want some help doing it, I’m open for a conversation about that. I feel strongly that we are losing our capacity to hear those whose ideas differ from ours- and meetings like this can help us out of this rut!
        Thanks for the thought!
        Bob Niederman

  2. Pingback: In Response To Questions About My Sermon On The First Day Of Rosh Hashanah 5778 | Rebyehoshua

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