Reclaiming the lost art of civil discourse


“Civil discourse grows increasingly difficult.” Rabbi Elka Abrahamson said she wrote those or similar words “a decade ago, five years ago, and of course today I can say that again without any equivocating.”
Rabbi Abrahamson, President of The Wexner Foundation, spoke on the history, problems and hopes for civil discourse during the Nov. 19 Thoughtful Thursday Zoom program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.
She said the first presidential debate was a two-hour assault on civility that provides “a snapshot of the current cultural backdrop. … Is civil discourse in our community possible in the aftermath of this scorched-earth presidential race? I think it is.” 
Rabbi Abrahamson said for Jews, “The art of civil discourse is woven tightly into our tradition. It is the scaffold built into our sacred texts.”    
She called the Talmud a “dense record of our disagreements” with “thousands of pages of difference of opinions,” but it is also a model of civil discourse. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai engaged in some 350 Talmudic arguments while modeling civil discourse.
“They are our mentors that framed for all time how to disagree for the sake of Heaven, l’sheym shamayim,” she said. “Though they disagreed all the time about the law and how to live by it, they remained connected, remained trusted friends. Differing on almost everything did not impede a genuine relationship.”
Rabbi Abrahamson is optimistic that people are tired of the chaos and, with generations forced together in households by COVID, perhaps we are ready to return to civil discourse. 
“We must stay in relationship with each other, identifying first the topics and projects we do agree on,” she said.
“Remember on this Thoughtful Thursday, that the goal of speaking across difference does not require to you to change your mind … only open it.”
To avoid information silos, she left all social media four years ago and found the experience freeing. She also makes it a point to listen to media sources from both extremes.
Saying empathy paves the way to civil discourse, she urged people to talk with those you disagree with. “Allow your inner voice to scream … while your spoken voice says: Help me understand why you believe that.”
However not every person or every topic is conducive to civil discourse. During the Q&A session, she was asked if science was such a topic. “There are limits,” she said. “It is not productive to discuss if masks are useful.”
“Our goal is not unity of mind, it is unity of purpose,” she concluded.
To hear the full conversation on civil discourse and to learn about future Thoughtful Thursday programs, go to


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