A few weeks ago I attended the 40-Hour Professional Mediation Training sponsored by the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County. The training was an intensive practicum in mediation, and we learned the formal technique of a mediation, which follows a proscribed formula and agenda in order to hopefully lead to a constructive resolution of a conflict, whether it be between an employer and employee, co-parents, neighbors, landlord and tenant, or other such relationship.
I took the class not because I was necessarily interested in doing formal mediations, but because I heard that the training was useful in many different settings. And indeed it was, I learned about interpersonal communications, how to manage disputes, conflict styles and negotiations—all skills which I know would be helpful in my current position and volunteer work.
The formal mediation process follows a series of steps to help people resolve their conflicts, even going so far as to provide for a particular room set up. Each mediation has two mediators who sit at the end of a table, and the disputants sit on either side of the table facing the mediators. During the beginning of the mediation, they share their stories with the mediators, who then repeat it back to them to indicate they understand it. The disputants then set an agenda for specific topics they would like to talk about and negotiate. And as the mediation moves into the negotiation phase, the disputants literally turn their chairs to face and speak to each other.
This turning of the chairs struck me as a key part of the process, for it was a particularly powerful moment. It means that those in a conflict must address each other in order to find a mutually agreeable resolution.
Dispute resolution is at the heart of a new/old holiday that falls today on Thursday, February 18. The Hebrew date is the 9th of Adar, and our tradition teaches that this day is should be a designated fast day. Although the practice was never formally instituted, it is on the books, and the reason given stems from a dispute between two rabbinic houses of study, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, during the first centuries CE.
This is ironic, because while these two schools are traditionally at odds with one another, their disagreements were upheld as examples of a machlochet leshem shamayim, a dispute for the sake of heaven. In other words, they were in dispute—over points of law, over approaches to Judaism—but they were able to maintain mutual respect and fellowship. Their disputes were in pursuit of a greater good.
One year on the 9th of Adar, however, tradition teaches that they came to a sharp dispute over several points of law. And rather than resolve them amicably, the disputes lead to fighting, discord, anger and hatred. (Some sources say even murder.) This then is what is commemorated by a fast—it is meant to be a day of mourning over the break that can occur when conflict tears at the very fabric of community.
Although the fast was never practiced, a contemporary practice has developed around this day. The Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, a center for Jewish learning in Jerusalem, has developed a project called The 9Adar Project: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. On the 9th of Adar, Jewish communities are encouraged to study and what it means to be in constructive conflict and to undertake commitments, not to eliminate conflict and disagreement (for that may never happen), but to approach those conflicts and disagreements from a place of respect and understanding, from a place of recognizing the concerns and hopes and fears of the other.
Last week in the Torah reading we read the description of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary of the Israelites, as well as all of the vessels and tools they would use for worship. One of the first vessels described is the Ark of the Covenant, the chest that will contain the tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai. It is to be the repository for the physical manifestation of the law and covenant, for the relationship between God and humanity
The Ark is a wooden box that is overlaid with gold. On the lid are to be two cherubim, angelic figures who are facing each other with their wings outstretched. In a lovely d’var Torah, Daniel Roth, who heads up the 9Adar project at Pardes, notes that the positioning of the cherubim provides a nice image for what it means to be in constructive conflict. He quotes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
The whole nation of Israel is represented not by one cherub but by two, by a pair of cherubs…. Israel will become a pair of cherubim who, in mutual respect and consideration, are peacefully directed one to the other, each one there for the other, each a guarantor for the other, each entrusted to the other – in brotherly co-operation, a whole nation keeping and protecting the whole community….
What Hirsch writes for the Jews can apply to anyone in conflict. That the goal is to approach each other in peace, and see how divisions can be bridged for the greater good.
In the Torah, the Tabernacle is meant to be the place that God’s Presence is made manifest within the Israelite community. More specifically, God’s Presence is described as having been made manifest on the lid of the Ark, in between the cherubim. Thus in between the image of God’s creatures facing each other, God dwells.
The divine and holy can dwell between two facing each other. When I saw in my training disputants physically shift their chairs and their bodies to face each other, there was an emotional and spiritual shift as well. Each person, rather than tell their stories to a neutral third party, now had to address the other directly. The mediators are on hand to make sure that the negotiations were constructive, not destructive, but it was in the hands of the disputants to draw close to the other to resolve their conflict. Truly holy work.
Today, on the 9th of Adar, ask yourself what it would mean to turn to another in constructive conflict. What would you say, or not say? How would you say it? How could you state your position and truly hear the position of another? One technique we learned during our 40 hours was the use of the “golden questions”–questions that can help move a conflict by allowing a person to express themselves and see each other. The questions are: What is your greatest concern? What do you most want to see happen? What do you most want the other person to understand? If we can turn toward each other, answer these questions for ourselves and hear the answers of another, then we have made tremendous strides.
When we do that, we are truly acting for the sake of heaven. When we do that, God will dwell among us.