Seventy Faces of Torah Arguing About Values, Not Facts

By Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

Rabbi-Geoffrey-A-MitelmanIf trends in America matched what I see on my Facebook feed, then marriage equality would have happened 10 years ago and Bernie Sanders (or maybe Hillary Clinton) would win the 2016 election with 90 percent of the popular vote.

I know that my Facebook circle doesn’t exactly mirror the wider American populace, but why don’t I look for or find articles that I might disagree with? And when those analyses do appear on my feed, why is my immediate and visceral reaction so often, “You’re wrong!”?

Perhaps it’s because our brains aren’t philosophers, seeking out the truth. Instead, they are lawyers, trying to find the right facts to win the argument. We come at the news with our own perspective, bias and background, and so when we are challenged by ideas we disagree with, our inclination is not to see how those facts might change our mind; it’s to discover why those facts are wrong, misleading or irrelevant.

With our brains working that way, then, it can be difficult to learn and talk across ideological divides. What makes it even more complicated is that the lawyer, in an effort to win her case, frequently conflates facts with values. This week’s portion, Devarim, highlights how crucial it is to distinguish between the two.

We are commanded to “[h]ear out your fellow Israelites, and decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Do not fear anyone, for judgment belongs to God” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17). The 11th-century commentator Rashi understands this verse as “let a case involving a small coin be as dear to you as a case involving a hundred coins.” As Rabbi Brad Artson explains:

[Rashi teaches that from the perspective of quantifiable facts — what can be measured, weighed and tested — these are as objectively unequal as two different human beings … Yet the source of human worth is not based on any facts. The infinite worth of each human being springs from our equality in the sight of God. (Artson, The Bedside Torah, 291)

We may believe — or think that we believe — that objective facts are what will convince someone of our argument. “Don’t people realize how many gun deaths happen in a week? Don’t people recognize how much sea levels will be rising by 2020? Don’t people understand how much income inequality there is in this country?”

Yet facts don’t speak for themselves, they need context and interpretation. Even simply choosing which facts to consider is a choice we make. And it is not on the basis of facts alone that important decisions are made.

How do we measure a human’s intrinsic worth by how much she produces? Or through a belief that she is created in the image of God? How we view other human beings is fundamentally based on our values, not just on the facts that describe them.

There is also another reason that we should focus more on how values function than on facts in human decision-making. In a recent article in The New York Times, Alex Rosenberg asks, “can moral disputes be resolved?” As he notes:

It is safe to say that the more ethical a political dispute is, the more heated and intractable it is likely to become … [M]oral claims like “honor killing is wrong” are not good candidates for being simply true or false statements. They are more like disguised imperatives: “Thou shalt not engage in honor killing!” Another difference some meta-ethicists argue for is that when we really endorse a claim as morally right, we are prepared to act on it. Moral claims motivate in a way factual claims don’t.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest distinction between facts and values is that facts don’t spur us to action. Values do.

The language of facts activates the lawyer in our brain, often leading us to look only for what supports our argument and tearing down what weakens it. But it is our values that shape the facts we are interested in, and whatever we learn, it is values that motivate the activist in us, driving us to combat oppression, or become environmentally conscious.

As we read about and engage with the contentious issues that fill our Facebook feeds, and our other online and in-person conversations, we would do well not just to focus on factual disagreements, but to ask ourselves, “What are the values guiding this person’s perspective?” Let’s try to ask each other about what our anxieties are, what our hopes are and what’s most important to us.

By sidestepping the endless back and forth about what is “true,” we can begin to get at the values that are inevitably the basis of the arguments between us — and, where possible, find the common ground we need to work together to address the myriad challenges facing our world.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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