You’re Right, Too

January 10, 2018

Two neighbors were fighting over a financial dispute. They couldn’t reach an agreement, so they took their case to the local rabbi. The rabbi heard the first litigant’s case, nodded his head and said, “You’re right.”

The second litigant then stated his case. The rabbi heard him out, nodded again and said, “You’re also right.”

The rabbi’s attendant, who had been standing by this whole time, was justifiably confused. “But, rebbe,” he asked, “how can they both be right?”

The rav thought about this for a moment before responding, “You’re right, too!”

This may seem like a joke – largely because it is – but it’s steeped in truth. Most of the time, when we’re involved in a disagreement, one party isn’t completely right and the other completely wrong. More often than not, both sides have a valid claim. It’s more a question of how to please everyone, which can’t always be done.

Let’s take the recent example of Madeleine Entine and Carly Goldman, sisters of the Chi Omega sorority at Ohio State University. Ms. Entine is prone to panic attacks, which are mitigated by her service dog, Cory. Cory, however, aggravates Ms. Goldman’s allergies, which inflames her Crohn’s disease. So, does Cory get to stay in the sorority house or not? Before you answer, consider this: Madeleine is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Now before you answer, consider this: Carly is also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Quite the dilemma, no? (The school initially ruled in Goldman’s favor on the basis that she was there first, though Entine subsequently filed a restraining order. To my knowledge, the case is still in the courts.)

Is it really so easy to say who’s right and who’s wrong?

There’s Biblical precedent that such disagreements might have no wrong party. Take, for example, when Sarah wanted to expel Yishmael in Genesis chapter 21. You may recall that Avraham disagreed with that course of action. They agreed that Yishmael was not exactly all that he should be but each one of them had a different point of view. Avraham felt that if they kept Yishmael around, Yitzchak might be a good influence on him. Sarah had the opposite perspective; she was concerned that Yishmael would be a bad influence on Yitzchak. These are not mutually exclusive – Yitzchak could be a good influence on Yishmael and Yishmael could be a bad influence on Yitzchak at the same time! So what to do? One course of action benefits Yishmael and puts Yitzchak at risk; the other benefits Yitzchak and puts Yishmael at risk!

In this particular case, God told Avraham to follow Sarah’s lead – but this doesn’t mean that Avraham was wrong! You’ll notice that lots of families have troubled kids and lots of schools have problem students but we don’t just automatically kick them out based on the story of Yitzchak and Yishmael. God only said that this was the right course of action in this particular case, based on the facts of the case. When having to decide between two correct parties, there will not necessarily be one universally-applicable course of action.

In halacha, there’s a famous Talmudic principle, eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim – “these and these are both the words of the Living God” (Eiruvin 13b). When two authorities – in this case, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai – differ, we may have to choose one course of action. After all, as the Yiddish proverb says, you can’t dance at two weddings simultaneously! But just because we picked Beis Hillel’s position for practical application, that doesn’t make Beis Shammai wrong per se. Their position is also God’s word.

This idea is true in so many areas of interaction, albeit usually with less “word of God” behind it. Let’s look at politics. Imagine that there’s a country with a refugee crisis. There are two courses of action we might take: one is to allow as many refugees in as possible. This is certainly a compelling humanitarian need. The other course is to carefully screen and be extremely selective in who to allow in, if anyone. This is an equally-compelling security need. There may not be a solution that pleases everybody but this doesn’t mean that anyone is necessarily wrong. They can both be right.

This applies in so many areas of life. There’s no shortage of examples one might choose – really, pick virtually any political issue! One of my typical go-to examples is gun control because this is an area where each party so clearly believes that they have right on their side and they both have plenty of statistics to support their position. It’s no contradiction if everyone is right – people should have the right to defend themselves and too many senseless deaths occur. The fact that there’s no solution that satisfies all concerns doesn’t mean that either concern is invalid.

And yes, this is likewise true in religion (and not just Judaism). There are people who want to change things about their religions, be it the liturgy, the clergy, the commandments, what have you. (It gets especially messy when people try to demand changes in other people’s religions! See: bris milah, shechitah, etc.) There are often legitimate societal reasons for advocating these changes, ranging from feminism to animal rights and everything in-between. But there are also legitimate reasons not to make changes to a religion lightly, namely that people generally consider their religions to be forms of Divine service not subject to popular whim. Remember, freedom of religion is also a right!

In 1977, Dave Mason had a Top 40 hit called We Just Disagree. The chorus went, “So let’s leave it alone, ’cause we can’t see eye to eye. There ain’t no good guy; there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me and we just disagree.” It’s true. In most disagreements, be they personal, political or religious, there’s no bad guy. More often than not, no one is trying to be evil, they just have a different perspective, often equally valid. Sometimes we can compromise but there’s usually going to be a winner and a loser. We may not be able to have it all but at the very least we should be able to recognize that an opponent need not be an enemy and to have empathy for another point of view.