On feedback, constructive and destructive
I have been away for a couple of weeks on vacation and I let my writing go on vacation, as I anticipated a necessary brain break before the onslaught of the high holidays. Right before my vacation though, I received a response to my last piece on the ethical and moral imperative born out of Jewish sources on not limiting voting rights. In that response, I was called intolerant, blind, and a non-thinking member of the woke ideology. Well, hello to you too!
As a person who produces a fair amount of content in the public sphere, I generally try to stay even-keeled when it comes to responses that I receive. If they’re positive, of course I am grateful but I do my best to not let it get to my head. If they’re constructively challenging, I do my best to process and understand, seeing what truths I may have missed.
When I got this response, I tried to let it slide off my back but it kept gnawing at me. I have no issue with challenges or critiques but this one delved pretty quickly into a nasty tone and name-calling as you can see. As much as I tried to ignore it, it kept creeping into my thoughts.
There is a longer piece to be written about how vitriolic language has become in the dialogue of the modern era. For now, I wanted to turn to some sources from the Jewish tradition that speak to this type of incident and how they guide me in such moments. One of them comes from one of the great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine. He wrote the following:
“Every body of thought has its own logic and they are all systematically connected. Even those with which we are not familiar, if we strive to find their roots, we will see how they all emanate from a logical source.”1
I try to remind myself of this text in moments like this. The tone was off in the e-mail but maybe there was some kernel of truth in the content that I could understand. Perhaps it came from a place of connectedness in which I could find kinship: pain, loss, or grief. Even when there is disagreement, as vast as this one, I try to remind myself that beyond the surface level disruption that I felt, there exists some point of connection between myself and this critic. It doesn’t remove the pain that I felt but it does expand my viewpoint a bit, which is always a helpful tactic.
That, in and of itself though, is a practice that takes years to sharpen and it doesn’t come automatically to me. How do you do it? How do you protect yourself when the message might be harmful in some way? One method I utilize comes from a piece of Talmud. There, in response to sitting with those with whom you are in deep disagreement, you are to “make your ear like a funnel.”2 From its entry into you, you self-filter until whatever it is, reaches your heart and soul.
What I love about this piece is the image of the funnel. After all, a funnel takes in everything. Even in its welcoming, all-consuming reception, nothing exits as it comes in. You ultimately are in control of what goes in the funnel. For me, that means I can see differing viewpoints and critiques and take them in, but they ultimately transform into something else and their potential for hurt diminishes. Sometimes, they may be discarded as refuse or have no place in my life. Other times, they may transform me and my thoughts. It is a method of intellectual mindfulness in my life, not one that I am always particularly adept at but one that I aspire to utilize more.
This particular application remains open as I have a time set for a longer conversation with this person, but I already feel different as a result of my own process. Its gnawing at me turned into a healthy curiosity. From trying to ignore it to approaching and attempting to understand its logic, it transformed something that was damaging my psyche into something strengthening and elevating. See the funnel. Be the funnel.
Orot Ha’kodesh 1:1:13
Babylonian Talmud: Hagigah 3b