Have you ever found yourself asking this question about someone you disagree with? I know I have, and my guess is that this is something that happens frequently to most people.
But such a question really goes beyond disagreement. In fact, it is usually not a real question at all, but rather just rhetorical. It is another way of saying, “This person is so wrong that I can’t even begin to understand how they can think that way!” Perhaps there are isolated cases when this is appropriate, but I think the Rabbis generally wanted to push us away from it. As I read it, this is the core teaching of Hillel’s maxim, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place” (Avot 2:4):
Clearly, Hillel is not literally telling judges never to issue a verdict unless they have already been in a similar situation. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to enforce the law. So what was Hillel teaching? It seems to me that it is a call to the judge (and by extension, all of us) to realize his lack of understanding about the other who he is sentencing. It is a call to tread humbly, understanding that a verdict is not the same as a true judgment. The former is the application of law to a specific situation, which any qualified judge should be able to do; whereas the latter is the evaluation of an individual, which can only be done by someone who can truly imagine themselves as the person he is judging.
This inability to understand others with whom we disagree underlies the polarization in Israel today (and, presumably, any polarization). Though I might have always understood this theoretically, it is only more recently that I understood the difference between an abstract – and therefore ultimately unsympathetic – understanding of those we disagree with, and the sympathetic understanding that we can only truly feel when we are able to put ourselves in their place.
I have always been a big believer in compromise and consensus. I have likewise taken such an approach regarding judicial reform. Hence I found myself unable to understand those – particularly those against the reform – who seemed so closed to any compromise. While I continue to believe that they are wrong in this particular case, something closer to home reminded me that compromise is not always appropriate, and to thereby have more sympathy for them.
Without getting into the details, I have recently been involved in a communal issue about which I feel there is no room for compromise. Just like many of the protesters against judicial reform, I feel I have a better grasp of the issues and personalities involved in this local issue than the majority who disagree. Likewise, I have come to the conclusion that it is better to lose here and hold up my principles than to sully them and compromise. Yet in doing so, it has been as if I was looking at myself in the face when meeting unsympathetic reactions of, “How can you possibly think that way?”
It is rare that we find ourselves in the place of those with whom we vehemently disagree. Because it is so rare, we should appreciate the valuable learning opportunity that Hillel indicates it actually is. Moreover, we should use the clarity thereby gained to understand our lack of understanding in most other cases when we are not given the opportunity to be in the place of the other.
Many commentators (Rashi, Rabbenu Yonah, etc.) understand Hillel’s statement as teaching us not to think that we are better than those who have fallen unless we have successfully avoided the allure of a similar temptation. In this manner, it is a call to moral humility. But I think it actually goes deeper. Our attitude towards people is shaped by identifying with them. The more we can identify with them, the more we tend to like them and visa-versa. Yet it is only natural that we will be more able to identify with some people than others. Hillel teaches us that the less we identify with certain people, the less we are able to evaluate them and have any true insight into what is driving them. That is certainly something we should try to remember.
Another way of saying this is that the next time we ask how someone can possibly think like that, we should remove the rhetoric and actually look for an answer.