Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Permission [not] to believe - a congregant

Even in my eleventh year in the pulpit, I’m still finding surprises.

Recently, I was meeting with someone regarding a social conflict. Changing some facts and names, here is a brief rundown of this run-of-the-mill case: Abernathy claims that Bernard insulted him at a public event. Abernathy and Bernard are both congregants of mine. Abernathy came to me talk about the situation.

For a good 45 minutes, Abernathy described what had happened, the history, how hurt he and his children were, the ramifications, the things he could/should/ought/might do in the wake of this public insult, etc. I mostly listened.

After the description was over, I asked a few questions and then began to discuss practical steps Abernathy could take – at which point Abernathy interjected, “Wait a minute - you’re not allowed to take sides. You’re not supposed to believe me, are you?

This was a first for me: Generally, people assume I will/should/must believe their version of events, by dint of their own honesty as well as our historical relationship. If I were to say, “You know, I can’t really accept lashon hara,” or, “Of course there is another side to this story as well,” many (most?) people would be rather insulted, and not understand my point. Which is why Abernathy’s permission not to believe took me by surprise.

Even within my own mind, I have difficulty not believing people when they speak to me. They present stories with such emotion and sincerity that it’s hard to remember that this is only one side of the story. A business owner describing a competitor’s actions, a wife talking about her husband, a teenage child complaining about parental conduct – it’s very hard to listen to stories of victimhood without naturally gravitating to the alleged victim’s tale. Still, I do work on keeping an element of skepticism, because at the end of the day, the person telling the story is still only one side. There’s a reason why judges on a beit din are not permitted to hear one side without the other present.

So, as Abernathy pointed out, I do work to maintain neutrality – but I don’t explicitly inform people that I am taking their words with a grain of salt. I listen and advise sympathetically, as best I can, based upon the party’s story and what I perceive to be the party’s best interests.

It was very considerate of Abernathy to recognize my obligation to be a neutral agent. I hope there are more Abernathys out there than I realized.

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