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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Simple Wisdom Step Four – Fundamentals of Processing


We have entered Elul, the month preceding Rosh HaShanah. The core theme of Rosh HaShanah is the Sovereignty of the Divine. The inner meaning of the concept of the Sovereignty of the Divine is that we live in a moral framework that is not identical to the ego self. In fact, the ego self, by definition, chafes against this framework.

The regulation of the ego self according to this moral framework is wisdom. As I have taught recently, for me wisdom is essentially a moral concept. Wisdom leads us on paths of righteousness. The beginning of wisdom, as I have taught this year, begins in respecting (or honoring) the humanity of another, simply because they are a human being. I would say that the entire system of rights at the core of the liberal state is the respect for the humanity of other persons (called kavod habriyot in Hebrew). Respect is a virtue aspect of wisdom, in that it restrains our tendency to disrespect the rights and humanity of others.

Once respect is in place, we can move to a second state of wisdom, as I have been teaching it this year, which is insight. We can inquire – what is happening inside of me? What is happening inside of others? Where are we at in the processes of people, families, communities, and nations? How did we get here? How do we move forward?

Once one is grounded in some basic insight, wisdom teaches us how to relate to other people. I jumped forward a bit in my last week’s email when I focused on simple words. On Shabbat, I corrected this error by focusing on stages of speaking with others: venting and soothing, processing and deciding. These are very different types of speaking. When another person is venting, one has the option of soothing or distancing, but a wise person does not try to process with an angry, venting person. An angry, venting person will interpret your trying to process with them as disagreeing with them or trying to refute them. If they are venting at you, it best to try to soothe. If this does not work, then give the conversation some time limit, and then disconnect temporarily until the venting person calms down. If a person is venting about someone else, try to soothe the person, but not process or solve, until they have calmed down.

But ultimately we are after processing and deciding, two of the core acts of wisdom. Here are some stages of processing.

First, clarify axioms, values, premises and assumptions. Sometimes our disagreements with others are not about what happened, but rather because what happened has to do with our core axioms, values and assumptions. I have counseled couples, for example, when one person (typically a male) is dead set against religion, and the other parent is in favor. Some people axiomatically hold that religion is evil, the cause of all human misery. Others are less condemnatory. The more pro religious person might try to discuss the advantages of religious participation, trying to make a rational case. The other, adamantly secular, will have none of this. No discussion will help. Most people won’t have their axioms questioned. Wise people, in my opinion, are willing to check their premises. Even though they are axiomatic, premises and values can be presented rationally. It takes time and thoughtful energy to discuss premises, axioms and values rationally, beyond the reach of some people.

Second, discuss what the facts are in a non-venting way. Again, if you notice that discussing facts upsets the other person, they are not up to processing – they are still venting. Rational people can discuss facts, even if they disagree. Rational people can distinguish between an axiom, a fact and a conclusion. For example, whether charter schools are a bad idea or not can be understood as a conclusion, based on premises and facts. We might both hold the value that children should get the best education possible and then check the facts on whether charter schools are in accord with this value. Our conclusion will be based on values, then facts.

Some people start out with the premise that charter schools are good, or bad, and no amount of facts or evidence will dissuade them. Wise, rational people can assemble facts in an evenhanded way.

Third, processing requires that we discuss conclusions or policies that line up with values and facts. Less wise people start with conclusions.

For example, a person might be hurt that another did not return their email. They start out hurt. Their premise is that the other person received the email and purposefully chose not to answer them. A less wise person starts out with assumptions and conclusions that validate their hurt, and then criticizes, complains and condemns. A wiser person starts out with values, of course, but then seeks facts before they make assumptions and come to condemnatory conclusions.

I would safely say that much of my counseling is helping people walk back from assumptions and conclusions. I ask them to clarify their values (which often actually align with those of the person with whom they are having conflict), assemble facts (people are often notoriously wrong or misinformed), and then form conclusions carefully and prudently, with an aim toward goodness and righteousness, making things better, not worse.

In this work of processing, there are many boundaries in the language we ought to use, far more than I can relate in a brief email. What I have shared here is the essence, the framework of a starting place. Your feelings and assumptions are important, but not sovereign. Righteousness and truth are.


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