Dr. Roger Ames of Peking University Unfolds the Complexities of Confucian Thought

by Michael Bettencourt for YUNews

Roger Ames (left) and Mordechai Cohen

Dr. Roger Ames (left) and Dr. Mordechai Cohen

The Chinese-Jewish Conversation” took an interesting turn on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, at an event held at the Israel Henry Beren Campus sponsored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, the Katz School of Science and Health and the Provost’s Colloquium Initiative.

Dr. Roger Ames, a leading scholar of Confucian philosophy and the interpretations of classical texts from Peking University in China, delivered an invigorating lecture to over 100 attendees on Confucian role ethics and the multiple ways they differ from the worldview encompassed by Jewish and Christian theologies and Western philosophical principles.

In introducing Dr. Ames, Dr. Mordechai Cohen, professor of Bible, associate dean Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies and divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies, noted Yeshiva University’s longstanding tradition of “engaging the world around us through the rubric of Torah U-Madda [Jewish and general learning]” and emphasized the importance of “exploring the Chinese and Jewish traditions comparatively” as global networks and connections abound and the number of Chinese students at Yeshiva University expands.

Shun Shang Guan

Shun Shang Guan

Representing Yeshiva’s Chinese student union, Shun Shang Guan from Wuhan in China spoke of her experiences at the Katz School of Science and Health, where she is studying quantitative economics after having earned a bachelor‘s degree in statistics from Zhong Nan University of Economics and Law in China. She expressed gratitude for “the opportunity to study at Yeshiva University, America’s famous Jewish university,” where she is able to “engage in the educational benefits and social learning common to Jewish culture and pursue the American experience.”

In “A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism,” Dr. Ames began by stripping away the Christian overlay that generations of missionaries had used to make the writings of Confucius feel familiar to a religious audience that believed in a single divinity located in a place called heaven and who exercised control over the fates of human beings.

The reason for deleting this veneer, said Dr. Ames, is so that we can come to the texts in all their strangeness and originality and understand them in their Confucian context.

For example, one major difference between the Christian and Confucian views of life concerns the idea of a deity: “A capital H ‘Heaven’ gives us a concept of God where, in the Chinese tradition, there is no notion of a transcendent God, which is a different way of being religious that is not familiar to us.”

Another example concerns the idea of “the way,” which in Chinese is dao. The Christian notion of this comes from John 14:6: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” In Christian religiousness, the path to salvation is already laid out, and the individual is obliged to follow that path to its expected end.

Roger Ames speaking and gesturing“However, this is not Confucianism,” said Dr. Ames. In the Chinese tradition, “‘the way’ is not His way; ‘the way’ is the human way together. The human being extends the way, it’s not the way that extends the human being: dao is made in the walking, something in which the human being has to participate in extending for his or her own time and place.”

“Family” is one area where Western and Chinese traditions do overlap, but a major difference concerns the relationship between the family and the authority that establishes social order and governance. For Westerners, authority is grounded in laws derived from religious and secular principles external to the family, and the family follows these laws in carrying out the work of civilization.

For the Chinese, the social authority for achieving harmony through governance derives directly from family relations, from both the “cultural body” of the family, the repository of the values transmitted forward generation by generation—what Dr. Ames called “embodiment”—and the family’s physical bodies, whose interrelationships keep the cultural body whole and intact.

“Using family as the governing metaphor,” said Dr. Ames, “is really quite productive because it leads us, as one philosopher noted, to want to ‘family’ the world as the way to bring peace to our lives.”

“When we think of the concept of ‘person’ in this tradition,” continued Dr. Ames, “it’s holistic: the whole cosmos is in any one person, and we need the whole of the cosmos to explain one person. A human being is not a human being but a human ‘becoming’: a human is something that we do, a human is a process. The individuality of a person is not a starting point but an achievement, accomplished by virtue of the relationships cultivated with other people.”

Using linguistic terms, “Aristotle gave us a world of things, noun-centered. In the Chinese world, the idea of the gerund, that is to say, ‘human becoming,’ is fundamental. A human being is an event in history, a narrative. A human being is not something you can isolate and know; you have to know the narrative of where she comes from.”

Two women in the audience of the lecture by Dr. Roger AmesUnderstanding these texts on their own terms, then, leads to concepts about human individuality and the purpose of life that are quite different from those put forth through Judaism, Christianity and Western philosophy. Confucianism proposes an “atheistic religiousness, a family-centered religiousness, and you need a Chinese vocabulary to express it. We have to let this Confucian tradition have its own voice in order to appreciate the contribution it has to make to the modern world.”

What is that contribution? For Dr. Ames, the world in which we live is too often focused on winners and losers, on playing what he called “finite games.” The challenges presented by climate change are one example of humans playing finite games regarding resources and dominance.

To move toward playing “infinite games,” which are generative in nature and call for a continuous interplay of renewable resources, we need different concepts about what makes humans human and what constitutes a viable world order.

“Infinite games, which are the alternative to individualism, to winners and losers, is grounded in a relationally constituted gerundive concept of person,” he observed, “in achieving personal identity through embodiment, through living your roles and relationships. It’s not only through rationality that you find your way forward; we also need our feelings, we need our bodies, we need imagination, the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s position and figure out the best way to grow this relationship.”

Dr. Henry Huang

Dr. Henry Huang

The increasing number of Chinese attendees at events sponsored by the Chinese-Jewish Conversation at YU indicates that the time has come for this vision. Quite a number of Chinese attendees—alumni of Beijing University—were invited by Dr. Henry Huang, associate professor of accounting at the Sy Syms School of Business. Dr. Huang, who is also president of the Beijing University Alumni Association of Greater New York, encapsulated the rationale for the conversation: “Jewish and Chinese cultures share common core values like family and education, and there is no better place than YU to host such a dialogue to bring the two communities closer.”

For more Revel events, go to https://www.yu.edu/revel/events-calendar.

Group shot with Dr. Cohen and Dr. Ames

Dr. Mordechai Cohen, Ms. Shun Shang Guan and Dr. Roger Ames with students from the Katz School of Science and Health and Stern College for Women





Leonard Grunstein

The Times of Israel

The Blogs

March 19, 2019



The Ancient and Sordid History of the             Dual Loyalty Canard


The latest crop of anti-Semitic politicians seeking to make a name for themselves by deceitfully accusing Jews of having dual loyalties are relative neophytes, when it comes to invoking this canard. It is ancient in origin and has been discredited time and time again. History can help us better understand this unique phenomenon, which has plagued the Jewish people for millennia.

The Bible[i] describes what was likely the original effort cynically to contrive the dual loyalty or more generic disloyalty false narrative. It started with the very inception of Jewish people-hood in ancient Egypt. The Bible depicts a new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph[ii]. He felt insecure in his position[iii], possibly because he was not a descendant of the prior king[iv]. He gathered together with his advisors, Balaam, Job and Jethro[v] , who were not Egyptians, to deal with the perceived threat of a powerful Jewish presence in Egypt[vi]. The meeting was not about fact-finding. As the Bible reports, they had a preconceived notion that the Jewish people were too numerous and strong[vii].

The Talmud[viii] comments their concern was actually about remaining in power. It goes on to describe how this fear was borne of projection. This makes most sense when viewed through the prism of how the new Pharaoh came to power in the first place. If he could seize power, then so could someone else and replace him. The object of the cabal of Pharaoh and his advisors was to contrive a shrewd plan to deal with the perceived threat to their remaining in power. They formulated the libel that if a war came, the Jews would join the enemy and fight against the Egyptians. They deceitfully advanced this fabricated excuse for their notorious program against the Jews.

Sound familiar? It should be, because it is the same false narrative being advanced today about Jews having allegiance to a foreign country or dual loyalty.


A similar theme is evoked in Megillat Esther[ix]. This time the perpetrators are King Achashverosh, a usurper of the Persian throne[x] and Haman, a non-Persian[xi], who is his notorious advisor and partner in crime. Achashverosh is insecure in his new position. As the Talmud[xii] explains, he sought approval from the elites he invited to his 180-day long party[xiii]. He even demanded his royal wife Vashti, a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar[xiv], appear unclothed on the last day of his subsequent 7-day gathering for the people[xv] to please his guests[xvi].

After disposing of Queen Vashti[xvii], Haman and Achashverosh hatched a scheme against the Jews. They invoked the ancient canard of disloyalty to target the Jewish people[xviii]. Haman described the Jews as a certain people, who are different and scattered and dispersed throughout the realm. He then slandered them, by accusing them of following their own laws and not the King’s. In substance, he falsely asserted the Jews were not loyal to the King and it was not worth tolerating them. His solution to the perceived threat was wholly to eliminate the Jews.

Whether characterized as outright disloyalty or dual loyalty the effect is the same; it is about identifying the Jews as enemies. The promoters of this false and notorious conspiracy theory typically have an agenda. Blaming the Jews and demonizing them serves their political needs. Stoking fear and hatred of an identifiable minority can help establish solidarity within a constituency. The modus operandi is all too familiar. The pattern of branding someone else as an enemy can also divert attention away from any personal character deficiencies or similar disabilities.

It is likely the motivation for promoting this egregious canard today is no different. Like the Biblical headline of yore, the new one could just as well be, newly ennobled and insecure political actors seek validation by attacking others. It’s calculating and contrived; but it’s also reckless. The effect is only temporary, because hatred is a vile and poisonous emotion, which eats away at the souls of those involved. Historically, it eventually causes their own self-destruction, in the orgy of hatred they engendered. The real question is how many innocent people are negatively affected in the process. It’s why we have to act to prevent harm to others.

I am a child of Morris Grunstein, of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz and Ida Grunstein, a victim of the Soviet labor camps of Siberia, where her father perished for the crime of wanting to remain Jewish. I am sensitized to the fact that there is no right or left that is blameless, when it comes to anti-Semitism. Members of both the left and right have used the tools of anti-Semitism and self-proclaimed victimhood, in furtherance of their nefarious goals and programs.

There was the delusional Austrian, Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, who also invoked the ancient disloyalty canard. Never mind that Jews loyally served in the German army in World War I. Indeed as loyal citizens of the many countries at war with each other in World War I, they often fought against each other, too. Hitler, though, managed to unify the German people, in no small measure, by falsely labeling the Jews as disloyal and demonizing them as the enemy of the people. This enabled him, as the aggressor, to play the victim. Thus, he proclaimed the German people were the victims of the Allies and the Versailles Treaty, as well as, the Jews. He also managed to deflect attention away from himself, as an Austrian, who despite failing at most things in life became the Fuhrer of Germany. He and his cohorts were the masters of the modern big lie, invoking all sorts of conspiracy theories and fantasies about Jewish power to justify causing World War II and perpetrating the Holocaust.

Stalin, the notorious communist Premier of the Russian Soviet Empire, was also no stranger to anti-Semitism. As a Georgian by birth, he was not readily accepted by polite Russian society. Is it any wonder that he saw conspiracies everywhere? Why not single out the Jews to villainize, as the enemy, to deflect attention from himself? Almost to his last breath, he sought to brand Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union as disloyal and enemies of the state. This was to be the prelude to his new anti-Semitic campaign. Fortunately, he died before he could actually set his plan in motion. However, when leftists like the UK’s Corbyn continue to spout their deceitful hate of Jews, is it any wonder that we feel unease at the specter of renewed anti-Semitism in our wonderful United States of America?

The Talmud[xix] analyzes the problem of projection and concludes that anyone who habitually claims others are flawed should themselves be examined, because they likely posses those same flaws. This is a powerful critique of those who regularly accuse others of disloyalty or dual loyalty. Consider the misplaced focus on the legitimate domestic lobbying efforts of proponents of a strong US-Israel relationship. Is this perhaps an effort to divert attention from the outsized role of foreign money from the Gulf States[xx] and identification with terrorist linked groups[xxi]?

Given this historical perspective and my own family’s real life experiences, I can’t help but react soberly and skeptically when it comes to anti-Semitism and those who express this ancient anti-Semitic canard. They have plagued the Jewish people since ancient times and the memories of the more recent outbursts of hate and destruction, as relayed to me by my parents, are still vivid. The cry of ‘Never Again’ reverberates in my brain. We can’t sit back complacently and just let it happen again; not here; not now; not anywhere or anytime.

It is why I believe it is disingenuous, cavalierly to explain away this destructive and contemptible false narrative as somehow expressed out of ignorance. Perhaps some might have innocently misspoken. But if that were so for others, then why would they promote it publically, again and again, and publicize it so thoroughly on social media? Why defend it when questioned?

The reaction of some is to treat the accusation as if it were a rational one. However, it is most assuredly not. Efforts to explain, educate and discuss are misplaced; they often only embolden the perpetuators of the canard. This is because the entire issue is cunningly contrived just to generate this kind of a response. It is designed to enable the victimizer falsely to claim the status of a victim, because of his or her inability to respond coherently to any factual, logical and irrefutable defense. In essence, the vigorousness of the defense is used to support the very conspiracy theory he or she is falsely promoting in the first place.

We can’t afford to be naïve; we have our children and grandchildren to think about. It is reckless to ignore the connivance the Bible warned about in its introduction to its report of this canard. It uses the expression ‘Havei NisChachma Lo’, which is loosely translated as, lets deal shrewdly with them. Should we expect any less of the Jew haters of today? Don’t be taken in by the appearance of youth and inexperience. It’s an act designed to mislead and obfuscate the malicious and callous intent hidden in the evil heart of those promoting this libelous slander against Jews.

As we approach the Jewish Holidays of Purim and Pesach, we should be mindful of how we faced similar challenges to our existence in the past. We are grateful that G-d saved us then, with hidden miracles in the case of Purim and overt ones in the case of Passover. It’s, thus, also a fortuitous time to pray for G-d’s grace and aid in resolving this new present crisis of anti-Semitism, here in the US and elsewhere. However, G-d also wants us to do what we can to help ourselves, too. Calling it out for what it is, just plain despicable anti-Semitism, is something; but it’s not enough. We must vote for and support candidates who recognize anti-Semitism is unequivocally wrong and should not have a home in the USA. This doesn’t mean that we don’t disdain any form of hate. Let me be clear; hate has no home in the USA. May we all be blessed to live in a world at peace, where there is no longer any threat of anti-Semitism.



[i] Exodus 1:9-10.

[ii] Exodus 1:8.

[iii] Exodus Rabbah 1:8.

[iv] Ibn Ezra commentary on Exodus 1:8.

[v] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 11a.

[vi] Exodus 1:7.

[vii] Exodus 1:9.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Megillat Esther 3:8.

[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 11a.

[xi] As noted in Megillat Esther 3:1, Haman was a descendant of Agag, who was an Amalakite. See also Pesikta Rabbati 13:1.

[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 12a.

[xiii] Megillat Esther 1:3-4.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 10b and Esther Rabbah, Petichta 12.

[xv] Megillat Esther 1:5-11.

[xvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 12b and Esther Rabbah 3:13.

[xvii] Megillat Esther 1:16-19. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 12b, which identifies Memuchan as Haman.

[xviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 13b.

[xix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at pages 70a-b.

[xx] See What about ‘the Benjamins’ coming from the Gulf States?, by Barabara Boland, dated 3/13/19, in the Spectator.

[xxi] See Ilhan Omar to Speak at Banquet for Group Known for Terrorist Group Support, by Ilanit Chernick, dated 2/19/19, in the Jerusalem Post. See also Ilhan Omar to Speak Alongside Man Who Praised Killing Jews, Report Says, by Ryan Saavedra, dated 2/11/19, in the Daily Caller and CAMERA Op-Ed: Stop Whitewashing Ilhan Omar’s Antisemitism, by Sean Durns, dated February 18, 2019.




About the Author

Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.



The Chinese-Jewish Conversation at Yeshiva University

by Michael Bettencourt for YU News

On Tuesday, February 12, 2019, East and West met at a special event titled “China and Israel: How did ancient states emerge? Archaeological perspectives,” which took place in the David Yagoda Commons on the Israel Henry Beren Campus. Marking a special cooperation among different YU schools, it was cosponsored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, the Colloquium Initiative of the Office of the Provost, and the Katz School of Science and Health, which has recruited many Chinese students for its master’s programs.

This event marked the inauguration of the “Chinese-Jewish Conversation at Yeshiva University,” a new initiative spearheaded by Dr. Mordechai Cohen, professor of Bible, associate dean of Revel and chairman of the academic Jewish studies division. Dr. Cohen opened the event by describing this YU initiative, after which he introduced the two main speakers: Dr. Jill Katz, clinical assistant professor of archaeology, and Debby Li, a senior at New York University majoring in anthropology and art.

(l-r): Dr. Jill Katz; Debby Li; Dr. Mordechai Cohen

In his remarks, Dr. Cohen explained that the idea of the Chinese-Jewish conversation at YU actually began in October 2015 when Revel hosted a lecture by Dr. Youde Fu, founding director of the Institute for Judaic and Inter-religious Studies at Shandong University in Jinan, China.

Dr. Fu presented a lecture on “the profound parallels between the Jewish and Chinese traditions,” and over the past three years, Dr. Cohen has been invited by Dr. Fu to teach a course at Shandong, where he has seen “firsthand the connections between our traditions.”

What are these connections? “As a Jewish person,” said Dr. Cohen, “I felt at home in Chinese culture immediately because we share core values: pride in continuous and unbroken cultural, literary and spiritual traditions that go back over 3,000 years; reverence for our ancient traditions embodied in classical texts; respect for our elders and ancestors; belief in the ideal of being part of a community, a family, to care for others; and the role our ancient histories play in our cultures.”

For next hour, Dr. Katz and Li gave in-depth lectures about the archeology of Israel and China, specifically looking at how states came into being in each region, or, as Dr. Katz phrased it, “the emergence of civilization.”

Along with offering descriptions of what archeologists actually do as they extract history from the sherds, bones and artifacts they discover, Dr. Katz and Li also noted the truth that none of the work archeologists do can be separated from the interpretations people make of it, whether that has to do with confirming a claim of ownership of land or maintaining a myth of cultural homogeneity.

“I hope people learned a bit more,” said Dr. Katz, “about how archeological interpretations are influenced by both current and historical narratives.”

Li agreed, stating that “the discoveries we have made are more than pottery and bones; they are pieces of a collective and complex human history to which ideology’s contribution is indispensable.”

For the approximately 100 people attending the lecture, this inaugural event of the Chinese-Jewish Conversation at Yeshiva University created a welcome space for YU’s growing Chinese graduate student population while providing the intellectual groundwork for two different cultures to share their commonalities and aspirations.

“By pairing a seasoned professor like Dr. Katz with a talented—and already highly accomplished—young scholar like Debby Li,” noted Dr. Cohen, “this event demonstrated what a university is all about: training the next generation to engage in exciting and meaningful scholarship.”

On March 13, 2019, Revel will present the next iteration of the Chinese-Jewish Conversation at Yeshiva University with a lecture titled “Confucian Role Ethics” by Dr. Roger Ames of Beijing University, a leading world scholar of Confucian thought. Registration is at yu.edu/confucius.


Dr. Daniel Tsadik

Dr. Daniel Tsadik, associate professor of Sephardic and Iranian studies at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, has recently published The Jews of Iran and Rabbinic Literature: New Perspectives by Mosad Ha-Rav Kook (Jerusalem).

The book addresses the question of Iranian Jewry’s affinity with rabbinic literature from the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century. Many of the book’s theses challenge and revise prevailing views that see this Jewry as largely isolated from world Jewry and its rabbinic legacy.

“Born to Iranian Jews, I have always felt intrigued by my parents’ Iranian roots,” said Dr. Tsadik. Completing his PhD work at Yale on the status of the Jews of Iran in the latter part of the nineteenth century gave him the chance to explore these roots in more depth.

“I came across some letters that were written in impressive Hebrew, at times utilizing a variety of Jewish sources, from the Hebrew Bible to the Mishna, midrashim, Talmud and kabbalistic texts. This surprised me, as the common wisdom was that the Jews of Iran were cut off from the Jews residing elsewhere, and, consequently, were ignorant of mainstream Judaism.”

Years after completing his dissertation and turning it into a book titled Between Foreigners and Shi’is; Nineteenth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority (Stanford University Press, 2007), he decided to revisit those letters. “In undertaking my research for the current book, a whole world became open to me as I came across a lot more than just missives, such as Hebrew and Judeo-Persian manuscripts, Shi’ite anti-Jewish polemical compositions, missionary reports and diplomatic dispatches, among other sources. The end result, in showing the affinity of Jews in Iran with rabbinic works, is a revision of the field.”

Book cover in Hebrew



Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Leonard Grunstein

The Times of Israel

The Blogs

February 4, 2019

The Art of Compromise

‘It’s a matter of principle’ or ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ are conversation stoppers that frustrate efforts to resolve a dispute between opposing parties.

Worse yet is an ad hominem attack on the proponent of a position. Once one party to a dispute demonizes the other, it becomes extremely hard to conclude any negotiated resolution of a matter. Similarly, labeling a position advanced as somehow less than virtuous also presents an obstacle to settlement. These formulations suggest winning at all costs is the only alternative and that perforce there must be a loser. Is compromise then an anathema?

It’s not often that this kind of a genuinely obstructionist attitude is encountered in daily business life. Most successful business people are able to see past the posturing and focus on dollars and cents, as a medium of exchange, for addressing many purportedly insurmountable problems. I’ll never forget the scene of a particularly peeved day-to-day operating partner addressing the controlling investor partner in the business. The operator made an emotionally charged presentation about how unfairly he had been treated by the investor given his overwhelming, but seemingly underappreciated, contribution to the success of the venture.

The investor listened attentively and did not interrupt the operator during his entire approximately fifteen minute soliloquy and poignant peroration. In response, the investor paused a moment and then softly and forthrightly asked, ‘OK, how much?’ The matter was promptly settled without rancor. Somehow each party was able to see past the unhelpful expressions of absolutes and set about the constructive process of achieving a workable compromise. It was not what each party initially demanded, but the result was acceptable to both.

Would that many of the world’s problems could be settled this way, without pyrotechnical displays, resentment or worse. Of course, not every problem can be solved with a monetary compromise. Some, like matters of life or death are not susceptible to this kind of a solution. However, so many could be resolved by compromise and benefit from a toned down, less rancorous, approach. Yet, it appears so much of the contemporary discourse and debate of issues of common concern are needlessly clothed in emotionally charged and inappropriately negative rhetoric.

Isn’t this the very situation we are facing today in discussing such important matters as border security and immigration reform? Public opinion is divided on the matter and it appears each side casts the other as somehow evil for advancing their heartfelt beliefs. If one side wins then the other will likely be profoundly unhappy and also resentful. Why alienate so many people if there is another way to resolve the dispute? It almost feels like a self-induced nightmare.

The compromise resolution is obvious to so many and would likely please the overwhelming majority of the people. Yet, the public discourse is dominated by those espousing extreme positions and demonizing each other. The rhetoric is also not limited to the issues at hand. All sorts of demons are being released, in the heated diatribes. As is often the case when this occurs, the Jewish people are not immune and ant-Semitism rears its ugly head.

The conflict is most unsettling and trust and confidence in our most sacred institutions of government is being undermined. If history has taught us anything, it’s that unrestrained conflict can quickly escalate and set in motion a cascade of events that cause all sorts of unintended consequences. I can’t help but wonder if this is not a part of the insidious goals of many of the extremists asserting these untenable positions.

Wouldn’t it be more useful to state the positions more rationally, such as this is what you want and this is what I want, without casting aspersions? This would permit mediation and a creative solution to be found that might yield a negotiated result acceptable to the parties. Shouldn’t mediation and compromise be the dispute resolution methodology of choice? Why not permit a so-called win/win solution?

The Talmud[i] stresses the advisability of compromise over insisting on strict justice. It notes that the goals of rendering strict justice and promoting genuine peace are often mutually exclusive. Mediation and compromise offer the possibility of combining justice and true peace, because both sides are satisfied with the results. It also enables a person to achieve a more charitable result than strictly enforcing a judgment.

Thus, when a Beit Din[ii] is first convened to hear a dispute, it is required to offer the litigants the opportunity for mediation, before proceeding with the matter on the basis of strict justice[iii]. However, once the Beit Din hears the case and has already formulated a conclusion, there can no longer be a mediated result. It cannot evade the responsibility to render the judgment once it is determined.

The Talmud[iv] views those who elect to pursue mediation, instead of insisting on strict justice, as particularly virtuous. This kind of noble action is sometimes referred to as going beyond the letter of the law. It reports that Rav Yochanan said, Jerusalem would not have been destroyed if it had not been for those who demanded strict justice and did not go beyond the letter of the law. Their unwillingness to forgo strict justices resulted in the baseless hatred[v], which is stated elsewhere to be the root cause of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem[vi].

It appears that Moses also faced a crisis arising out of seemingly unending conflicts among the people[vii]. It is not clear from the Biblical text what were the underlying claims in dispute; but it appears the problem was pervasive. Some attribute the spate of litigation to disputes about the division of the spoils derived from the recent battle[viii] with the Amalikites[ix] or claims by the formerly Egyptian mixed multitude relating to the bounty received by the people of Israel in the Egyptian Exodus[x]. Whatever the precipitating cause, apparently, the recently freed people of Israel were experiencing conflicts that required resolution. Considering the circumstances and the diversity of the group, this could hardly be unexpected. Some had endured the harsh reality of being slave laborers and others had a different experience[xi]. There were those who had herds of cattle and others with only the gifts their erstwhile Egyptian masters bestowed upon them as they left Egypt, in the miraculous Exodus. There were also a mixed multitude of others, who accompanied the Jewish people, as a part of the Exodus from Egypt, who had their own agenda.

Moses was faced with the challenge of how to meld this collection of individuals, with differing life experiences and views, into a new nation. The outbreak of discord among so many of the people threatened to jeopardize achieving this important goal. Amazingly, the Jewish people did come together, under Moses’ leadership, because they would shortly approach the impending revelation at Mount Sinai like one person with one heart[xii]. What was the secret of his success?

The Bible sets the scene with the appearance of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. He witnessed Moses constantly engrossed in judging the overwhelming number of disputes among the people. He was busy from morning until night, with long lines of litigants waiting to assert their claims. Jethro concluded that this crushing process was having a negative effect not only on Moses, but also on the people. He couldn’t contain himself and like all good fathers-in-law, he offered Moses advice on how to deal with the problem.

Jethro’s suggested solution is most interesting. He proposed Moses set up a system of judges, who would handle the small matters and the large cases would be reserved for Moses. He offered that Moses should see to it that the judges were capable and accomplished, G-d fearing and trustworthy and also despised dishonest gain.

It would appear Moses heard Jethro’s advice, but did not actually follow it. Instead, he set up a system that was devoted to mediation and arbitration in place of strict justice[xiii]. Jethro’s judicial system and the type of judges he recommended would only have intensified the discord among the people. Moses selected capable people of accomplishment and this was his primary criterion for appointment[xiv]. He wanted judges, with life experience, genuine wisdom and discernment; who understood business and human nature; and knew how to get things done[xv]. This meant the proven ability to overcome challenges, foster shared visions and teamwork, build relationships and establish peace among competing interests[xvi]. The alternative dispute resolution system in combination with judges, who were so capable and accomplished, was dynamic. It appears not only was the problem solved, but the people also came together as a nation.

The secret was not to insist on strict justice and winners and losers; it was to compromise. The result was a win/win situation.

Let’s all strive to apply this important lesson in practice. The result can transform our own society as well. Compromise; and instead of one side being happy and the other resentful, make many people happy and at peace. Let the blessings of peace prevail.



[i] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 6b.

[ii] Jewish Court of Law.

[iii] Ibid. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin and Penalties within their Jurisdiction 22:4 and Tur, Choshen Mishpat, 12:2-5, as well as, the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 12:2.

[iv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 30b.

[v] Ibid, Tosafot.

[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 9b.

[vii] Exodus, Chapter 18.

[viii] Rabbi Yaakov Meidan, in his article, titled ‘Eifo V’Eifo…’, in Megadim 17 (1992), at pages 79-80.

[ix] Exodus 17:13.

[x] See Sechel Tov, Exodus 18:13 and Lekach Tov, Exodus 18:13.

[xi] Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:3, as well as, Meshech Chochma, Parshat Vayera 8 and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 3:5, at page 17a.

[xii] See Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2 and Rashi commentary on Exodus 19:2. See also Exodus 19:8.

[xiii] See Netziv, in his Harchav Davar commentary on Exodus 18:23.

[xiv] Cf. Nachmanides commentary on Exodus 18:21 and Ibn Caspi commentary on Exodus 18:25, who note the term ‘Anshe Chayil’ is inclusive of all the other detailed characteristics Jethro specified.

[xv] See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commentary on Exodus 18:21.

[xvi] It’s interesting to note, that the term Beitzah, used by Jethro in Exodus 18:21, in the phrase hate Beitzah, is interpreted to mean hate dishonest gain. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch strains to define the term by comparing it to petzah, which means to wound. In my humble opinion, the use of this particular word might also be a play- on-words. Thus, the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin at page 6a) uses the term Bitzuah, as a synonym for Peshara, meaning mediation and compromise. Under this construct, Moses chose judges who, notwithstanding the advice of Jethro, didn’t hate mediation and compromise; but rather embraced it.


About the Author

Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.