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Making Decisions on Controversial Issues

Every congregation (or havurah) faces disagreements, in which particular individuals or sub-groups feel compelled to challenge the status quo. While these disputes are often resolved amicably, they can also result in individuals feeling a need to leave the group, or in some instances, a group of individuals feeling a need to start a new group based on the point of conflict. None of these results is necessarily bad or wrong. But there are times when such disagreements create a negative atmosphere and hurt feelings that never heal. It is those situations that might be avoided through more understanding of the process of controversy and the values underlying disagreements about issues.

While disagreements are often ostensibly about specific political issues (like gay marriage or peace in the Middle East), they are also about making decisions around what we ultimately value. For some, those values are clear and unchanging (community over individual autonomy, justice over compassion), for others the value that takes precedence will vary based on the situation. But we aren’t always aware of why we take a particular stance on an issue, and that awareness is a crucial part of being able to make good decisions. For a congregation to function well, it should be able to articulate why it has chosen a particular position over another, and members should be able to have a respectful dialogue about their differences based on values.

One issue in decision making about controversial issues is that values related to the congregation’s internal dynamics may conflict with values members hold about issues in society in general. Inclusion, pluralism, sh’lom bayit [group harmony], democracy and honesty are values about internal dynamics. The group must be clear about whether these values are going to be the ones that count above other values about social issues. Is it more important for the group to get along peacefully than to insist that the group take a position on an issue? Is it more important that no one be excluded from the congregation than that the group expresses itself on a controversial subject? If sh’lom bayit is the ultimate value, then the group must articulate that to members, so that they will understand that taking positions on Jewish or local or global issues will raise problems if there is disagreement about them.

Reconstructionist groups, who pride themselves on the values of inclusion and pluralism are susceptible to situations where controversy can be troubling.  By definition, inclusion and pluralism make dissent problematic, because they guide us to want to make sure that everyone is comfortable in our communities. Surely, pluralism and inclusion are important values to us, but they may conflict with other things valued by our communities. We assume for example that people who don’t believe in equality for women would not feel comfortable in a Reconstructionist setting. But if inclusion and pluralism were our only values, we would have to find ways to make room for such individuals if they wanted to join. What this tells us is that pluralism is one thing we value among many, and other values may outweigh it in some instances.

Other values may also come into conflict. Sub-groups in the congregation may find themselves at odds over whether the limited resources of the congregation should be used to support a soup kitchen (emphasizing the value of compassion) or go to a demonstration against welfare reform (emphasizing the value of justice). In other cases, people may believe they share the same value (Jewish survival), but think they can foster it through demanding that their rabbi does intermarriages, or demanding that he or she refrain from doing so.

One important factor congregations shouldn’t neglect in this process is understanding the power dynamics in their congregation. Is the congregation a democracy? How much power do the Board or influential committees have? What is the position of the rabbi? Does he or she have final authority (even if the group claims otherwise?) How about the President or other chairs? Do they gain power by virtue of their position (ascribed power)? What role do powerful individuals play? Can they sway people by virtue of charisma? The group needs to look at how decisions are made. It is often the case that the opinions of some hold sway, even if their opinions don’t match the stated values of the congregation. This is something that groups must always be conscious of to make sure decisions are well made.

I am suggesting that Reconstructionist groups need to devote some time and energy to thinking through what communal values are, and to creating a process to resolve conflicting values when these situations arise. These complicated clashes of values and perceptions are best addressed when they are consciously articulated in an exercise of values clarification. I recommend the method created by Thomas McElhinney for this process, but any open conversation would be useful if its goal is to articulate the values and assumptions underlying people’s different opinions, giving people an opportunity to air their differences. What follows is an adaptation of McElhinney’s method that is designed for use by congregations:

A Three Step Method for Ethical Decision Making

Step One: Formulate a Premise

            What does one group feel ought (or ought not) to be done in the situation? State your intuitive reaction as follows: “We ought (ought not) _________.” (For example, we ought to perform same-sex marriages, participate in a protest about the situation in the Middle East, start a soup kitchen project.) The statement that you make becomes a hypothesis to be tested by argument.

Step Two: Conduct the Ethical Argument

  1. List all reasons that support your premise. Make as strong a case as possible. Note any objections in a separate place, but save them for Step Three. Build only one case now.
  2. Provide justifications for each of the reasons that you have given. These are the “reasons for your reasons” and form the heart of the ethical argument.
  3. Separate the moral reasons from other supports for your premise. Whether something is legal or costly or politically wise may or may not count along with the question of whether or not it will meet some ethical norm or have good or bad consequences. The more moral thing may not be the least expensive or the safest for the congregation.

Step Three: Review and Act

  1. Posit one or more other premises that could apply to the situation and list reasons and justifications for each. These will be alternate courses of action to the original premise. While most of the reasons will simply be negative forms of the reasons given in Step Two, this is the place that objections can be listed. By looking at the counter arguments you may discover new dimensions of the question.
  2. Compare the premises and then:
    1. sustain your original position and take appropriate action
    2. abandon your premise for a counter-premise and begin decision process again (to be certain);
    3. modify your premise and do a new review


Present a position and test it. It is likely that two (or more!) premises will have a moral strength, and it may be difficult to choose, but at least you know what you feel is best and how strongly you feel about it. You will also be able to explain to others why you would choose a certain action. And you will be able to anticipate their arguments when they disagree.1

It is likely that a congregation will rely on this process when there is a conflict, but it is also useful for a congregation to go through some process to articulate the values of the group when no problem exists. Does the group place more importance on its own survival or on taking controversial positions based on values, or does that depend on the situation? It is a useful exercise to rank values in theory, and then subject them to hypothetical situations. Sometimes the values we think we hold dear fade in significance when faced with a real life situation. But some groups may be able to articulate a hierarchy of values that will not change based on a situation. Sh’lom bayit may be the most important principle a congregation holds, but justice or democracy might be also. It will be important to know that before a conflict arises.


  • 1. This procedure is adapted from S. Lammers and R. Alpert, ed. Teaching Medical Ethics to Theological Students (RRC Press, 1983) 33.

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