St. Louis rabbi promotes empathy in TED talk

Rabbi Yonason Goldson of University City delivers a TEDx conference talk on ‘How I Became My Own Worst Nightmare’ in Colorado Springs. IMAGE: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT

When Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School closed in 2016, Rabbi Yonason Goldson, who spent two decades teaching there, said he “had to decide what I wanted to do when I grow up.”

Goldson, 59, of University City, turned to public speaking, not just to Orthodox Jewish audiences but also to secular, non-Jewish audiences. He recently gave a talk entitled “How I Became My Own Worst Nightmare” at a TEDx conference in Colorado Springs (view it below).

Goldson spoke with the Jewish Light about his message during the talk and what it’s like to be an Orthodox rabbi speaking in non-Jewish settings.

What was the message you were trying to convey in your TED talk?

The simple idea is that when we don’t take the time and make the effort to listen to others, to hear where they are coming from and understand their point of view, not only don’t we understand them, but we don’t understand ourselves. And therefore, I lay out a process through which we can engage people in a more meaningful way that will bring us together rather than divide us from one another. 

How do we do that?

It involves creating credibility by articulating our point of view so that others can understand it even if they haven’t already bought into our point of view. Second, establishing trust by rearticulating what others say to us so that they know that we have heard them and understand where they are coming from. 

Then we need to demonstrate integrity by acknowledging truth, even if it’s truth we may not like or that we may not want to hear. 

We need to demonstrate consistency, which means we have to reject double standards. We can’t pick out people on the other side for their behavior and then give people on our side a pass when they do exactly the same thing. And, finally, we need to show a little humility, which means we have to be willing to continually revisit and reexamine our own beliefs so that we never forget why we believe them and never allow our principles to devolve into dogma. If we do that, then we achieve ethical communication, which is a means of establishing common ground. 

What inspired you to give this talk?

What’s the opposite of inspiration? Like so many people today, I read the headlines, I listen to the news. Less and less do I engage myself in what passes for political debate or rational discussion. Our whole society has gotten increasingly polarized, tribalized, disinterested in dealing with facts and indulgent in ideologies and opinions, and it’s really having a corrosive effect upon our society. 

Is it unusual for an Orthodox rabbi to give a speech to a secular audience?

If it’s a secular Jewish audience, it’s not unusual at all. There are many, many rabbis and personalities that are trying to bring an awareness and sensitivity of traditional Jewish values to the Jews who may have been raised without that. I myself was raised with no knowledge of Judaism. We didn’t keep anything in my house. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony; I didn’t learn aleph bet as a child. It was only when I got to Israel that I was finally exposed to the traditions of our people and that brought me back. 

There are far fewer of us that speak to general audiences. I’m only aware of one other TED talk given by an Orthodox rabbi, and that was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who gave one on the main stage. So it is unusual because Judaism does not proselytize. We don’t look to bring non-Jews into the fold. We look to live our lives as Jews the best way we can and help support our own community, but at the same time, part of Jewish tradition teaches that we have a mission to be a light to the nations, and partly because I was raised in a secular home and background, I have a certain ability to speak the language of the secular world. 

And so what I try to do is translate the Torah values and ethics and communications and respect for all people and put that into a language that the broader secular world can appreciate. 

Have you encountered any resistance or the notion that it’s wrong for a rabbi to speak to a general audience like that?

I haven’t gotten any of that, certainly not from within the community. As soon as I finished giving my TED talk in Colorado, I came off the stage, went around the back and came around to the front and a woman who was in the audience intercepted me and she said, ‘You know, when you got up there on stage, I could tell exactly what kind of person you were, and I knew exactly what kind of speech you were going to give and you blew away all my expectations.’ 

And I thought, that’s a victory. That was the point, to break down those stereotypes, to look beneath the surface, to give ourselves a chance to actually get to know people.