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How to Argue, in Community, Without Violence

Inscription at the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, Poland

Sermon Shabbat Toldot 5779, November 9, 2018

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

I had the pleasure of being treated to dinner at a Chinese restaurant last night by Bobby Oved, our Membership Representative for Congregation Beit Simcha tonight. If you join Beit Simcha, it is possible that Bobby will treat you to Chinese food, although that is not guaranteed.

Anyway, I had a delightful meal with Bobby and his mother Anne Friedman, our Treasurer. After the meal the waitress delivered fortune cookies, of course. I opened mine and read my fortune: “Look around: happiness is trying to catch you.”

What a great fortune to receive—happiness is trying to catch you! The word for happiness in Hebrew is “simcha”—and the truth is the first month of Beit Simcha has been a very happy experience indeed! Perhaps happiness is truly trying to catch me, but I hope that it is trying to catch all of us here at Beit Simcha. Because the truth is that the part of Judaism that our congregation represents best should be the joy of Judaism, the celebration and pride of being Jewish and enjoying that experience together in a wonderful new community.

That joy is expressed when we are able to join together in prayer, in study, in service, in community. And in the wonderful beginning we have made, there has already been a great deal of each of those. It is, we hope, a lesson, a demonstration in the way to create a congregation, a true kehilah. It is a joyous start to our own creation of real community.

And community might just be the thing that our American society needs now more than ever before. Perhaps you noticed that this past week we held the US midterm elections, which brought out not the best but some of the worst aspects of the ways that we have come to differ in this country. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, and however you voted, you had to be distressed by the intensely negative storm of advertising, media coverage and internet and social media noise. Every political opponent had to be publicly demonized and pejoratively labeled. In the major races here in Arizona I saw about four times as many negative ads as positive ones. We could not turn on our computers or phones or TVs or radios without seeing and hearing a kind of continual flow of slander. It was a little insane.

And as if to highlight the insanity that seems to be loose in our land now, there were two more terrible public shooting incidents, at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida and a country-western club in Thousand Oaks, California, following last week’s murderous Anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. That is not to say that each of the many violent public attacks that occur here in America every two weeks or so—or, in the case of the last two weeks, three times in that period—is the result of political or social disagreement. There are unstable, angry, mentally ill people who are triggered by many causes, and who have access to weapons that are incredibly potent and destructive. Still, there seems to be an American tendency now to move directly from verbal or social disagreement to intense violence.

It seems that we have lost the ability to disagree with one another in America without ad hominem attacks and harsh and dehumanizing criticism. We no longer are able to discuss issues. Now, we simply attack the person making the case with which we disagree, label them and ridicule them. And once we have done so it is a much smaller step to physically attacking them as subhuman, not worthy of basic human respect, perhaps not worthy of being alive. We cannot seem to demonstrate any civility any more.

This inability to disagree with civility is not the Jewish way. Of course, we Jews have a long and august history of massively disagreeing with one another. We have always argued, and done so with great talent, energy and commitment. We disagree far more than we agree, and arguably our greatest text, the Talmud, constitutes 63 large tractates of continuous argument. We have had entire prestigious academies dedicated to disagreeing with entire other prestigious academies. There was even a time when the largest Jewish population in the world, the Eastern European Jewish world before the World Wars and the Holocaust, was called Mitnagdim, those who are opponents—because they disagreed with the second largest Jewish population in the world, the Chasidim.

So we Jews know all about disagreement. But there is a difference in the way that we Jews disagree and the way, in 2018, Americans disagree: we disagree but remain in the same community. We understand that our differences are family disputes, and even when they are intense and passionate we must always be cognizant of the fact that we are part of one people, am echad v'goy echad, one people, one nation with one God. And typically, even in the most intense Jewish disagreements, no one ever gets violent.

I'm reminded of the difference in the way Israelis drive. Now driving in Israel in often a contact sport and Israeli drivers are very aggressive indeed. When I first moved there it seemed that in the cars the brake and horn were actually connected, and it was impossible to use one without employing the other. And many times I saw Israeli drivers in traffic conflicts, even fender-benders. Several times, at least, I witnessed a car tap another car's bumper, and the two drivers get out and start screaming at each other, often for several minutes, at the top of their lungs. And then, having reached a verbal crescendo of evident hostility, the two drivers would walk back to their respective cars and drive calmly away. If that happened in America, two people screaming at each other at the top of their lungs after a fender-bender, someone would have pulled out a gun or a tire iron and violence would surely have ensued. Yet in Israel the two Jews involved would yell plenty, but then pull back before the red line of violence.

That is a lesson we can teach to America today, when the fractured lines of political and social differences threaten the very fabric of our society. Because intelligent, educated and principled people can, do and perhaps must differ over the right approaches to many issues. And in Jewish tradition we do this without dehumanizing those with whom we differ. We argue fervently and seriously without attacking those with whom we argue. We stand on principle without insisting that we are only ones with principles to stand on.

This week’s Torah portion, and the next couple of Torah portions, focus on the story of Jacob and his fraught fraternal relationship with his twin Esau. The two are very different, never get along, and at one point in this week’s portion of Toldot, Esau threatens to kill Jacob. Yet ultimately—spoiler alert, here—Esau and Jacob will reunite, smooth over their differences, embrace. Eventually they will bury their father Isaac together, just as Isaac and Ishmael united to bury Abraham. In the end, they ultimately resolve their differences in the interests of uniting their family.

Look, all families are a little dysfunctional, at the very least, from time to time. My hope is that our own American family has become so on a temporary basis. Tonight is the 80th anniversary of Krystallnacht, the night of broken glass that began the Holocaust in Germany. It is always tempting to compare the latest evil trends in society to the beginnings of the Shoah, to see every Anti-Semitic attack as the manifestation of a deep and evil pathology spreading throughout our country. But that’s not what is happening now in America. This is, I believe, a malign but temporary revival of hatreds that don’t really belong on this continent. Instead it is an inability to disagree without violence that is at the dark heart of the problem.

The surest way for that to prove to be true, for this national epidemic of anger and preposterously overblown rhetorical hostility and violence to be truly temporary, is for us to relearn how to argue in a Jewish way. To differ about issues and ideas, not personality. To address practical policies and goals rather than attacking character. To accept differences as substantive, and to demonstrate good will and honesty as we seek to convince others of our own positive intent.

You know, synagogue communities are also families. We can incorporate and indeed embrace a great deal of diversity and difference in our congregation, from the personal to the political, and do so in an atmosphere of respect and celebration. We can do so much together, for each other and for the world in our congregation. But we can do most of all, right now, by modeling the way that we can be together, celebrate Shabbat and Judaism together, in spite of our many differences—perhaps even because of our many other differences.

Australian Poet/Liturgist Michael Leunig put it beautifully:

We give thanks for our friends.

We anger each other.

We fail each other.

We share this sad earth, this tender life, this precious time.

Such richness.

Such wildness.

Together we are blown about.

Together we are dragged along.

All this delight.

All this suffering.

All this forgiving life.

We hold it together.

We hold it together—in community. In this time of terrible difference and violent contradiction in our country, may we at Beit Simcha be a model for how to live together well in community. May we argue with conviction but always with respect. May we differ yet remain with the embrace of this congregational family. For then, we have been promised, happiness will indeed catch all of us.

May this be our will, and God’s.

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