Rabbi Jonathan Cohen’s Message July 9, 2017
I was a teenage atheist. I had read a little Bertrand Russell and some pamphlets of the "50 Ways in which the Bible Contradicts Itself" variety. I used to go out of my way to strike up arguments with any Jehovah Witness unlucky enough to be selling the Watch Tower in my neighbourhood. Well, I’m not an atheist anymore (but I still think that anyone who finds only 50 contradictions in the Bible isn’t trying very hard!)
So what changed me?
I fell in love. Obviously with Mona and with Reuben. There is nothing like watching your child being born to open your heart to the ineffable mystery of life. And there is nothing that has taught me the concept of grace more evocatively than living with someone who knows me better than I know myself and still wants to share a life with me.
But even before we conceived Reuben – and even before I met Mona – I fell in love with midrash. Midrash is a way of reading the Bible which sees the inconsistencies and the gaps and the redundancies of the written text not as editorial mistakes – but rather as signposts pointing to deeper meanings that can be discovered by delving beneath the surface of the text. In so doing, midrash responds to contemporary problems by crafting new stories that make breathtakingly relevant connections between today’s Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text of almost 3,000 years ago. Through midrash I discovered that one can take the Torah seriously without having to take it literally.
This morning month I would like to share with you some insights about what Jewish history in general and rabbinic thought in particular can teach us about how to conduct the debates and disagreements that we inevitably must – and morally should – face over the next four years. Many of these struggles will take place in the public arena; others will be conducted among friends and within families. I do so with great trepidation since I do not want to say anything that could exacerbate the already painful divisions that our country faces. I am also painfully aware that we Jews have not always lived up to the best of our tradition when it comes to handling such disputes. I am reminded of a lesson that I learned some 45 years ago: Never point a finger at someone because you’ll find that you have three other fingers pointing right back at you!
The Hebrew term for such an argument or disagreement is makhloket, which comes from the root word khelek, which itself means a component part of something bigger. As applied to the American context, this reminds me that many of our arguments will be between individuals and movements that share a love of our country even if they differ radically on what is in our country’s best interest.
Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the contentiousness of Talmudic debate knows that makhloket is a word with an impressive pedigree. In Pirkei Avot 5:17, our Sages explain that there are two kinds of makhlokiyot: some are "for the sake of heaven" and others "are not for the sake of heaven." Interestingly, the Sages go on to teach that any makhloket which is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. It is the ones that are not for the sake of heaven that are destined to be of short duration and soon to be forgotten.
The Mishna goes on to cite the makhlokiyot between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shamai – the two greatest rabbis of the first century of the Common Era – as the textbook example of disputes for the sake of heaven. Despite their sharp differences of opinion, the adherents of the two groups are often described as able to maintain strong peaceful relationships, respectfully disagreeing with one another, and continuing to marry into one another’s families. Although they differed passionately on a wide range of issues, the opinions of both schools were considered "the words of the living God." I would suggest that the Jewish people’s history of passionate debate gives us insights that might usefully be learned by all Americans – especially by those whose traditions are more likely to stress the need for doctrinal uniformity.
So what are some Jewish values that can guide America in its public and private debates about politics and other contentious topics? How can we disagree passionately while still respecting our opponents as human beings deserving of love and respect, even if their viewpoints are fundamentally and unequivocally the polar-opposites of our own? How can we make our arguments makhlokiyot for the sake of heaven?
The first is of these values is tzimtzum – "contraction." This is a term used in the Lurianic Kabbalah to explain that God began the process of creation by "contracting" His infinite light in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which finite and seemingly independent realms could exist. We are often much better at trying to persuade others of our opinions than at listening to theirs. When both sides persist in this intellectual egotism, the end is either shouting or the complete end of the discussion. Remember that the purpose of a dialogue is not to convince the other person, but to understand where he or she is coming from. Only then can you find what you have in common, and how you both (and we all) can move forward together.
We must try to remember that the Torah teaches that each of us was created in the Divine image – b’tzelem Elohim. Even when we disagree with another person’s opinions or conclusions, we should give them the benefit of presuming that they have tried – just as we have – to arrive at them in an intelligent and thoughtful way, even if their conclusions seem to us to belie that fact.
Especially when the discussion takes place in an intimate setting – a family dinner or a church social event, for example – we should remember to treat each other with kavod (respect) even if we don’t share each other’s beliefs or are not convinced by each other’s arguments. We should remember that opening oneself up – especially if one’s opinions are in the minority – requires courage and that people who do so often feel quite vulnerable and respond defensively. We must endeavour to listen to each other. Speaking for myself, I am far more likely to try to see the merit in someone else’s opinions if I feel that I am being heard myself. We owe it to ourselves, to our interlocutors and to our country to give the same in return.
We must be rod’fei shalom, pursuers of peace. The word shalom (peace) is related to the word shalem (wholeness). We cannot attain peace – and thus wholeness – without acknowledging everyone’s different opinions, whether or not we agree with them. Learning to incorporate disparate views into our understanding of peace and wholeness enables us to be pursuers of peace. Peace is not the absence of disagreement; nor is it infuriated silence.
We must argue not only with respect but also with anavah (humility). We should try to use "I believe" and "I feel" statements, and not presume to tell other people what they are thinking. We can’t possibly know that until they have told us. When they do, we should acknowledge that we may have to ponder their view in order to clarify our own. Hearing divergent viewpoints presented in a constructive way can help everyone learn and grow.
As did some 90% of Greenbelters, I voted for the losing side in last November’s election. I was bitterly disappointed by its result. Since then, some of the names proposed by the President Trump for the top positions in his administration have filled me with fear. Some of these people have disturbing histories of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other kinds of bigotry. And, like many of my conservative friends, I am appalled by many of our President’s early morning tweets. In the years to come there will be many occasions when we will be called upon to oppose the administration with all the passion that we can muster. But I also try to keep in mind thoughts that Jon Stewart shared a few days after the election with Charlie Rose on the CBS This Morning show. Stewart warned liberals against turning Trump voters into a "monolith." He said, "There are guys in my neighbourhood that I love, that I respect, that I think have incredible qualities who are not afraid of Mexicans, and not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums. In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look as Muslims as a monolith. They are the individuals and it would be ignorance. But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist. That hypocrisy is also real in our country."
I also consider the story of one of the more famous rabbinic arguments. The Talmud relates the story of the Rabbis’ debating about the kosher status of a particular type of oven, invented by a man named Akhnai. All the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, except for one, agreed the law went a certain way. The exception, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, disagreed, holding out against the majority. To prove his point, he performed several miracles, the most theatrical of which was when a voice from heaven called out that he was right. Rabbi Joshua, representing the rest of the rabbis, rebutted God by quoting the Torah saying, "Loh bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens," meaning that God had given us the Torah to interpret, and therefore the voice from heaven was irrelevant. Rabbi Eliezer stormed off. The story ends on a tragic note: Rabbi Eliezer remained estranged from the community, and one day the force of his bitter prayers killed Rabban Gamliel, his brother-in-law and the head of the Sandhedrin. Imagine how hard Ima Shalom, the wife of Eliezer and the sister of Rabban Gamliel, had to work to live up to her name – "mother of peace" – when her family next came together.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for "slippery" – khalaklak – comes from the same three-letter root as does makhloket. A makhloket l’shem shamayim – a disagreement for the sake of a higher cause – can be difficult but it is always praiseworthy. On the contrary, anything less is hurtful, dismissive of the real stakes, and devoid of any positive outcome. When next involved in a makhloket, we should all resist the slippery slope. We should ask ourselves: is the argument truly for a worthwhile cause, or are you actually using it to veil more egotistical feelings and needs? If our position is not grounded in high principle, then perhaps we should consider stepping back. After all, if the purpose of an argument is more about effecting change than about "getting it off your chest," then choosing when and how to argue becomes a strategic necessity.
And if you would like to argue merely for the sake of arguing, just keep in mind that baseball season is in full swing … !