"Truth, Justice(s), and the Jewish Way (and the American Way)": 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah 2016 / 5777

(Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on the second day of Rosh HaShanah 2016 / 5777.  Links, references, footnotes, etc will be added later. )

This is my vote for one of the most surprising quotations of this Jewish year.  Some of you may recognize it.

He was a person of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober [colleague] laugh. [He was a person of] …. ‘energetic fervor,’ ‘astringent intellect,’ ….‘acumen,’ and ‘affability,’...  It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.
These are some of the words with which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg eulogized the man she referred to as her ‘best buddy,’ Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, after his death this past winter.

Yes, the friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg - also known as Nino and Notorious RBG- has to be one of the most unlikely friendships in history.  Ginsburg has been without any doubt the most liberal member of the court, and Scalia one of the most conservative, and the dean of the conservative school of jurisprudence in the United States.  And yet these were two people who dined together, shopped together, vacationed together.  Went to the opera together.  In tribute to their mutual love of opera, a law student wrote an opera that set selections from their opinions to music.

Scalia was once asked how he could be friends with GInsburg with whom he disagreed on EVERYTHING  - and I mean EVERYTHING.  His answer, which Ginsburg quoted in the remarks that she gave while standing by Scalia’s casket as his funeral, was this: “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people…Some very good people have some very bad ideas.”

It seems so quaint today -- like a throwback to a previous era when there was more civility in the public square - when those who had even vehement disagreements figured out a way to retain some level of peaceful interpersonal relationship.

I was recently reminded of a similar phenomenon in Jewish tradition, as I was talking with someone who had expressed interest in conversion to Judaism. I asked, as I often do: At what point did you start to think about conversion to Judaism?

This person said:  It started a couple of years ago.  I had been together with my partner who is Jewish for many years, and I was accompanying my partner to synagogue for the high holidays, at the synagogue where my partner grew up.  They were talking about how they had this brand new High Holy Day mahzor that they were using for the first time. (So let me add parenthetically that I when I heard this I got excited, because I knew that this person was probably talking about Mahzor Lev Shalem, the high holiday prayerbook that is probably in your lap right now, And I was involved in its production,  I got excited to know that somehow this Mahzor played some role in someone’s story that led them to contemplate conversion to Judaism. I was wondering - what was it about Mahzor Lev Shalem that became a powerful invitation to convert to Judaism?)
The person continued: “The thing that struck me about the Mahzor was I opened to a random page, and I looked at the commentary, and it said something like, “no one knows exactly what this verse in this passage means; it could mean this, or it could mean this, or it could mean this.’
And I thought: that is so refreshing compared to the faith in which I was raised, and my picture of what I thought a religious faith was like.  It made me think:  maybe my partner’s religious faith could become mine.”

I thought: this is surprising. What this person identified as an especially appealing characteristic of Judaism was not connected to ANY Jewish content whatsoever, but rather was connected to the WAY that the Jewish people engage in the conversation.  The content of Jewish tradition of course is important, but the medium is part of the message.  Part of the message of Judaism is this particular surprising way that we’ve been tolerating disagreement and dissent for at least 3000 years, maybe more.

Of course, not all Jews find this way of being and communicating to be  so appealing.
It’s even the punchline for some of the best known Jewish jokes.  Like the Jew shipwrecked on a desert island who builds two synagogues: This is the one I go to, and this one is the one I would never set foot in.  Or “Two Jews, three opinions.”  But it’s no joke.  I enjoy showing people the layout of a page of the Talmud, with blocks of text indicating a wide variety of different voices on the page, to permit us to see just how much disagreement there is in traditional Jewish text - that it is, in the words of British Rabbi Lionel Blue, not a book of holy answers, but a book of holy questions, even holy arguments.

It is specifically this quality of Judaism that may be exactly what the United States, and the world, need to learn from at this critical moment in our history.

You have probably seen the reports that the American population is more polarized now than ever before.   In fact there was a study in 2014 by the Pew Research Center about this - I want to share with you some of its extraordinary findings - and note that this was BEFORE this unprecedentedly contentious election season we are in right now. But even 2 years ago: More than 25% of Democrats would say- not merely that they have an unfavorable view of Republicans, but would go so far as to say that they see the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.  And more than 35% of of Republicans would say that they see the Democratic Party not merely unfavorably, but as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Of those whose voting is ‘consistently conservative,’ 50% said ‘it is important for me to live in a place where other people share my political views.’   Of those voting ‘consistently liberal,’ 35% said the same thing.  Increasing numbers of people on both sides of the electorate say they would be uncomfortable having a close friend or family member who did not share their political views. And of course we are all aware of the echo chamber phenomenon in which people with strong views in one direction or another can effectively fill their media diet exclusively with opinions with which they agree.

And about that -- Judaism has some powerful cautionary tales.

One of those cautionary tales is the story of talmudic rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, who lived in the land of Israel almost 2000 years ago.  It’s the story of two scholars who became the best of friends and study partners even though they had remarkably different backgrounds and worldviews and disagreed about almost everything.  Until the one day when they had a falling out: they were talking about how purity laws apply to weapons and armaments.  And they disagreed about a particular step in the process of making swords.
And in a joking manner, presumably, Rabbi Yohanan commented,
לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע
“Criminals know about crime.”  (To understand his comment, you have to know that Resh Lakish was a ‘second-career rabbi’ who had a first career as a petty criminal or as a gladiator, depending on your translation.) Resh Lakish was furious that his best friend in the world had brought up this element from his past from which he had so clearly moved on in his life.
He responded angrily to Rabbi Yohanan - and that was the end of the relationship. And shortly thereafter, Resh Lakish became ill.   They were not able to reconcile before Resh Lakish died of his illness. Rabbi Yohanan was inconsolable over the loss of his friend.  He could not bear the thought of returning to the study house without Resh Lakish. The other sages determined that SOMEONE should become Rabbi Yohanan’s new study partner.  They chose the finest remaining scholar for that esteemed role.  Finally Rabbi Yohanan returned to the study house.  
But whenever Rabbi Yohanan would say anything, this new partner would immediately lend support to his opinion.  The new partner became his echo chamber, leading Rabbi Yohanan to burst out in anger: “Do you think you are at all like my friend Resh Lakish?  Whenever I would say anything, Resh Lakish used to raise 24 objections, and I would have to respond with 24 rebuttals. But all you do is - agree with me!  What’s the use of that?”  Then Rabbi Yohanan stood up, tore his garments, and wept for the memory of his beloved friend.

There is a lot going on in this story.  It’s a story about friendship and embarrassment and forgiveness, and the tragic consequences of withholding forgiveness - and the tragic consequences of forgetting that we don’t live forever so we can’t put off reconciliation.  If we don’t seek reconciliation right away, we run the risk of one of the people dying before reconciliation can be achieved.  But I share the story because it is about how people who disagree can strengthen each other and be strengthened by each other.   And how bereft someone can feel in the absence of such a relationship of disagreement, once one is accustomed to it. Can you imagine the transformation that would take place in our country if THIS were the level of respect that we would  - even occasionally - give to those with whom we disagree?  My teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff has written that Jewish civilization tolerated a higher level of dissent and disagreement than any other world civilization --until the advent of the United States. It’s my prayer that on this score, that neither the United States nor Jewish tradition should regress.

One of our important biblical readings for these high holidays also reflects a Jewish perspective on what it means to be in contact with those with whom we disagree.  The largest single Biblical excerpt that we read during the high holiday season is read on Yom Kippur afternoon:  the Book of Jonah. It’s about a prophet who doesn’t quite get the Jewish way of communicating.  In fact, in the opening verse, we learn his full name, and it is fitting: he is יונה בן אמיתי  Yonah ben Amitai. Amitai means ‘my truths,’  Jonah is preoccupied with his own truths. He is, as a result, a deeply principled person, someone who will not compromise on his principles and assumptions.   It is hard for him to make room for anyone else’s perspective.  But this is his downfall.  Jonah has a strongly-held perspective on how God should impose God’s attribute of justice.  In the face of others who disagree with him, Jonah consistently withdraws.  He runs away from God; he catches a boat and withdraws from the diverse group of sailors on the ship and takes a nap. When he arrives in the city of Nineveh, that he has been instructed to convince of the errors of their ways,  he simply makes a terse announcement and then leaves the city.   Then he is furious with God when God demonstrates a forgiving nature.  In the book of Jonah, God has the last word, so we never learn if Jonah is capable of change, or if he continues to cling to his own truths. (I should note that his truths are not wrong; they are merely partial.)

So with all this talk about disagreement - and being in relationship with people who disagree with each other, even vehemently, You may be wondering:  is the rabbi going to talk about the election? Well, the answer is that I would love to, but we have a 501-c-3 tax exempt status to protect.  (In fact, one of the members of our synagogue’s board of trustees has been assigned to give me a signal if at any point he feels that our 501-c-3 status might be in jeopardy by something that I say.) It’s for that reason that even though I have quite strong feelings about this election, I am not discussing the presidential candidates in greater specificity.  I think that these guidelines appropriately make this and every congregation a meeting ground for people with different political views and who support different political candidates.  (Obviously not just regarding presidential elections, but regarding elections at every level.)   

I am, however, terribly concerned about the level and style of discourse in the United States right now.  And it leads me to urge us all - for the good of this country - regardless of our political beliefs - to go out of our way to cultivate personal relationships with those with whom we disagree.  To cultivate ‘constructive conflict’ - which is how one of my colleagues likes to translate the traditional term מחלוקת לשם שמים,  mahloket le-shem shamayim - or ‘arguments for the sake of heaven.’

Among the most famous personalities in the talmud are Hillel and Shammai, two more scholars who disagreed about everything - and who are described in Pirkei Avot as being the paradigms for מחלוקת לשם שמים-  arguments for the sake of heaven. And commentators on the talmud suggest various reasons why this might be.   What did they do right that kept their conflict being an argument for the sake of heaven?  Explanations include that they keep the conflict from getting personal - perhaps like Ginsburg and Scalia.  They are interested in getting at the truth, not in scoring debate points. And thus they are willing to concede when they get something wrong.  They have confidence tempered by humility.

You may be asking: Isn’t there a point at which someone else’s opinion is so loathsome that I don’t need to consider it anymore?  Isn’t there a point when I truly can write off someone who holds a political opinion that I do not merely object to or disagree with, but that I regard as so far beyond the pale?

To which I would respond: That point may come.  I have spoken with plenty of people on both sides of the political spectrum who say that that point is already here:  that people on the other side are so beyond the pale that I refuse to legitimize them, I would be tainting myself with their filth if I deigned to talk with them.  If you feel this way, whichever candidate you choose to vote for, please know that I absolutely hear you.
But here’s the problem:  the increasing polarization in this country will not get better by itself.
I am not recommending this because I think it’s easy or because I think it’s going to lead to everyone cultivating beautiful friendships and singing Kumbaya together.  I am recommending it only because -- as a Jew and an American and a human being --  I don’t see the alternative.

Being in relationship with those with whom we disagree, at the very least, helps us understand where the other is coming from and helps us to strengthen our own arguments.  And from time to time it has the power to broaden our perspective and to broaden the perspective of the other, even when the disagreement remains. For just one example: An advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement SHOULD spend some time talking with police about their experiences and the difficulties of their jobs.  Just as opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement SHOULD hear the stories of African-Americans who feel they receive differential treatment by law enforcement.  Or another example:  I am proud to invest a lot of my time, energy and resources as a strong supporter of Israel.  And some of the most exciting organizations in Israel right now are organizations that encourage dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.  Like, for example, an organization called Roots, founded by my cousin, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who is an Orthodox rabbi living in the West Bank, and one of his neighbors, a Palestinian activist named Ali Abu Awwad.  This group is founded specifically to promote peaceful dialogue between West Bank Jewish settlers and West Bank Palestinians. And if they can manage to have peaceful dialogue, is there anyone who can’t?  

It’s too easy to hold strongly-held beliefs without checking if your beliefs can hold up under a little push-back from a respectful adversary. That’s what we learn from Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish -- and the entirety of the talmudic tradition.  And in fact, one of the ways we can demonstrate that someone’s strongly held beliefs are ill-advised -- is if someone refuses to allow those beliefs to be subjected to scrutiny.

In my opinion the greatest contribution that Judaism can make to American life -- is in modeling productive disagreement.  Not that the Jewish community always does it well. Sometimes we have failed miserably.   Just this past Friday, at the funeral for Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, Israel’s president Reuben Rivlin spoke heartfelt words of apology, taking note of an ugly period of Israeli and Jewish history - when this guideline was neglected. Rivlin said:  “We must ask your forgiveness. It was permitted to disagree with you. Your opponents had a duty to express their opinion. However, there were years in which red lines were crossed between ideological disputes and words and deeds which had no place. You always acted according to what you believed with all you heart was best for the people, whom you served.”  Rivlin’s words remind us of the very real fact that incitement to violence sometimes does lead to violence.   And this is yet another reason why communication that rejects violence - even when that communication is contentious - is so much better than any alternative.

I’ve spoken before about the process that led to the mahzor getting the name ‘Lev Shalem’ meaning ‘a whole heart.’ It’s a phrase used at various points in the High Holiday prayers - including in the amidah with reference to a dream that the entire world, all of creation, could come together in an agudah achat - in one collective - to do God’s will בלבב שלם  be-levav shalem -  with a whole heart - which has to mean from context ‘with a heart that is united with the hearts of others.’

Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein, one of the great sages of the 19th century Lithuanian Jewish community, once commented that it is peculiar that at a couple of places at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, including in the torah reading that we will read this coming shabbat,
That the torah is referred to as השירה הזאת  ha-shirah hazot - this song. Yes, we sing the torah when we chant it, but does that make the torah a song?

Rabbi Epstein said: (and it will not surprise you that as a choir conductor I really like this interpretation:) The torah is like a song, because just as a song is made most beautiful - when people are singing in harmony - singing different notes and different lines, but in a well-coordinated manner - so too the torah is most beautiful not when everyone understands it in exactly the same way, but when different people hold a variety of interpretations.  The torah is most beautiful when people disagree about it.

As a result, for centuries, Jews have tried to make disagreement quite literally into an art form. Of course, disagreements CAN resemble a beautiful piece of music --  or disagreements CAN resemble a cacophony of yelling and screaming and even, God forbid, acts of violence.  Which it is - depends in part on our comfort level, on the extent to which we have developed the learned skill to disagree with others and yet to remain connected to them.  At the very least, we can agree with Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg who were united in their belief that “some very good people have some very bad ideas.”

I do fear for this country quite literally - regardless of the outcome of the election. There will be a lot of healing to be done. God willing we can come back here next Rosh HaShanah and say ‘the Jewish year 5777 was a year of peace and security and unity for the United States and for the world.’ If in fact we can say that, it will ONLY be because of the strength of bonds between those who disagree with each other.

May we fulfill the words of our Mahzor ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם ve-yei’asu kulam agudah achat la’asot retzoncha be-levav shalem.
May all be bound together in one bond, To do the Divine will with a full heart.


Popular posts from this blog

What happened to Haman's descendants?

Two words for "husband": Haftarah Bamidbar

Talking peacefully? (Parashat Vayeshev 5784 / 2023)