In case you missed it (or if you want to read it after hearing it, here’s my sermon from Yom Kippur. If you prefer to listen, visit here:
To paraphrase William Shakespeare: I come to bury this election, not to praise it.
More precisely, I wish not to not actually discuss the upcoming election itself, but instead I want to talk about how we talk about this election. It goes without saying, I hope, that it is our mandate to take part in democracy and to vote; it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to do so. We should educate ourselves in order to make make informed choices in our voting—for President and for all other state and local decisions for which we have the opportunity to vote. I could speak this High Holidays about that idea, about how it’s a very Jewish idea, but that is not what I wish to address this morning, nor what I feel I need to address.
Last week, Rabbi Robinson spoke about our need to listen—to radically listen. And I affirm that need. Today I want to add the sequel to that sermon, and talk about how we respond. Yes, surely, we need to listen, but I also believe that we sometimes have a need to engage in discussion—to have dialogue—to share our own story, even as we hear the story of another. When Rabbi Robinson and I sat down months ago to discuss our sermons, we realized that we each had themes that were both distinct and connected. And that both were vital to this Holy Day season. And so, we decided to each give our sermon both to stand alone, and also to be offered as a larger message in 2 parts. On Rosh Hashanah—how do we hear. And on Yom Kippur—how do we engage in conversation.
And I fear that we’ve forgotten how.
A few months ago, someone who is on my friend list on Facebook but I do not know personally, posted something in support of a candidate, espousing views which are counter to Jewish values as I understand them. Knowing that this person takes his Judaism seriously, I questioned him about it—wanting to understand his approach—how the same set of text and tradition could lead us to vastly different conclusions. Knowing that the other side of any issue generally comes from a place as honest and real as our own, I sought to understand. By the end of the conversation, after being called a bully, overly nosey, self-righteous, and told I was only asking the question to feel superior, I came to the conclusion that it is so rare for us to talk to people with opposing viewpoints, about those opposing viewpoints, that it had somehow become natural to assume that my purpose was one of negativity. When did we forget how to have a conversation about ideas that are different from our own? Or forget that doing so could be a positive act?
I am not claiming that we should agree with everyone. I am not saying that we should not make known our opinions and stand up for them and for what we believe is right. I am not saying that a leader’s words or behaviors should not be brought to light. But what I am saying is that we can do all that with a sense of civility.
I have lost count of how many comments I’ve heard in person or read on social media, disparaging supporters of the other candidate—comments that come from supporters of multiple candidates. I have, at this point, taken for granted that many of my Clinton and Trump and Johnson and Stein and Sanders supporting friends will almost undoubtedly unfriend and possibly block people who believe another way. Almost daily, I see messages posted about how another person was blocked because of their viewpoints. I hear stories about how family members aren’t speaking to each other until after November and of relationships destroyed. And I’ve seen and heard in countless conversations, a shutting down of disparate opinions and a digression towards playground taunts.
I understand the need to create spaces for ourselves in which we can feel safe—and I appreciate the need to remove ourselves from individuals who cause us hurt—or to avoid people whose responses may lead us towards behaviors or words that we want to ourselves avoid. But, that said, it saddens me that so much of the disagreement that causes that reaction is so full of hatred and anger in the first place that it brings people to the point of wanting to avoid any conversation at all. It saddens me that too many conversations about important ideas devolve into personal attacks being thrown at each other—and towards the leaders and potential leaders of this country. All too often, even between those leaders.
I find it hard to believe that this is the discourse of democracy that our founding fathers sought. And, assuming that the early cabinet meetings weren’t actually rap battles, I believe that when they discussed ideas that were diametrically opposed, that they did so with a sense of respect for each other’s ideas. They did so with a sense of respect for each other. They debated, but with due honor. In recent months, I do not see that this is how this election is being discussed—in recent weeks, I do not see this in the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates.
I do not believe that this is an issue that is unique to this country or to the topic of politics. But this election has made it more than evident that as a society, we’ve lost the art of discourse—the ability, or at least the willingness, to engage in respectful disagreement. No, not always, and no, not all of us. But like we read the Vidui, the confessional prayer with the collective “We,” we are all part of the society that has forgotten how to disagree. And we have all taken part in some part of this—even if only as a bystander.
Perhaps we need a communal vidui for this season, an Ashamnu for this Age, An acrostic of our society’s behavior during this election cycle:
We all have committed offenses; together we confess these human sins: The sins of Abrasiveness, Body Shaming, Callousness, Disregard, a lack of Empathy, Failing to see injustice, and Gaslighting. The sins of senseless Hatred, Insensitivity to the suffering of others, being Judgmental, Kicking out those who are different, Letting fear eclipse reason, Mocking people because of differences, Numbness to tragedies, Othering, and abuse of Privilege. Of Questioning the intelligence of people because we disagree with them, Racism, and Sexism. Of Tolerance of injustice, Using shame as a weapon, and Violence in words and in deeds. Of Willingness to believe whatever we read, Xenophobia, Yelling, and Zoning out when we should be paying attention.
And indeed, I pray, that God will forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement. But we know that we are only granted that Divine forgiveness when we have done t’shuvah. When we have turned ourselves around from the wrongs we have done, made right what we may have made wrong, and determine to be different in the future.
And I do believe we can change—each of us and all of us, and those beyond these walls. We can change the course of discourse in our time. And, indeed, that is what the ideals of Judaism teach us we must do.
We see this in Rabbinic Literature in the relationship between Hillel and Shammai. If these names are new to you, they are both rabbis who lived around the year 0. The most important thing to know about them is that they disagreed. A lot. The Talmud includes more than 350 examples of disagreements between them or, later, between their followers: The House of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai). They were known for their disagreement in their own time and through history. In fact, Hillel Street and Shammai Street in Jerusalem are parallel to each other—like the ideologies of their namesakes, the 2 never meet. But, despite their differences, these men and their followers showed loved and friendship towards each other—the followers of one school would even marry the followers of the other. Their disagreements are viewed as being for the sake of Heaven—having lasting value. They were both attempting to find truth—to interpret the tradition in the way that each felt was best to meet the needs of their generation. And they both listened to each other and honored each others’ opinions.
The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) tells a story about a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that lasted 3 years. Each side insisting that their way was the right way. For 3 years: “The law is in agreement with our views.” NO! “The law is in agreement with our views.” Until finally, there came a Bat Kol —a Divine Echo, a Heavenly voice. Essentially, the rabbinic version of Deus Ex Machina. And what did this Bat Kol say? “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim. These and these are the words of the Living God.”
What a concept. The notion that our ideas and interpretations are, themselves, Divine Speech is itself profound, as is the idea that Divine Revelation is ever-present and continuing. But that 2 different interpretations—2 opposing opinions—are equally Divine is astounding. Both sides are equally true. Perhaps because both sides exist, there is an even greater truth.
But then the Voice goes on: But the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel.
From this, we learn that sometimes, the discussion has to come to an end—there has to be a conclusion. We can’t argue forever. And the question we may be asking ourselves as we hear this, is asked and answered in the very next line of Talmud: If both these and these are the words of the Living God, then why does the Law become fixed according to the views of Beit Hillel? It is because they were kind and gracious. And they taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from Beit Shammai. And not only that, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.
It is hard to imagine a world that is built on this value: of kindness and graciousness being the deciding factors in the choice of authority. And in which those who are chosen teach the ideas of those who are not, even before they teach their own. And in which it is understood and appreciated that the Truth of one can be as True as the Truth of another.
There is a concept in Rabbinic Literature that there are several practices that are accepted mipnei darchei shalom: For the sake of the paths of peace. These practice are all things that set up to prevent disagreements between people; avoid unfairness or unintended hurt, especially for those who are vulnerable; and to avoid disputes between members within and outside of the community. What is interesting about this phrase is that it speaks of darchei shalom, the paths of peace, and not derech shalom, the path of peace. The very language teaches us that there are multiple paths towards peace, and that it is because of those different paths that wholeness can exist. To disagree is not bad—it is necessary and even good. But our disagreement must include paths towards wholeness, and not roadblocks which keep this world divided—instead of fragmented pieces, we must work towards peace.
Perhaps the Bat Kol ended the years long debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, mine darchei shalom. Perhaps, for this same reason, we can begin to change the way we disagree in our own age.
Perhaps we can have arguments that are for the Sake of Heaven. Have the recognition that these words and these words are both the words of the Living God. That while we take many different paths, those paths all can move towards peace. And that we realize that the person on the other side of a debate on an issue that we hold dear, is equally passionate about wanting a better world. None of this is easy. But we are Yisra-el—the people who wrestle with God. Disagreement is in our name and is an element of our very essence. And so, let us do t’shuvah together—and turn ourselves away from the destructive discussions, full of disrespect. And turn towards building a society in which our conversations can include both disagreement and respectful discourse.
I dream of a time when it isn’t newsworthy to see a joyful embrace between the First Lady and a past president, even though they are from 2 different political parties. I dream of a time when there are more friendships like that between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I dream of a time when parents do not need to question if their children are old enough to watch a presidential debate. I dream of a time when we can discuss challenging topics with those with whom we fundamentally disagree—and do so with respect. I dream of a time when we do not disparage others, neither because of their beliefs nor because of their difference. I dream of a time when in disagreements and debates, we talk to each other and not at each other. I dream of a time when we recognize not only that the words of 2 sides of disagreement can both be the Words of the Living God, but that the people on both sides of the disagreement are both made in the Image of God. I dream of a time in which together, we travel the paths of peace.
I believe that this dream is possible. But it is up to us to build it. We can begin by taking the smallest of steps, and consider how we can change our own conversations and our own responses to different ideas. And at the end of the evening on November 8, may we hear through the buzz of reports of who won each election, a Bat Kolending this argument, and reminding us that the paths of peace are right in front of us, for us to step towards healing and wholeness.