Friday, September 25, 2015

Debate, or Sinat Hinam?

Debate, or Sinat Hinam?

Kol Nidrei, 5776
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
[PDF to be available on soon]

For the past few months, there has been a debate raging within the Jewish community, centered on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as “The Iran Deal.” I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you what a significant, prominent and divisive issue this has been. My Facebook page, my inbox and all of my news sources have at times seemed to be nothing except a constant stream of arguments for and against this deal.

At the same time, another less important, but still relevant debate has been going on among the rabbis that I know: whether to speak about The Deal during these High Holy Days. There are some who felt that not speaking about the deal was ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room — that this deal, and this moment, were too important to ignore. There were others who felt that this issue was far too controversial and divisive, especially for the holiest day of our year. And, as is often the case, I found both of these views to be compelling. Talking about the deal seems just as unacceptable as not talking about it.

One thing that was clear to most of us, and certainly to me, is that none of us rabbis have any business talking about the merits of the deal itself. I have not told anyone, from this bimah, whether they should support or oppose this deal. Now that the deal has been accepted, I most certainly will not tell you whether you should be happy about it. As a rabbi, my job is to teach Torah, and although the definition of Torah is astoundingly broad, there are limits. And, I think that we’ve hit those limits here. Think about what, precisely, has been under debate.

Although it’s easy to miss this, there has actually been essentially zero debate over whether Iran is dangerous, or whether we should be worried about Iran getting access to nuclear weapons. It is, and we should. No, the debate has been almost entirely about the best way to prevent or delay that reality. It’s been about whether sanctions can continue to have a meaningful effect on the Iranian regime. It’s been about whether the inspection protocols put forth in the deal can be effective at preventing Iran from moving towards weapons capability. And so on. No, this debate isn’t Torah. It isn’t about philosophy or morals; it’s about tactics and technicalities. And, for me to think that, because I’m a rabbi with a literal and figurative pulpit, I know any more than any of you do about those matters would be arrogant beyond measure. All I know is what I’ve read in the exact same sources to which you have access. For you to think that what I have to say about inspection protocols and breakout times is worth considering would be nothing short of insanity. And, for me to use this pulpit to try to tell you what you should think about this deal, based on the merits of the deal itself, would be a betrayal of the trust placed in me by this congregation. I’m not going to do that.

What I do feel qualified to talk about is not the substance of the debate, but the quality of the debate. Not the content of what we’re saying to each other, but the way in which we’re speaking. Not what we’ve said, but how we’ve talked. And, how we’ve argued. And, if I can be honest, I’d have to say that there’s few of us who should be proud of ourselves. This debate has brought out the absolute worst of our community. I don’t mean the worst people, obviously. I mean the worst of our traits. It’s brought out anger, and recriminations, and partisanship, and what I can only describe as brutish, unthinking nastiness, the likes of which I can’t remember ever seeing before in the Jewish community in my lifetime.

I’ve heard those who oppose the deal referred to as warmongers. As beholden to Israel or, more perniciously, to Israel-focused monied interests. As blind, unthinking followers of the far-right. And I’ve heard those who support the deal described as terrorists, albeit unintentional terrorists. As people who are finishing the work of the Nazis. As supporters of Radical Islam over Israel. As anti-Zionist, self-hating, nearly brain-dead Jews. I could go on and on, but, quite frankly, I don’t have the stomach for it. The way that members of the Jewish community have been talking about those who see this differently from themselves has been nothing short of disgusting.

I don’t expect us to agree on this deal. I don’t expect us to agree on anything, to be honest. That’s okay — we are an argumentative people, and always have been. We all know the old saw about “two Jews, three opinions.” Anyone who’s ever studied Talmud, or anything else in Judaism, knows that there is more than a grain of truth to that. We’ve always believed that vigorous, serious argumentation is the best way to help us understand complicated truths. Which, most of the time, is the only kind of truth there is — complicated. A friend of mine once told me about an old Jewish man he knew who used to greet people with a smile on his face and a hearty, “sit down — let’s have an argument!” This love of arguing is probably one of the reasons that there are so many Jewish lawyers. This is who we are.

But, we’re not just supposed to be people who argue. We’re supposed to be people who argue well. And, respectfully. That’s who we are. We’re supposed to hold ourselves up as a model of how to argue.

The most famous Jewish arguers of all-time were the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud is filled with accounts of their constant back-and-forth. And, in nearly every single case, Hillel won out over Shammai. And so, the sages of the Talmud ask why Hillel wins so much. The reason that we’re given has nothing to do with the logical precision of his arguments, or the passion behind them. No, it’s because Hillel was kindly and humble, and he made sure to listen — to truly listen — to what Shammai had to say. And, he would even teach Shammai’s opinion before teaching his own[1]. Hillel respected Shammai and, just as importantly, respected what Shammai was trying to say. We’re told that Hillel’s approach is the definition of a mahloket l’shem shamayim—an argument in the name of heaven. That’s our model — an argument made in the name of heaven, which is by definition an argument made in respectful, sacred form. It’s not what position we hold, but how we hold to it. It’s how we engage with others with whom we disagree. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be passion, and even some fire. But, respect — for the person and for the view they hold — must be our starting point. Always.

There are people to respect on all sides of this debate. I don’t say that rhetorically. I personally know smart, thoughtful, knowledgeable, passionately Zionist people who support this deal. And, I personally know smart, thoughtful, knowledgeable, passionately Zionist people who oppose this deal. For God’s sake, there are former high-level generals in the Israeli army and top officers in the Israeli intelligence services on both sides of this debate! Is anyone really going to sit here and say that some of them are stupid, or disloyal?

Some people sitting here tonight passionately support this deal, and I genuinely assume that you do so because you love Israel, and you love America, and you fear a nuclear Iran. And, some people sitting here tonight passionately oppose this deal, and I genuinely assume that you do so because you love Israel, and you love America, and you fear a nuclear Iran. I have my opinions about this deal, although they’re far from black and white. And, if you ask me about them some other time, I’m happy to talk about them with you. But only if you assume that I love Israel, and I love America, and I fear a nuclear Iran. Because I do. In that, we all stand together.

In that, we all stand together.

And, we’d better. We’d better stand together. Because, whether or not we want to be, we are in this together. That’s one point made by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his book Fate and Destiny. Although we don’t always realize it, all Jews are bound together in one fate. Whenever we try and separate from each other, sooner or later, usually sooner, someone else comes around and reminds us that we are really connected. And, it’s not someone who loves us who accomplishes that. Like it or not, like him or her or not, like me or not, we are in this together. So, we’d better start acting like it.

Because, when we stop remembering that, when we let hatred infect and consume our community, then we’re doing a better job of destroying our community than Iran could ever dream of. Together, we survived the Romans, and we survived the Nazis, and, together, we will survive Iran. But, riven by hatred? That thought makes me deeply afraid.

The rabbis teach that the first Temple was destroyed because of our multitude of sins, which included idolatry, adultery and murder. But, the second Temple was destroyed because of one sin —sinat chinam, senseless hatred. Why would the rabbis seem to say that senseless hatred is equivalent of those other heinous transgressions? Certainly, they can’t be called morally equivalent. But, in its way, sinat chinam is more dangerous to the community, because it leads to a dissolution of our ranks. It leads to a crumbling of the foundation upon which our entire community is built. Which is why it had to result in the crumbling of our Temple — what better symbolism could there be? Without the mortar which binds us one to the other, how could we possibly continue to sustain a place of holiness? Bricks unjoined by mortar bring down buildings. People not bound one to the other bring down communities. That’s the power of sinat chinam.

This isn’t just about politics; it works in every level of our lives. Look at our own backyard — this congregation. Every person here disagrees with something that goes on here; no one is completely happy with everything, ever. That’s good; that’s healthy. But, how we go about addressing those concerns isn’t always. And that’s tragic, because how we talk about our differences here matters infinitely more than those differences themselves, or their practical resolutions. When you disagree with how we worship, or how we communicate, or how we raise money, or how I speak, you’re engaged in disagreement. Good. Welcome to the Jewish community.

But, when we gather in the lobby to kvetch in huddled whispers, when we spread lies and misinformation, when we stoke other people’s anger rather than try and calm it, we’re not engaged in disagreement. We’re engaged in sinat chinam. And that only leads to pain, and more sinat chinam.

This happens in our families, as well. You probably just thought of a few dozen examples, so I don’t need to say any more.

It even happens with our own selves. We so often forget the danger of sinat chinam directed inwardly. We owe ourselves kindness and respect, as surely as we owe it to each other. That’s so important remember at this season of teshuvah. We have to learn to forgive our own flaws, and to lovingly push ourselves to be better. But, only lovingly. Until we do that, until we can be kind and loving to ourselves, how can we expect to extend that same kindness, that same grace, to our families, to our fellow members, and to our fellow Jews? Sinat chinam begins and ends in our hearts. That’s the transgression we need to be repenting of tonight, in so many ways.

Yes, the Iran deal has me very afraid. The thought of not having a deal makes me afraid, as well. I am terrified about what it will mean if and when Iran gets nuclear weapons. But, I’m also terribly, terribly afraid about what kind of community we will have, whether or not that ever happens. I’m not a Pollyanna, but history has shown that we can survive anything. Even a nuclear Iran. However, we can’t survive anything without each other. We can’t survive while sinat chinam rots away our very foundation.

The sage known as the Meor Enayim, while teaching about teshuvah[2] reminds us of the teaching that every Jew corresponds to one individual letter in the Torah. And, of course, we know that removing one letter from a Torah scroll renders the entire thing pasul—invalid, and unfit for use. We are each a letter in a larger scroll. Without each of us, without all of us together, we’ve already lost our potential for holiness. We need each other. We need each and every one of us. Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, pro-deal, anti-deal, uncertain. Classical Reform, neo-traditionalist, spiritualist, secularist. Each and every one. Let us each bring our one letter to the scroll. Together, let’s write something sacred. Together, let’s be something sacred.

This sermon was delivered on Kol Nidrei, 5776 (September 22, 2015) at Congregation Beth Am

[1] Actually, this teaching referred to the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, not the rabbis themselves. I changed it here to keep the language simpler.
[2] Parashat Vayelech

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