How We Talk

How We Talk-Kol Nidre 2015

A famous passage from the Talmud discusses a debate between the school of Rabbi Hillel and the school of Rabbi Shammai. One side says that the law is according to its view, while the other says that its view is the correct one. Something amazing happens. A voice comes down from heaven and interrupts the debate.

Think about how cool that would be. You are in a discussion with someone outside Starbucks or Panera. The other person adamantly disagrees with you. He or she will not be moved by your best argument. But suddenly, a light comes down from the cloud above you, and a voice, probably a deep one, comes down, and says “actually Bob is right, the stock market will be going up, or actually Steve is right, the New York Yankees really are pure evil.”

However, in the story in the Talmud, the voice does not simply say which side is right. Rather, it states that both sides are saying the words of the living God. “Both are the worlds of the living God.”

This is a powerful section of the Talmud. It suggests that, when people disagree, there can be truth in both views, not just one. There can be something holy about what they both are saying. Even more than that, the conversation itself can be holy. Please notice that the text does not tell us about what the two groups are arguing. It could be about anything. The topic does not matter. What matters is that it is a good, holy conversation. This debate is described in the tradition as a positive one, called a debate “for the sake of heaven.”

The text goes on to let us know that the voice from heaven does say whose opinion should be treated as the law. But this is not determined by who made the smartest argument, who said the snarkiest remarks, or even who is most respected. Rather, the school of Hillel’s view is chosen as the law because they tended to be kind to others. They would also start a discussion by presenting the views of the people with whom they were debating before expressing their own.

In light of this story, tonight, I would like to explore the possibility of elevating our speech in the Jewish community, both locally in Des Moines and on a national level.

Elevation of our speech is necessary since something has seemed to have changed over the years. Our discussions have become harsher. Kindness seems to have been forgotten. Our dialogue seems to have taken on the shape of segments on cable news. People express their opinions fiercely. At the same time, they seem to listen to others less and less. We also see that people would rather attack the character of the person who disagrees with them instead of responding to the argument the person is making. Some individuals seem to think that it is appropriate to yell or scream and try to silence others. As many of you know, there have been moments when I have fallen into this mode, and they are some of the moments I most regret.

We particularly see these dynamics emerging around certain issues, Israel in particular. The amount of anger that comes out can be flabbergasting. Accusations of disloyalty to Israel and the Jewish people as a whole are flung around the room. I realize that this is a moment of anxiety, and it feels that Israel is at a precipice, but I cannot see how it is helpful for Jewish people to take out their worry or anger on other Jews. I am still taken aback when people in our community discuss liberal Jewish organizations like JStreet in tones reserved for enemies of the State of Israel like Hezbollah and Hamas. Or when some Jews describe more conservative institutions as if they are corrupt establishments with no conscience. I find myself thinking about what I was told when I asked an AIPAC staff person how they respond to JStreet. She said “Why would we want to criticize another pro-Israel organization?” In the same way, why would we want to criticize other Jews when talking about the challenges we all face?

I worry about this shift in how we talk for a number of reasons. First of all, as a supporter of Israel, I am concerned that we lose potential activists for Israel since they may be turned off by the tone of current discussions. No one likes to be yelled at, and most people would prefer to be around positive environments and causes. This problem is even more concerning in our day since it is so easy to opt out of being involved in the Jewish community and Jewish causes. We do not live in shtetls. No one is going to be stoned for not observing Shabbat or attending a particular event. There are so many positive options of things in which people can engage that we better be very concerned how they feel treated when encountering Jewish communal life.

In addition, I am concerned since our current environment is not like the Jewish environment in which I grew up. I was taught that we Jews question everything…everything. Abraham even questions God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I have seen how this openness to questioning in Judaism can attract people to convert. They want to be in a community in which questions are not only tolerated, but are seen as a necessary part of faith.

And lastly, I just do not think the approach of yelling down others is going to work in a Jewish community.  You can’t muzzle a Jewish community. We just do not work that way. We never have. We have always had disagreements and arguments. Basically, disagreements or differences in opinion are not the problem; how we treat each other when engaging in them is.

Part of this shift in how we talk has been pushed along by the emergence of the internet, and particularly social media. People seem even more emboldened to say nasty things online.  They take advantage of the relative anonymity of comment sections on various websites to let loose their yetzer hara, or evil instinct. They say the most disgusting and insulting things about people they have never even met. They just let loose, fire away, and hit the send button.  But, in even less anonymous contexts, we see this type of behavior. I am not sure if anyone has had this experience, but I have had awful arguments flare up on my Facebook account between people from totally different parts of my life. It is like a bad dream when I find a congregant, an ex-girlfriend, and someone I happened to meet a coffee shop furiously arguing with each other about a posting that I thought was a rather neutral topic. And since I am the only one who knows them all, I am the only one that knows they are all kind people who have good intentions that would actually like each other in a different context. It just seems like much unnecessary heat and drama.

At the same time, I believe in the importance of debate and discussion in a Jewish community. I think it is vitally important. Please notice that in the story, the heavenly voice says that both sides of the debate are “the words of the living God.” In the end, the law follows the side that is kinder. But the voice does not say that the school Hillel and the school of Shammai should never argue. I am calling for more debate in this community, not less. Sharing differing opinions is not the problem; speaking to each other without kindness when doing so is.

How would you finish the following sentence, “If you have two Jews, you have _____.” We Jews have a lot of opinions. I think this is a good thing. It helps fuel our ability to be innovative and make better decisions as a community. It is worthwhile to put in some thought about how we express these opinions, but we do not want fewer ones to be shared.

In light of some past events in the community, unity and togetherness seemed to become the primary goal of the community. I understand why people craved this after past conflict. However, diversity in thought in a Jewish community is something that should be desired, even in a community our size. Simply put, different people like different things.

This value of honoring different viewpoints should be seen in the structure of the community itself.  Having multiple institutions with different viewpoints allows more people to get their needs met and be involved. I have heard members of the community complain about the number of Jewish institutions in Des Moines, but I have never heard them complain that there are too many restaurants, movie theaters, or gyms. People seem like to have choices here, but not when it comes to their Judaism. I worry that our Jewish community could become flatter, more uniform, and therefore, less vibrant.  But, I think we want a community not only financially secure , but one rich in diversity, rich in culture, rich in passion, and rich in thought. This type of community requires an acceptance of different views and some intense debate. It also requires much love for each other. Sharing differing opinions is not the problem; speaking to each other without kindness when doing so is.

I believe we can have disagreements that are based in belief, not ego nor anger. I look forward to the time that diversity in our Jewish community is seen as a form of strength, vitality, growth, and depth. I believe can return to a time when we are not bothered by two Jews having three opinions. When discussion and debate, even around Israel, is not only allowed, but encouraged. When we do not feel like there has to be only one voice on everything.

But this will take a renewed emphasis on respect and love for one’s neighbor. We can treat each better. We can treat each other with greater honor and respect. It will also require courage, courage to say to a neighbor who seems to have forgotten the need to show respect, “I understand that you are passionate about this issue. You make great points. But we do not talk that way, that’s not us. That is not who we want to be.”

We can reverse these trends. We can prevent a community known for being open from becoming closed. Judaism has historically has great openness to questions, discussion, and debate. Do we want to lose what is so valuable? I do not think so. If the house of Hillel and the house of  Shammai could have debates for the sake of heaven, so can we.

Speaker: Rabbi Edelman-Blank

Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank has been the rabbi of Tifereth Israel Synagogue since 2009. He received his Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Previously, Rabbi Edelman-Blank graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. His eclectic experience includes interning at Burbank Temple Emanu El in Burbank, California, directing youth programs at Congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assisting with research in the field of psychology at Boston University, serving in AmeriCorps and an array of community service. His passions lie in community development and making Torah meaningful in our daily lives.