On Civil Discourse

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This originally appeared in the June/July 2015 Temple Emanuel Bulletin

Friends, I write to you from a place of fear.  I speak not of the fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb striking Israel (a very real fear, especially given Iran’s support of Hezbollah), but rather the fear of the fissures rippling through the American Jewish community based upon evolving impressions of the State of Israel and a fear of her future.  In the past several months I have seen people who I know, respect, and love as my neighbor, yell at and show disrespect for their fellow Jews over differences of opinion about our Jewish homeland.  I fear that the foundations upon which our Jewish community stand are eroding with each attack, with each quip on Facebook, and with each online article that further drives a wedge into our community.

The Talmud teaches us that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of baseless hatred, sinat chinam (Bavli Gittin 55 A).  We learn that after a misunderstanding between two members of the community, one who saught forgiveness and one who wouldn’t forgive, that the Rabbis who witnessed the enounter didn’t raise their voice as the moral compass for the people of Israel, reminding us that God commands us to forgive and act kindly toward each other.  As such, it was assumed that the rabbis permitted people to treat each other with hatred rather than with compassion and understanding.

This Talmud passage quotes Proverbs, “Happy is the man that always fears; but he that hardens his heart shall fall into evil (24:14).”  As a Jewish people we have been taught to fear the other; since our inception we have been persecuted, subjugated, enslaved, and slaughtered.  We vow never again will we allow our people to suffer the same fate and we turn to the State of Israel as our hope in this eternal fight.  Yet our communal discourse has shifted from expressing our fear to sinat chinam, hardening our hearts like Pharoah who grew so afraid that he sacrificed his own people to save his empire.

Unlike the rabbis in the Talmud, who didn’t speak up when they witnessed a moral transgression, we must speak up.  Arguments that began expressing fear and evolved into pure hate must stop.  We, Am Yisrael, the people People of Israel, are a small people, bound together by an everlasting covenant to love our neighbors and not to do to others what is hateful to ourselves.  We must never compromise the essence of Judaism because we are afraid.

Everyone, Jew and non-Jew, American and Israeli, French and Russian should fear those who espouse hatred of the Jewish people obtaining the worst method of destruction known to mankind.  Even if we disagree about how to prevent this situation from becoming a reality, we cannot continue acting with such sinat chinam toward each other, or else we have allowed our enemy to denotate a much more toxic weapon within our Jewish community.  We must find a way to speak with compassion, with love, and understanding and to heal our community, heal our hearts, and continue to be a light to the nations.

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