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Chaos or Community?

Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz

Wednesday, October 6, will go down as one of the most shameful days in our nation’s history.  Seeing the chambers of our Capitol invaded and sacked, desecrated in broad daylight, is something we will never forget.

I texted my 20-something year old daughters on Wednesday afternoon –

“Can you believe what’s happening in the Capitol?” I asked.

“Yes” replied the first.

“Sad that I can believe it,” wrote the second.

As my daughters’ responses indicated, the fact of the matter is that the horror and shock we experienced at the images of our nation’s capital being invaded by a mob of dangerous thugs, was entirely to be predicted.  It was a natural evolution of the incendiary and outrageous provocations coming from the highest office in our land, stoking vitriol, mistrust and what our tradition calls sinat hinam, senseless hatred.

It was in fact so predictable, that Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of California, called her husband Tuesday night to tell him where her will is in case anything was to happen to her on Wednesday.  As she said herself, “It’s a sad day in American when you are trying to come in and do your job in a democracy and you have to think about things like that.”

Another Congressman, Jason Crow, who served 3 tours of duty with the Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he never thought he would have to defend himself in our own nation’s Capitol.

In the Talmud, the rabbis say that it was sinat hinam, this same brand of senseless hatred we are experiencing today, that led to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  We translate sinat hinam as senseless hatred, but in today’s world our cancel culture is an apt equivalent.  We cancel people when their views differ from ours, when they vote differently than we do, or even when their brand of news is different than ours.

The Talmud provides us with an antidote to sinat hinam.  This antidote is even embodied in the form the Talmud takes, with both majority and minority opinions preserved on the very same page.  It is a well-known fact that the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai never saw eye to eye about anything.  Even today in Jerusalem, there is a Hillel street and a Shammai street and they never intersect with each other!

In a celebrated passage in the Talmud in tractate Eruvin (13b), we read:  “R’ Abba stated in the name of Samuel:  For 3 years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The halacha is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The halacha is in agreement with our views.’  Then a bat kol - a heavenly voice - issued announcing, ‘These and these are the words of the living God, but the halacha is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.’  Since however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halacha fixed in agreement with their rulings?  Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai.  Not only this, but they even even mentioned the words of Beit Shammai before theirs.”

Rather than demonizing or canceling out Shammai, Hillel dignified his opponent by listing his opinions and even recording them before his own.  By instructing that Jewish law follows Hillel, the text teaches us that Jewish tradition honors those who are humble enough to take into account the aspirations, concerns and needs of the other in order to engage in creative problem solving and shared public life.  By saying “these and these” (“elu v’elu”) are the words of the living God, we learn of the cherished tradition of understanding the Torah as multi-vocal – sometimes even contradictory.  Our blueprint is not narrow but widely interpreted, understood broadly, and perhaps even ungraspable in its ultimate truth.  Part of being a good Jew, and I would say a good human being, is recognizing and embracing our own limitations and uncertainty, having the humility to know that we cannot know everything.

Just imagine if we infused even a little of that humility, of those listening skills, and abiding respect for the other in our civil discourse.  Hillel and Shammai often disagreed about whether something was pure or impure, which often involved food that was permitted or forbidden, but they never stopped eating at each other’s homes.  They remained in relationship despite their differences.  They didn’t hide behind their books and opinions but looked each other in the eye even as they disagreed.

My hope and prayer for our country is that we move forward to a place where we once again honor each other and maybe even celebrate our differences.  It is our differences that strengthen and enrich us.  Here at Temple Beth Sholom we hope to foster that civil discourse and honest conversation with two programs we are sponsoring this month.  The first is A Jewish Response to Black Lives Matter, which has been an incendiary topic among Jews today.  The program will be this coming Wednesday, January 13th at 6:00 pm on zoom.  The second will be the following week on Tuesday, January 19th at 5:30 pm, where we will watch a short film called Purple, in which civil dialogue among those with opposing opinions is modeled and we will learn techniques for better listening and understanding of people with whom we disagree.  We need to learn how to listen not to convince the other about how right we are, but to understand the why behind another’s position and maybe even learn something from them.

Rabbi Yosef Kanesky teaches: “Every hand that we don’t shake must be a phone call that we place.  Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.  Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other should the need arise.”

We have our work cut out for us.

Let us each commit in this new year to shaking more hands, being better listeners, slower to judge, and quicker to embrace.  May we be among those to restore our community and our country to a place of civility, respect and conversation.  Let us respond to sinat hinam, senseless hatred, with abiding love and concern, renewing hope and kinship in this sorely fractured world.  Amen.

Thu, August 5 2021 27 Av 5781