Erev Rosh HaShana 5780

Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

As a student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I was offered the most sage advice ever by one of my professors.  It was such an important piece of advice that it was shared with generations of rabbis that came from the Cincinnati campus, the New York campus, and even the younger Los Angeles campus.  Graduates of each of these campuses remember the Rabbi Professor who shared the advice with them – but at each campus it was a different Rabbi – so tracking down the original source became a formidable task, and one that I ultimately failed to discover, though I can narrow it down to the three rabbis, one at each campus, and possibly one of their teachers going back to the early years of Hebrew Union College.  This simple piece of advice was offered in our senior year as we prepared to interview for our first postings – it was the following: “Boys (you must remember that until 1972, there were only boys in rabbinical school in the Reform movement – the advice was later broadened to include our female classmates) – when you go out there, be yourself – unless you a schmuck – in which case, you should be somebody else.”

There was, at one time, an expectation that in a public setting one should comport oneself with grace, dignity and honor.  And that expectation was not just for rabbinic students, but everyone.  Society requires some structure to hold it together – and that begins with civility – from the Latin, meaning pertaining to good and orderly citizenship.

I am not so pollyannaish to believe that the current state of incivility is unique. Nor do I believe, as others proport, that responsibility lies with one person, or one group of people (regardless of how they are amalgamated and identified).  In a democracy, where freedom of speech is paramount, conflicting views have been, and will always be, articulated.  But there were times in which things that might have been publicly shared, were quietly thought, and disappeared into the ether of consciousness, rather than laid bare for all to hear. Just because one thinks something, doesn’t mean that one has to say something. Like times in the past when everything seemed to go to hell in a handbasket, society was pulled back from the brink and did not devolve into anarchy. 

We are all aware of the change in our atmosphere – quite a number of people and organizations place the blame on one central figure and have released statements laying blame at one set of feet. The clergy of the Washington National Cathedral released a statement on July 30th (“Have We No Decency?: A Response to President Trump”).  Yet, it is in that very statement that recalls another dark moment in our country’s history:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

That was U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, when he confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy before a live television audience, effectively ending McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation. Until then, under the guise of ridding the country of Communist infiltration, McCarthy had free rein to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency? (Washington National Cathedral Statement “Have We No Decency….”)

And we know that after the public castigation of McCarthy, the tides shifted and the tenor of public discourse changed. But today, it seems as if we have not yet reached the breaking point – we continue to tolerate disrespectful – in fact, despicable – speech.  And that speech inflames emotions and drives a wedge between people of opposing points of view.  Add to that the increased partisanship of the news media – unbiased and unvarnished presentation of the facts no longer seems available.  We listen to the interpretation of the news that comports with our world-view and dismiss any other way of thinking.  

It has gotten to the point that in our current society, dialogue rarely occurs. We have been left with competing monologues.  It is as if, the listening aspect of interchange has been removed from the equation. Psychotherapist Carl Rogers taught that for dialogue to exist, there needed to be “active listening.” An active listener is able to take in what had been said, and then repeat back accurately the concerns of the original speaker before moving on with a response.  The listener of the response must accurately repeat back to the responder what had been expressed.  While seemingly cumbersome, this process ensures that both participants in a dialogue have been heard and interchange is possible.  Without this attention to the other, we might as well stick our fingers in our ears and hum until we have a chance to state our case without regard for the other.

In the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 84a) we meet two close friends and colleagues, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. They banter and challenge each other, questioning the other’s interpretations of the law and pushing each other to consider things from new angles. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz uses this relationship to illustrate how “disagreement can be the beginning of the world,” when we use disagreement as a way to shift our perspective and discover new possibilities. 

So all of us have a responsibility to tone down the rhetoric. And we all have a responsibility to listen actively.

Following the lead of the National Cathedral, at the start of the month of Elul, the leaders of all the institutions of Reform Judaism issued a collective statement. Again, in its title and its preamble, the statement focused on one individual and accused him of fomenting the current crisis of incivility. But towards the conclusion, they correctly shift responsibility to the community:

“…The words of the High Holiday prayer book are written in the collective, reminding us that responsibility for misdeeds and their correction lies with the community as much as the individual. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also observed that while “Some are guilty; all are responsible.” Indeed, decency knows no party. Whether we are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, conservatives, moderates, or liberals, we all bear the responsibility to uphold the norms of ethical speech and moral conduct that have made our democracy great….

We pray that all Americans, regardless of political association, religious affiliation, or support for certain policies, will loudly and unambiguously call for an end to a politics infused with bullying, hateful diatribes, and personal character assaults.

We pray that each of us becomes a model to others, demonstrating how to reject hate and celebrate the dignity and worth of every human being. As the Talmud teaches, “Human dignity is so important that it overrides even a biblical prohibition.” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 19b) (Reform Jewish Leadership Statement: “We Must Expect More From the President of the United States” August 3, 2019)  

But what about the intersection of the freedom of speech, and those who espouse views we deem hateful and destructive.  Justin Herman, US Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio unsealing an indictment against a white supremacist, James Readon, who posted numerous Anti-Semitic messages on the internet, said the following at a press conference:

“Now let me speak generally to those who are advocates for white supremacy, or white nationalism. I am talking directly to you. The Constitution protects your right to speak, your right to think, and your right to believe. If you want to waste the blessings of liberty by going down a path of hatred and failed ideologies, that is your choice. 

Democracy allows you to test those ideas in the public forum. If you want to submit your beliefs to the American people and get their reaction, please be my guest. Keep this in mind, though. Thousands and thousands of young Americans already voted with their lives to ensure that this same message of intolerance, death, and destruction would not prevail – you can count their ballots by visiting any American cemetery in North Africa, Italy, France, or Belgium and tallying the white headstones. You can also recite the many names of civil rights advocates who bled and died in opposing supporters of those same ideologies of hatred. Their voices may be distant, but they can still be heard.

Go ahead and make your case for Nazism, a white nation, and racial superiority. The Constitution may give you a voice, but it doesn’t guarantee you a receptive audience. 

Your right to free speech does not automatically mean that people will agree with you. In fact, you have an absolute God-given and inalienable right to be on the losing end of this argument.

What you don’t have, though, is the right to take out your frustration at failure in the political arena by resorting to violence. You don’t have any right to threaten the lives and well-being of our neighbors. They have an absolute God-given and inalienable right to live peacefully, to worship as they please, to be free from fear that they might become a target simply because of the color of their skin, the country of their birth, or the form of their prayer.

Threatening to kill Jewish people, gunning down innocent Latinos on a weekend shopping trip, planning and plotting to perpetrate murders in the name of a nonsense racial theory, sitting to pray with God-fearing people who you execute moments later – those actions don’t make you soldiers, they make you criminals. Law enforcement doesn’t go to war with cowards who break the law, we arrest them and send them to prison.” 

What makes Justin Herman’s words so very powerful is that he delivers his critique in a thoughtful and even respectful manner – even though he is countering the most vitriolic language.   And that is what we need – to change the tone of our voices even when we try to counter thoughts, ideas, words that we find heinous.

For a long time, I eschewed Twitter, but when one particular person decided to use it as a central mode of communication, I signed up.  I wanted to see these “tweets” before the news media passed judgement on each one.  I have found myself responding and over time, my responses became more and more combative. I realized of late, that I have been contributing to, and indeed, furthering this uncivil atmosphere that I rail against.  And so I make a promise to myself (understanding that next week I am released from my vows) that I will cease making snide and critical tweets and stop using Twitter as a place to vent my frustrations with ideas, and comments, with which I disagree.

In the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) we find an oft-quoted phrase: Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh b’zeh – All Israel is responsible for one another.  This phrase arises out to a discussion about the meaning of a line in the Book of Leviticus (26:37) vekashlu ish be-achiv, literally “a man will stumble over his brother.” This means that the Talmud warns us that when one person sins, we are all responsible.

As Americans, perhaps it is time to apply that same principle to our country – and to realize that the current lack of civility is something to which we all contribute, and its amelioration rests on each one of our shoulders.  

It is possible that an election next year might change the atmosphere, but a year is too long to wait – we have a whole new Jewish year ahead of us – let us take that time to make the changes within ourselves, so that we might help move along the necessary changes in society.  We are – indeed – responsible one for another – in our community and in our nation.

Shana tova!

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