a sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket
The Dubner Maggid told the story of a king who had a large and glorious kingdom – but his most prized possession was a large and glorious diamond. Whenever visitors came to the kingdom, he would say, “Before I take you on a tour of my kingdom, I have to show you my most prized possession.” He would go to the secret hiding place and take the diamond out to show it off to his visitors.
One day visiting dignitaries came, and as was his wont, he went to the safe deposit box, spun in the combination, took the diamond out to show it to the dignitaries, and he tripped – the diamond fell out of his hands and skittered across the floor. Now, in high school physics we all learned that nothing can scratch a diamond, but in a Chasidic story …. Anything can happen. The king bent down to grab the diamond and when he turned it over there was a large scratch across the surface. His diamond was ruined. He was despondent. So he called for the kingdom’s three best diamond cutters and said, “I’ll give you anything in my kingdom if you can fix my diamond.”
The first looked at it and said, “Your Majesty, I would recommend that I cut this diamond in half along the scratch and you will have two beautiful, but smaller diamonds.” “Absolutely not,” replied the King. He turned to the second and asked if he could fix the diamond. The diamond cutter brought his loupe to his eye and examined the diamond this way and that. He declared, “Your Majesty, I am no more talented than the first. I would tell you to cut the diamond in half.”
I will pause the story here because this is the state of our world today. In almost every corner of the globe what was once whole, is being cleaved apart. Countries and communities are becoming bifurcated – split apart. And the scratch is what the rabbis called “Sinat Hinam” – baseless hatred.
Five years ago, the discrimination against the Rohingya people escalated into a full-blown genocide – Myanmar (Burmese) leaders backed by nationalist Buddhists have waged a campaign to eradicate the Muslim Rohingyas. Almost 1 million Rohingyas are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh without access to water, health care, food, and sanitation. And many more refugees have been forcibly moved to an island, Bhashan Char, which is ravaged by monsoons and cuts people off from their livelihoods and community.
The crisis in Myanmar is horrifying, but far from the only crisis fueled by baseless hatred and xenophobia. The months-long war in Ukraine is not just about “us versus them” but it is also “ours versus theirs.” The utter brutality, and lack of concern for lives, the environment, even violations of accepted rules of war, are played out daily at the expense of innocent lives. Rape and torture and abuse are common, and there is no endgame in sight.
In the Sudan, military forces overturned political leadership and the military regime is incapable of addressing the droughts and flooding, locusts, and food insecurity for 6 million people. In Somalia, clashes between supporters of the President and supporters of the Prime Minister have led to intense fighting, and al-Shabab has taken the opportunity created by the internal fighting to press their campaign of war. In Congo, already ravaged by the continuing Ebola plague, political factions wage war against one another putting one third of its population in grave danger of violence and starvation. Twelve years of military and political conflict between factions has endangered much of the population of Nigeria. Yemen and Ethiopia are also ravaged by internal conflict leaving millions in danger of starvation and disease from lack of sanitation and clean water. And then there is Afghanistan… Since American troops left, along with support and infrastructure personnel, the Taliban have wreaked destruction on the educational system which caused humanitarian groups to withhold funds, leaving 97% of the population in poverty.
In Hungary, fourth term (after a specious election process) Prime Minister Victor Orban, is promoting an almost Nazi-like demand for “ethnic purity” condemning the mixing of races. He rails against the rights of women and the LGBTQ community; and is a known and vicious antisemite.
But it is in our own country that baseless hatred has truly taken hold – leading us to a point in which recent polls indicate that 43% of the population believe that we could have another civil war within the next decade. The divisions that exist, the ever-present vitriol, the threats of violence over political differences, the dehumanization of those in opposition – in the past lustrum (a period of five years) these have become normalized. We are no longer shocked by these examples of hatred. We have become comfortably numb (to use a phrase coined by British musician Roger Waters, who has called Joseph Biden a “war criminal” and his vicious attacks on Israel are downright antisemitic) – yes – we have become comfortably numb.
Perhaps, put as simply as possible, Yuval Noah Harari, in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” states, “Evolution has made Homo Sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two groups, ‘we’ and ‘they’.”
And that is now the atmosphere of life in these “United” States. There are no longer news channels — each “news channel” has a distinct and discernible political bias. Newspapers also
exist on a spectrum. The New York Times boasts “All the news that’s fit to print” but to a reader of the New York Post, that news is tainted with writers who support “critical race theory” publishing works like “The 1619 Project” or claiming that global warming is a real problem. There are red states and blue states and within them red counties and blue counties. There are now MAGA Republicans, and traditional Republicans. There are “Bernie Bros” or “AOC supporters” of the progressive Democrats, and then there are traditional Democrats, who are labeled Biden or Obama Democrats.
Each side has become so entrenched in their particular point of view that they become deaf to anything that challenges what they hold to be true – and that is True with a capital T. Like the childhood taunt: I’m right and you’re wrong and there’s no two ways about it. Dialogue has ceased to exist. For centuries the Socratic method was used to drill down to the truth. As Socrates questioned and challenged and probed – he introduced a necessary part of intellectual inquiry: Doubt
It is doubt that can begin the process of tempering the animus that exists and can open a crack that might lead to more constructive dialogue.
The great Hebrew sage and folk singer, Leonard Cohen, writes in his song, “Anthem”: Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen 1993) Doubt is the crack in thought – and through the crack, light can come in. And if light doesn’t come in, it means that the light isn’t there yet. The great TV News Producer Fred Friendly z’l, who created the PBS series Ethics in America, began each installment with the following: “Our job is not to make up anybody’s mind, but to open minds, and to make the agony of decision-making so intense you can escape only by thinking.” That is what doubt does for us– it is the agony of decision making – it is the goad that makes us think.
And lest one thinks that the most entrenched are incapable of introducing doubt, Pope Francis, who leads a Church that once used Crusaders to rid the world of unbelievers, now states that any theology that divides humanity into those who are saved and those who are not … is a violent theology. “This ‘closing off’ that imagines those outside … cannot do good. It is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God … to say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.” Later when Francis was asked about homosexuality, he astounded everyone by stating, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord, and has good will, who am I to judge?” Who am I to judge? You are the Pope, for the world’s Catholics, what you say goes.
Imagine if we followed that formulation in the Jewish community (after the Pope made that statement in 2014, Gary Rosenblatt wrote an editorial in Jewish Week) “Imagine if we routinely followed that formulation in the Jewish community, not only in terms of acceptance for gays and lesbians, but also in the many other ways in which we sit in judgement of each other. If he genuinely loves Israel, who am I to judge how that love is expressed? If she wishes to pray a certain way out of devotion to God, who are we to judge where and when that prayer is said?”
Even within the Haredi community, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, who chaired the Haredi Council of Jerusalem (Edah Hachareidis) declared that it is was a Chilul HaShem (a desecration of God’s name) to wear a shtrimel of animal fur. He came to this as he contemplated the
Principle of Tzar Balay Chaim – the infliction of needless pain on living creatures. Shortly thereafter, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau called for better treatment of the chickens used in the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kapparot.
Doubt is the necessary ingredient in any real discussion. And to the most intransigent one must begin with the questions, Why do you believe that, How did you learn that, Might it be possible that…?
The Talmud cautions us in Berachot 4a – “teach your tongue to say: ‘I don’t know’” – and Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki) one of the greatest commentators on Tanach and Talmud had one expression he used more often than any other: “Aini yodayah – I don’t know”
So how did the parable of the diamond end? The King turned to the third and ask, “Can you fix it?” The diamond cutter replied, “I don’t know. Let me take it home and live with it for a bit and I will see what I can do.” The King said, “Take it – it is ruined anyway.” As soon as the diamond cutter left with the diamond the King couldn’t eat – he couldn’t sleep. Three days pass and he finally sees the diamond cutter approaching the castle. The King runs out to meet him and asks, “Have you fixed my diamond?” The diamond cutter opens his hands and there is one large and beautiful diamond. The King took it and turned it over and where there was once a scratch was now a beautifully carved inlaid rose. The diamond cutter turned the scratch into the stem and carved the bud, the thorns, and the leaves – and now the diamond was more beautiful than ever before.
We need to find ways to make our differences and divisions into opportunities for dialogue. And dialogue can happen with the benefit of doubt.