On Discourse and Disrespect

By: Elan Babchuck

For many of us, this summer has been a trying time, less relaxing and rejuvenating than summers past.  A war has raged on – physically, in our beloved land of Israel, but emotionally and politically right here in the U.S.  In the news.  In our Facebook feeds.  Between friends.

There have been a myriad of casualties in this war, and they extend beyond the tragic and unthinkable loss of life that has taken place on both sides.  One of the painful losses that has gone largely uncovered by the media has been that of civil discourse, of respectful disagreement.  It seems that this latest round of back-and-forth article-sharing on Facebook and in-your-face shouting matches about right and wrong have been the death knell of one of Judaism’s greatest treasures.

In Talmudic terms, we Jews have left behind our sweet tradition of shakla v’tarya – the elegant give-and-take between two companions whose opinions diverge but whose souls remain united.

In the Babylonian Talmud, we learn about over 5,000 arguments among the rabbis.  5,000!  And – as those of you who have studied Talmud with me already know – only about 50 of them get resolved.  One percent of these Talmudic arguments are brought to a resolution.  One percent!

So why, then, should we spend so much time reading about the rabbis arguing?  Why is the Babylonian Talmud one of the most popularly studied texts in Jewish tradition when we could just skip to the end and save ourselves the 7½ years it takes to learn the whole thing?   Because we have more to learn from the ways that they disagreed than we do from their shared conclusions.  They did it with respect, with graciousness, and with care.  And when they didn’t – like Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish – the story is shared as a cautionary tale of what happens when we lose sight of the humanity of the person on the other side of the aisle. (Spoiler alert: they die.)

In a few weeks, many of us will gather in various synagogues around the city, the state, the country, and the world.  We will sit, shoulder to shoulder, with family and strangers alike.  And when our spirits so move us, we might even find ourselves singing along, harmonizing with our fellow travelers of the soul as we saunter down the path to collective redemption.

According to a Talmudic text on Yom Kippur, the Gates of Prayer are only truly open when communities come together in prayer.  Don’t get me wrong; God will always be listening to our heartfelt, individual petitions, too.  But on Yom Kippur, our atonement is an all-or-nothing proposition.  Either we stand together as a community or we don’t.  My hope for us all is that – despite differing opinions on everything from the war in Gaza to the stale Yankees-Red Sox rivalry – we find a way to stand together as one on Yom Kippur because we need it now, more than ever before.

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2 thoughts on “On Discourse and Disrespect

  1. Such a great and timely post, Rabbi. I like to think that our ability to respectfully disagree, debate and ultimately reach compromise, epitomizes what is best about us both as Jews and as Americans.

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