January 20, 2019

High Holy Days sermon: Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback on Civil Discourse – 5777

These Days of Awe are about so many things – renewal, return, repentance. They are also about reflection. The High Holy Days provide an opportunity to think about the year that has passed, the ways we have changed, fallen short, perhaps even exceeded our expectations.

This past May, I had a wonderful and inspiring opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. It was my twenty-fifth college reunion.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Did he say college reunion? Surely he meant, high school or perhaps elementary school? I mean, come on, look at him?!?”

But, alas and indeed, I was graduated from university in 1991, and my reunion was an opportunity to reflect on continuity and change in the school, in my classmates, and in myself.

Although the campus included new buildings, programs, and even entire departments, in other ways, it felt like very little had changed. My classmates have actually held up pretty well so I recognized most of them. The muggy East-coast weather of late May was – unfortunately – all too familiar. Yet in other ways, student life was quite different, and in some respects almost unrecognizable. And what has changed most radically on campus is this: how students connect and communicate with one another and the wider world.


I was fortunate to have two special guides into today’s college culture: my brother’s son and my sister’s daughter, both of whom were graduating with the Class of 2016 at that very same institution. Through the eyes of my niece, Grace, and my nephew, Jacob, I learned much about both the promise and pitfalls of the way communication takes place on campuses today.

My generation was the last to graduate university without email. We didn’t have cell phones either or cable TV in our dorm rooms – and we liked it! Of course, Grace and Jacob and all of their classmates have access to laptops and WiFi during lectures, and their smartphones, like ours, are ubiquitous.

My niece and nephew taught me about an even newer mode of communication on campuses today: YikYak, a social media app that I’d never heard of before. YikYak was launched in 2013 as an anonymous social media application that is limited to a small geographical area. Users create a discussion thread that can only be joined by others within a five mile radius, with results that can quickly spiral into any number of directions. Grace told me that some students like using YikYak during lectures in order to comment – anonymously – on the quality of the lesson and even, sadly, on the appearance of the lecturer. (By the way – I hope that none of you are live-commenting on my sermon today. But if you are – please be kind – it’s the Day of Atonement after all.)

Sadly but predictably, YikYak on some campuses has at times become a forum for hate speech, with students posting racist, sexist, and antisemitic comments. On several campuses around the country, university officials have tried to ban the app with limited success.

Of course, its anonymity is precisely what attracts many users to YikYak. One social media expert describes the phenomenon as “identity fatigue” – internet users’ growing “weariness with having their digital communications attached to their real-world personas and thus susceptible to public scrutiny.”

In the words of YikYak founder, Brooks Buffington – that’s his real name by the way – “Once you have a[n online] profile, you’re expected to act a certain way. People only post the best, most beautiful parts of their life on Instagram. On YikYak, you just put something out there, and if it doesn’t resonate with anyone, it’s not a reflection on you.”  

Judging by YikYak’s user numbers and the growing popularity of other anonymous social media applications, students increasingly wish to be able to say whatever they want without consequences. You can insult a teacher or a fellow classmate or share a racist or sexist comment without having the sentiment attached to your real-world persona – that is, your self. No need later to scrub your facebook or instagram profile before a job interview – none of these statements will reflect poorly on you.

But here’s the thing – our words matter. How we use them is a reflection of what we believe, of what we value, and, ultimately, of who we are.

And we find ourselves in a moment when words are being used in ever coarser ways – even when they are not being used anonymously. In this year’s heated political environment, there seems to be no minimum standard of decency – we slide lower and lower from boorish, ill-mannered behavior to a level of incivility that is unprecedented.

We ask ourselves – how should we respond to language that is being used which is demeaning to women, disabled persons, Muslims, and minority groups? How do we respond as a nation to language which goes far beyond “lewd” to that which is misogynistic and even violent?

This kind of speech should concern us deeply.

And it trickles down, doesn’t it? It permeates and shapes our culture, our daily lives, and even the lives of our children.

It’s not enough that college students are experimenting with anonymity and consequence-free speech, just last week I received an email from my daughter’s high school alerting parents about a new smartphone app called “AfterSchool”. It’s a social media application created especially for teens that will allow them to post anonymously about one another. After a comment is posted, the student about whom the post was directed is notified and can then see what was said about him or her. It’s not hard to imagine how terribly destructive a piece of technology like this might be in a middle or high school setting.

If we fail to speak up, to advocate for discourse which reflects our values, to say “not okay” to speech which is hateful and violent, we are helping to create a colder, meaner, coarser world which will, inevitably, make us and our children colder, meaner, coarser people.

Now – make no mistake – I believe deeply in a vibrant and open exchange of ideas. Professors, students, indeed all of us should have the freedom to address challenging topics, even if others feel uncomfortable doing so. And I believe it is our right, at times our obligation, to attack positions held by others that are at odds with our core principles. But that doesn't mean that we are permitted to abandon propriety, manners, and respect for the humanity of the other in the process.

In these Yamim Noraim – these Days of Awe – we think about the state of our world, the state of our nation, and, most personally, the state of our own souls.

And then we think about how we can make things better, how we can improve ourselves, our communities, and our world.

So how can we elevate the conversation? How can we share our perspectives honestly and openly without descending to name calling and personal attacks? How can we exercise our right to free speech in a way this is wise, kind, and informed by our belief that all people are created in God's image?

Three lessons from our tradition:

  1. Words make worlds – that is, words do matter.

  2. A person is a world – that is, every person matters.

  3. It can be done – that is, people can disagree, argue, stand for different things and still be civil, respectful. In fact, they can even be friends who help each other to grow and be better.

Lesson one – words matter. According to our tradition, the universe is created through speech. Genesis 1:3 – the very beginning: “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light’ – and there was light!”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

Part of our daily morning liturgy describes God as:

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם.

God is: “The one who spoke and brought the universe into being!”

And it’s not just God’s words that count – our words do, too. The childhood adage that “Sticks and stones may break bones but names will never hurt me” has no place in the Jewish tradition. According to Jewish law, words can cause tangible damage to one’s reputation, affect one’s livelihood, and inflict emotional distress. The sages teach that embarrassing someone with our words is like spilling blood – it’s like committing murder.

Fully one-quarter of the Al Cheyt prayer – the prayer we said moments ago in which we beat our chests as we confess our many transgressions, relates to sins connected to speech including most specifically:

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה:

“For the sin we have committed against you through the words of our mouths.”

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בִּלְשׁוֹן הָרָע:

“For the sin we have committed against you through gossip and slander.”

In Judaism, words have weight. They are not abstract, immaterial things. In fact, a word is called a “davar” in Hebrew which also means “thing.” They are real. They can wound and they can heal. They can create and they can destroy.

Friends: the way we talk to each other or about each other, what we email and text and post, how we respond (or fail to respond) to speech that is hateful: in all these ways we are communicating values. We are declaring what we stand for and who we are. And Judaism doesn't know from “identity fatigue” – our tradition does not glamorize the anonymous critic or the unattributed quote.

And let me be perfectly clear: in our tradition, wherever you are, whatever the context – in a Sanctuary, on a bus, in a locker room – our words still count. What we say and how we say is, in every setting, a reflection of who we are.

Lesson two – every person is a world; all people have inherent worth.

The rabbis of the Mishna ask why it is that God created the world through one primordial human-being: Adam. God could have created the world fully populated. The rabbis teach us:

“Humanity was first created as one person – Adam – in order to teach you that anyone who destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world.”

A person – every person – is a world: even our ideological foes, even our political opponents, even those whose world-view we find deplorable, have fundamental worth.

This sounds a lot easier than it is. Of course – every person has fundamental worth – in principle.

But in practice? The guy who cut you off on the 405 on your way to Temple? He’s an idiot!

And the lady in the express checkout aisle at Ralph’s with 16 items in her cart when only 15 are allowed? She’s a wretch who should be banned from the store!

And what about those nutjobs who support the candidate that you’re against? Morons! Cretins who should move to Russia – or Mexico – already!

If we take this lesson seriously, if we truly believe the notion that a person is a world, we have to find the way to talk to those with whom we disagree, even with those who have wronged us, with respect and with dignity. We have to accept that our ideological foes are in fact part of our family, descendants of Adam HaRishon, our primordial ancestor.

And, friends, part of my vision for Stephen Wise Temple is that it will be a gathering place for passionate, yet civil, dialogues and group conversations. The wisdom of our tradition can help us grapple with complex issues  relating to morality, public policy, national politics, and our beloved State of Israel.

We can do this more successfully if we believe – truly believe – that each person is a world. Each person has value.

Lesson three – it’s possible. We can argue, debate, disagree in profound ways and still be respectful. Despite our differences of opinion, we can be civil and we can even be friends.

The Talmud tells us of a dispute between the great sages Hillel and Shammai and their descendents. They debated and fought over a contentious matter for three years. Interestingly – the Talmud never tells us what they were fighting about! Perhaps the lesson is that the details ultimately weren’t that important (they usually aren’t).

Finally, a heavenly voice cried out: “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakha – the legal ruling – is according to the reasoning of Hillel.”

  • “אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן! והלכה כב”ה.”

That is to say, both sides have made good points but Hillel’s argument wins the day.

But then a question is raised: “Since the heavenly voice declared that both arguments are the words of the Living God – both arguments have merit – why privilege Hillel’s argument?”

And listen to the reply – it’s not about the quality of the argument, it’s about Hillel’s character. It’s about how he and his disciples act towards their opponents.

Says the Talmud: “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. They even went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first.”

Not only is it possible for ideological foes to engage in discourse without killing each other or resorting to name-calling, they can even remain friends.

In the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were fierce ideological foes. O’Neill was an Irish-Catholic from Boston, active in Democratic politics from the age of 15. Reagan was a Protestant from Illinois who gained fame as an actor in Hollywood. After becoming a Republican at the age of 51, he served 8 years as Governor of California and 8 in the White House. O’Neill once called Reagan “Herbert Hoover with a smile,” and referred to Reagan’s plan to cut benefits for early retirees as a “despicable” and “rotten thing to do.” Reagan in turn accused O’Neill of liberal demagoguery.

But after this particular disagreement, President Reagan phoned the Speaker of the House to clear the air. O’Neill famously replied: “Old buddy, that's politics–after 6 o'clock we can be friends; but before 6, it's politics.”

More recently, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent 23 years together on the U.S. Supreme Court, invariably opposing one another’s views. In 1986, Scalia became the first justice of Italian descent, a practicing Catholic and social conservative who frequently ruled against abortion rights, affirmative action, and gun control. In 1993, Ginsburg became our nation’s 2nd female justice, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who has been of the most consistently liberal justices on the bench.

Yet not only did Scalia and Ginsburg have the utmost respect for each other professionally, they were also the best of friends: along with their spouses, they attended opera, travelled the globe, and spent every New Year’s eve together for over two decades. After Scalia died this past February, Ginsburg spoke publicly about how their disagreements made her better. How her world was richer, and how she grew as a person and a judge because of their friendship. Had she decided to “unfriend” him the moment his arguments challenged or offended her, her world – and ours – would have been smaller, impoverished, “less.”

Or how about the Bushes and the Obamas? Unlikely friends perhaps, but friends nonetheless. Just last week we saw the beautiful image of Michelle Obama embracing George W. Bush at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Why have they become so close? After all, Democratic President Barack Obama’s first victory was in no small measure a repudiation of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.

Here’s how David Axelrod, one of President Obama's former advisors, understands it:

“President Bush was very gracious to us during the transition, and he has been unfailingly gracious and respectful since.” He recalled President Obama telling him that the Bushes “had taught him lessons in how to be a former President.”

Sounds familiar, right? A deep kavod for one’s political or ideological foe. A graciousness, a respect, an openness to learning from the other.

Here’s something that might give us hope: just as political culture can become coarser and more disrespectful, so too can the pendulum swing the other way. And we can be part of that change – as individuals and as a community. We can model civility and respect in our own behavior even in online and social media settings and we can demand it of others including our elected officials and those who would seek higher office.

We can cherish and celebrate the wonderful diversity of Stephen Wise Temple which includes members and guests from all over the world with different backgrounds who bring different perspectives and points of view but who share a love of Judaism, Torah, Israel, and community.

And – perhaps most important of all – we can be a bit more humble about our opinions, postures, stances and world-views. We just might be wrong some of the time, maybe even much of the time.

Hillel was careful to learn and examine the arguments of his foe so much so that he was able to teach Shammai’s opinions himself. This is a type of radical empathy – a deep commitment to understanding the argument, thinking and maybe even experience of the other. Justice Ginsburg once spoke publicly about a time when Scalia showed her his dissenting opinion in a case before she had finished the majority opinion. She said, “I took this dissent, this very spicy dissent and it absolutely ruined my weekend.” She then made some changes to her own argument as a result.

This is hard to do – in principle and in practice. It requires an open heart, an open mind, humility, empathy, and the belief that the other has inherent kavod – dignity.

Here’s another thing that gives me hope. I wrote my niece the other day and asked her to share some of her thoughts about civil discourse. She wrote me a beautiful letter which included this insight into the type of empathy required to make respectful dialogue possible: You have to accept the fact that – as she put it – “you can't know everything or even most things about another person but you must assume that their lives … are as full and unknowable as your own, therefore they are valid and deserving of dignity, respect, and the benefit of your doubt.”

Friends – as we confess our many sins, as we examine our shortcomings, let’s commit ourselves to a more respectful dialogue. Let’s affirm the power of words themselves and then resolve to use our words more carefully. Let’s remember that every person is a world – every person deserves to be treated with kavod, with humility, and with empathy. The lives, experiences, and beliefs of others are indeed “as full and unknowable” as our own. They are deserving of “dignity, respect, and the benefit of” our doubts.

If we believe this, if we live this principle day by day, we can build a culture in which we communicate, and even disagree, with mutual respect. If we live this principle day by day, our communities, diverse though they may be, will be more unified than ever before. If we live this principle day by day, we will enjoy the fruits of meaningful, civil discourse–whether on Facebook, or Face the Nation, or even face to face.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is Senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.