October 13, 2019

Awash in Self-Obsession

There’s a new mode of transportation in Venice, Calif. It’s called a Bird Scooter. For anyone who has a 3-year-old, these are motorized, adult versions of your kid’s first Razor or Micro Mini, whipping through the streets of Venice like slim, individualized 21st-century gondolas. As whimsical and playful as their presence is in Venice, I have had more than one incident where a Bird gondolier lost in his zippy feeling of invincibility nearly crashed into my clueless perambulation, lost in my glass “Golden Calf” iPhone, almost rendering me a scooter-incident statistic.

There is a distinct tension I feel as an inhabitant of the 21st century that the Birds remind me of: It’s easy to become numb to the presence of others around us, especially those going in a different direction. As both an observer and a participant in this self-obsessed new world, I fear it is desensitizing us to the needs of others, which is one of the cornerstones for building a just society.

This is a national phenomenon. From our tribal allegiances to our cultural xenophobia, all sides are guilty and accountable for feeling that our right of way is the only right way. In our fast-paced flurry about town, our privileged and affordable access to the globe (both physical and virtual), our siloed social media universe facing inward, we have, ironically, lost a human quality — the ability to experience the Other.

In a recent University of Pennsylvania scandal, law professor Amy Wax was asked by the university to “take a sabbatical” in the wake of her publishing an unpopular op-ed in The Wall Street Journal spotlighting a return to “bourgeois values.” Wax recognized the moral decline in the United States, noting that more than half of all children in America are being raised in single-family households, a rise of opioid addiction is decaying our core, and increased tribalism is fracturing our country. Her theory of change was assailed by her colleagues and she was put in academic herem.

As a woman who loves Torah, the fallout from Wax’s editorial captures a unique form of heartbreak. Gone are the days of respectful disagreement; forgotten is the engaged discourse of our academic institutions. It seems that unpopular opinions must be reckoned with through shame, isolation and marginalization of those who generated them. Lost are the academies of Sura and Pumbedita; we have confused the messenger with the messages. Our fingers gliding upon the glass of new media has turned our touch cold to one another. Gone are the days of rigorous and respectful debate, which old-fashioned Jews called machlochet.

It’s easy to become numb to the presence of others around us, especially those going in a different direction.

Pirkei Avot 5:16, the Wisdom of our Fathers (a distinctly male-dominant claim of wisdom — should we ban it because we have yet to unearth its female corollary?) and one of our foundation texts on machlochet states: “Any dispute that is conducted for the sake of heaven, its outcome will ultimately be determined. And if not for the sake of heaven, it will not be determined.”

L’Shem Shaymayim, “For the Sake of Heaven,” hovers heavily. What does it mean to dispute “for the sake of heaven” for a 21st-century reader? The ancient idiom dominates, and our minds weigh it with authority. But what if the whisperings of those who came before us were read instead as: “Any dispute that is conducted for the sake of heaven, its outcome will ultimately be determined. And if it is not, for heaven’s sake(!), it will not be determined.”

The rabbis speak to us from the beyond both imploringly and playfully: Dispute! Debate! Disagree! For most of our musings are not in heaven’s realm. We must recapture the ancient art of machlochet, as our engagement with one another is our redemption while we are still here. Don’t zip speedily by your fellow with a false sense of invincibility because everything ever thought, written or known can be found in three seconds of a Google search. That’s for the Birds.

Let us recapture the awe of standing before the Other; fall in love with the world of ideas, not information. Not all unwanted advances — of ideas or sexual appetites — need be conflated into accusations of sexual assault or an unpopular opinion into an academic lynching. May we smash false idols of glass screens and reclaim the fine art of disagreement with an impish curiosity as we stare face to face with our opposition, as, for heaven’s sake, it is so not about you. It’s about us.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice.