November 13, 2019

Have We Lost Respect for Each Other?

From my own experience and from the reports in The Jewish Journal, it is evident that it has become more and more difficult to plan for a dialogue between fellow Jews on the subject of Israel — much easier to organize a discussion between Christian and Jewish leadership or even between Islamic and Jewish representatives.

On the matter of Israel, the Jewish dialogue is transformed into acrimonious diatribe, denigrating motivations ascribed to the “other.” Even when opened to the floor for questions and answers, the questions must be written down and sorted by the moderator, because they are filled with shouted, acrid accusations.

The “other” turns into an adversary, worse, an enemy — the rhetoric is raised to shouting decibels and elicits hissing and shouting.

Should we cancel the dialogue in order to avoid ugly confrontation? Still, to mute the dialogue is to admit that Jews can no longer talk with each other civilly.

When dialogue ends, the alternative is either angry silence or open hostility. If we cancel Israel forums, the character of community breaks into smaller and smaller ideological cults.

Have we then lost our Jewish sensibilities? Have we abandoned our civility? Have we lost our sense of respect for each other?

“Respect” is derived from the Latin rescire, which means to look back, to look a second time. Respect is indispensable for a mature and wise people. In Hebrew the word for respect is kavod, which connotes the seriousness and weight of gravity.

The breakdown of genuine dialogue among us is deeply worrisome. Our rabbinic sages have taught us that the Temple in Jerusalem was not destroyed because of the superiority of external foes but from the internal, causeless hatred among us. They judged that the sin of causeless hatred is more serious than major transgressions of murder, idolatry and harlotry (Talmud Yevamoth 62b).

The acrimonious debate and ad hominum vilification affects our youth. They learn from us. They are victims of our de facto intellectual apartheid.

Our youth groups — United Synagogue Youth, National Council of Synagogue Youth, North American Federation of Temple Youth — do not play, pray or debate together. Have they learned this insulation from the parent generation?

We are together in the Diaspora and not on the front lines of the wars of the intifada terrorists, but our bombast against each other can be as threatening as suicide bombers. With our anger we inflict painful wounds upon our people — we bring causeless shame upon us.

The Midrash says: “The Divine Presence does not dwell among a people with a divided heart” (Numbers Rabbah 15:14). The verse does not speak of divided minds. We need not agree on strategy or military policy, but the heart must be whole and must not be divided.

This calls upon each and every one of us to exhibit in our gatherings the civility and sensitivity of our heritage. We need not imitate the paid partisans of television sensationalists who entertain us at crossfire and relish insult and assassination of the “other's” character.

We are Jews who love Zion, our people and our oneness. That is the consequential meaning of the great “Echad,” the oneness of God about which we pray at morning, noon and night.

In the pew and on the dais, in our preachment and dialogues, we must manifest respect for each other, which is respect for ourselves. This respect is not to inhibit question, is not to stifle the blessedness of our inquiry, but it is an appeal to inhibit our anger and our deprecation of the person who is as dedicated and as concerned as we are.  

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.