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Yom Kippur 2019/5780

10/23/2019 09:19:34 AM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

A rabbi once asked his students: "How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?" The students thought they grasped the importance of this question. There are, after all, prayers and rites and rituals that can only be done at nighttime. And there are prayers and rites and rituals that belong only to the day. So, it is important to know how we can tell when night has ended and day has begun.

So the first and brightest of the students offered an answer: "Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that's when the night has ended and the day has begun." A second student offered his answer: "Rabbi, when I look from the fields and I see a house, and I can tell that it's my house and not the house of my neighbor, that's when the night has ended and the day has begun." A third student offered another answer: "Rabbi, when I see an animal in the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a horse or a sheep, that's when the night has ended and the day has begun." Then a fourth student offered yet another answer: "Rabbi, when I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red or yellow or blue, that's when night has ended and day has begun.

Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi's face. Until finally he shouted, "No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor's field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all the others. Is that all we can do--divide, separate, split the world into pieces? Isn't the world broken enough? Isn't the world split into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it's not that way, not that way at all."

The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. "Then, Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?"

The rabbi stared back into the faces of his students, and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: "When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun."

My friends, we are living in a time of darkness. Perhaps not the deepest darkness the world has ever known, but a time of darkness nonetheless. We are so entrenched in our positions about the world in which we live that cannot see, really see, those with whom we disagree.

Sadly, there is little reason to imagine that light is going to appear any time soon.

Unless we decide to bring it.

Unlike the physical light that makes it possible to see who another person is, the light we need to see one another today is radiated, or not, by us.

How is it possible that we have fallen so far that Ellen DeGeneres, a self-described “gay Hollywood liberal,” had to defend sitting with Laura and George W. Bush at a football game this past weekend? How is it possible that we have fallen so far that singer Demi Lovato, after accepting an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, and speaking of her experience in glowing terms, received such scathing criticism for doing so that she apologized for doing so?

Back in February of 2018 - remember 2018, when things did not seem nearly as dark as now? - Nicholas Kristof observed:

live in two Americas.

In one America, a mentally unstable president selected partly by Russia lies daily and stirs up bigotry that tears our social fabric.

In another America, a can-do president tries to make America great again as lying journalists stir up hatred that tears our social fabric.

The one thing we all agree on: Our social fabric is torn. In each America, people who inhabit the other are often perceived as not just obtuse but also dangerous. Half of Democrats and Republicans alike say in polls that they are literally afraid of the other political party.”

Mind you, that was more than 18 months ago. I shudder to think what the numbers are today.

Kristof continues: “This is not to equate the two worldviews. I largely subscribe to the first, and I’m a villain in the second. But I do believe that all of us, on both sides, frequently spend more time demonizing the other side than trying to understand it, and we all suffer a cognitive bias that makes us inclined to seek out news sources that confirm our worldview….

It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”

That is, of course, a fundamental principle of Jewish tradition and discourse. I have shared the story before about my colleague, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who, as a rabbinical student in New York in the 1960's, went to have dinner at what was then one of the many kosher dairy restaurants in that city. Choosing a seat at the counter, and placing the Hebrew text he was carrying on the counter in front of him, an older man two seats over looked up at him and said "so, young man, how about an argument?"

Our entire tradition is based on the notion that there is such a thing as constructive conflict. There is even a name for it in Hebrew: machloket – a principled, thoughtfully and civilly argued disagreement.

And yet, our tradition teaches, there are two kinds of machlokot: a conflict for the sake of heaven – machloket l’shem shamayim – and a conflict NOT for the sake of heaven – machloket she-eino l’shem shamayim.

The difference between the two is the basis and intention of those engaged in the conflict.

In a famous rabbinic teaching, we are told that the epitome of machloket she-eino l’shem shamayim is Korach, the cousin of Moses and Aaron, who, as we read in the book of Numbers, disputed their leadership for no other reason than he coveted it. He brought no other argument, no vision, no alternative set of values, no effort to improve the situation of anyone other than himself. For that reason, the rabbis tell us, his was a conflict not for the sake of heaven, and so, one that would not endure.

Of course, in that same passage, the rabbis give us an example of a conflict that is a machloket l’shem shamayim, a conflict that is for the sake of heaven: the disagreements and debates of Hillel and Shammai.

Their most famous disagreement, as you may be aware, was about how to light the Hanukkah menorah. Symbolizing the small amount of oil that lasted, according to the famous story, for eight days, Shammai said we should start with eight candles on the first night, and decrease by one each night, corresponding to the oil that must have burned down each day; Hillel said we start with one candle on the first night, and then add one each successive night. We know which one became the normative ritual, but it is worth noting the reason for Hillel’s opinion: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, normative practice follows the teaching of Hillel and his students. We should pay careful attention to the reason, especially in the time we find ourselves: elsewhere in the Talmud it says the House of Hillel was pleasant and humble, and when they would teach what the law should be, they would teach both their own opinion and the opinion of the House of Shammai, but would teach the opinion of the house of Shammai first.

They would teach both their own opinion and the opinion of the house of Shammai, but would teach the opinion of the house of Shammai first.

Think about that for a moment: they were sufficiently humble to teach the position of their adversary first, but sufficiently secure in their own conclusion that they taught it and stood by it.

Their capacity for doing so is rooted in the very word machloket itself. Like most Hebrew words, it has layers of meaning. On one level, it comes from the word chelek, which means divided, and that makes perfect sense: there is clearly a division of opinion. But that same root also means a part or a piece, a portion of a whole. My old friend, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, challenges us to consider that “A machloket, a disagreement for the sake of Heaven, is one in which we acknowledge that each person around the table merits his or her piece, chelek, of the conversation. Imagine embracing the idea that when someone you vehemently disagree with advocates his or her position, that the discussion needs that opposing point for the discourse to be whole.”

Remember Kristof’s observation that we live in two Americas? It turns out that there is indeed research that confirms exactly what he describes. It is called “motive attribution asymmetry,” and is the topic of a 2014 study of American Democrats and Republicans… and of Israelis and Palestinians. It shows that in both situations, each group tends to attribute their own group’s aggression to ingroup love more than outgroup hate, and to attribute the other group’s aggression to hate more than their own group’s love. In both cases then, it seems that each group not only believes that they are right, but they are certain that the other group is coming from a place of darkness.

And once we are certain that the other is coming not only from a place of disagreement, or even simply being wrong, but of hate, there can be no disagreement for the sake of heaven, no machloket l’shem shamayim. That disagreement cannot be whole, because it is missing a piece.

Of course, Jewish tradition understands that the most profound learning takes place when we are challenged to articulate what we believe to be true and why. The stronger our position, the more it will be strengthened by questioning and deeper exploration.

But it takes a willingness not only to be the one to whom the other listens, but a willingness to listen to what the other has to say. We need to be seen, but we have to strive to see, as well.

The Talmud tells us: “Shnayim yoshvim v’yesh baynehem divrei Torah, Shechinah shrooyah baynayhem” – When two people sit together and words of Torah pass between them –– the Divine presence is there as well.

When there is enough of a connection between us that we can learn from one another, Judaism tells us, God is present, as well.

The Divine presence is not much with us these days. We rarely have disagreements the sake of heaven, because these days especially, we rarely talk about anything of substance with people who have a different viewpoint. In fact, in the age of social media, it is easier than ever to insure that we are living inside echo chambers, hearing only from like-minded folks who reinforce our already formed positions, reading news reports and opinion pieces from outlets whose reporting is acceptable to us. And believe me, I am not immune to that. Just a few days ago, I found myself ready to remove someone from one of my social media accounts because I was so displeased with something he posted with which I strongly disagree. I stopped myself, in no small part because I realized how hypocritical it would be to do that and deliver this sermon.

“So, young man, how about an argument?”

On this day, we must ask ourselves: How many times have we looked at a decision someone made, or a position someone took about any matter, and built a case around them, their motivations, and their moral commitments before we asked them any real questions? Did we allow ourselves to be at all genuinely curious, were we able to set aside judgment and wonder, maybe even ask, “what motivates you to take that position?” Why do you believe this is right and just? When we close off even the effort to understand each other, we not only damage our relationships with each other, but we damage our own souls.

So I want to offer us all a challenge today.

And it is one to which I have already committed myself.

I challenge every one of us to identify someone whose political beliefs are substantially different than our own, and talk with them sometime between now and Thanksgiving. Really talk. You can take the first five minutes for pleasantries, but after that, it has to be substantive. It will only work, of course, if you are open and honest and at the same time, respectful. Ask real, honest questions. Try to understand where the other person is coming from, without being defensive without putting the other on the defensive.

As I said, I have already committed to doing so myself. I will be meeting soon with a member of our congregation, who may well be sitting here right now, who has different political views than do I, and I invite anyone else in our congregation who believes that you and I have different political sensibilities that would like to have such a conversation with me to do so, as well. I want to better understand where you are coming from, and I hope that you will want to understand better where I am coming from.

More important, however, is that those conversations happen with each other and with the people we need to heal and to sustain relationships.

And I want to offer a text from the Talmud that can help, at least, with how we might approach such a conversation:

Our Rabbis taught: The scholars were once in need of something from a noblewoman where all the great men of Rome were to be found [a euphemism for a high class courtesan]. This was not a task that most would take on — men of reputation such as the rabbis would not want to be seen anywhere near such a place. But Rabbi Joshua agreed to go. So Rabbi Joshua went, and since his disciples followed him almost everywhere, his disciples went as well, but apparently he did not tell them where they were going or why.

When they arrived, it was apparent to his students where they were, and one can well imagine what they imagined, not knowing what business Rabbi Joshua had with her. When Rabbi Joshua reached the door of her house, he removed his tefillin, his phylacteries (which were commonly worn all day long in those days) at a respectable distance, which is what one would do if one was going to partake of the services of a courtesan, entered, and shut the door in front of them. After he came out he descended, and had a ritual bath, which, again, is what one would do if he had engaged with a courtesan as one would typically do, and he then sat down with his disciples.

By all accounts, it would have been easy for them to imagine exactly what Rabbi Joshua was up to. After all, here was a woman who was used to being paid for her favors. And what stronger evidence would one need that knowing that it would be wrong to bring his tefillin with him into her chamber, he took them off… And then, upon exiting, he went into ritual bath.

But the text continues that Rabbi Joshua said to his students, 'When I removed my tefillin, of what did you suspect me?'

'We thought, our Master reasons, "Let not sacred words enter a place of uncleanness".

'When I shut [the door], of what did you suspect me?'

'We thought, perhaps he has to discuss an affair of State with her.'

'When I descended and had a ritual bath, of what did you suspect me?'

'We thought, perhaps some spittle spurted from her mouth upon our Rabbi's garments.'

'By the Temple Service!' he exclaimed to them', 'it was exactly so; and just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.'

Real dialogue, real engagement begins with extending the benefit of the doubt to the other.

Extending the benefit of the doubt is not the same as accepting or validating the position of the other. Extending the benefit of the doubt is a starting place, not the conclusion. It may well be that by the end of the conversation, you are just as convinced, perhaps even more convinced about how right you are and how wrong the other person is. But if you start not by being neutral, but inclined to judge the other person as favorably as possible, then your conversation will be one of Torah, and not just opinion… And the Divine presence will join you. You may even find yourselves deep in conflict – and if it is a conflict rooted in honest search of truth and righteousness, it will be a machloket l’shem shamayim -- a conflict in the name of heaven. And while we may still disagree, we can prevent turning our adversary into an enemy.

My challenge includes a request.

I request that you take a few minutes to reflect on your conversation and if you are prepared to do so, send me a sentence or two about the experience. I will keep them confidential. And once we have critical mass, I will post them, without attribution, so that everyone can be as comfortable as possible sharing their experience. It may turn out to be enlightening. It may turn out to be frustrating. God willing, it will not turn out to be horrifying, but that is a risk that we will just have to take if we are going to be genuinely open to one another. And then, perhaps in early December, we will gather for a session or two to study the concept of machloket, and we can use our own feedback as one of the texts. Who knows, we may even have a machloket about machloket!

And that will be fine. Because that is the Jewish way.

“So, young man, how about an argument?”

And maybe, just maybe we will bring a little more light into this world. Maybe, just maybe will be able to look into each other’s faces and see that the person with whom we disagree is our brother or sister. Maybe, just maybe, will be able to see the holiness in each other, even, especially those with whom we disagree. Especially those with whom we disagree vehemently.

And then we will know that night has ended and the day has begun.

May the year ahead the one in which we are bearers of light.

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783