Kol Nidre--A conversation about conversations

Rabbi Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Kol Nidre 5780
October 8, 2019

Standing here tonight, at a time we think about sin and repentance, I am grateful for our community. In many ways, we are effective communicators. We frequently discuss significant issues, issues of shul management, finances and liturgy with kindness and respect. Yet when we look at the Al-Chet tonight, we see that of the 44 listed sins, more than a quarter are about the words that come from our mouth. Regretting what we say is not a new problem--it’s as old as sin! This evening I pray we can have a conversation about conversations, one which will lead us to having disagreements for the sake of heaven, machlochet l’shem shamayim, rather than the opposite. I want to share with you three pairs of arguers, two Talmudic and one secular, and how they resolved (or didn’t) their issues.

“On May 22, 1856, the "world's greatest deliberative body" became a combat zone.” On that date the Preston Brooks, Democratic Pro-Slavery Representative from South Carolina entered the Senate floor and beat Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachussetts Republican Senator and abolitionist, with a walking stick.

The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his "Crime Against Kansas" speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator." Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator's stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery." 

While our house and senate have not resorted to violence against one another recently, the dialogue is not exactly warm. In any given week, the caustic speech in Tallahassee, Washington, DC or even in sunny Saint Petersburg, can destroy relationships. Where friends and family used to have disagreements over issues, they now burn bridges.

In recent years, our speech has become a minefield. If you or I speak about, loving our neighbor, caring for the stranger, or even respect for one another, we can be called names or worse. That doesn’t even approach the level of vitriol on whether or not we repeat the Amidah or invite women to read Torah or be called to the Torah as the daughter of a Cohen! The angry response may be to our faces, behind our backs--or even worse, on the internet!

Israel, one of our three prime values (God, Torah and Israel), can barely be discussed in Jewish contexts, much less in broader society. If we were in Israel, we would discover that Israelis have no problem sharing their opinions with anyone who will listen, but in our American context, some of those same opinions would be seen as completely unacceptable.

As a rabbi, I think that most of my sermons should spark discussion, inspire you, challenge you, push you to think about big ideas and how our Jewish values resolve these issues.

Yet I must admit trepidation in discussing HOW we speak to one another. Outside of this room and even in this building, we find it harder and harder to talk WITH one another. We have no problem talking AT one another, making assumptions about what the other is saying and explaining why they are wrong. We stand here not as Torah Jews, but as Rabbinic Jews. The Torah is the basis for our lives, our Ketubah with God, but it is the Oral Torah, the rabbinic corpus that helps us actually live. Our rabbinic tradition is one that is filled with arguments. We all know that two Jews have three opinions. We’ve all heard the joke of the guy on the desert island who built two synagogues--the one he goes to and the one he won’t be caught dead in.

Bava Metzia 84a shares the tragic arc of the love story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. By this time Rabbi Yochanan was a famous scholar and teacher, known for his wisdom and his beauty. Resh Lakish begins as a brigand, a thief, and seeing Rabbi Yochanan bathing in the river, he jumps in after him. Rabbi Yochanan invites him to trade his strength for Torah. Resh Lakish accepts and marries Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. They learn Torah together and become excellent friends, really family. Their nuanced arguments are found in dozens of places throughout the 2711 pages of Talmud.

One day they are arguing a technical point: at what moment in the manufacturing process is a weapon considered to be a weapon. Rabbi Yochanan defers to Resh Lakish in the most insulting way possible: לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע, “a thief knows the tools of thievery,” he says. Rabbi Yochanan attacked his hevruta, his study partner, reminded him he was not originally a scholar and implied that he had not changed over the years. Resh Lakish is so hurt that he gets sick and dies. Rabbi Yochanan could not be swayed during the remaining days of Resh Lakish’s life to make up, but following his death, realizing his error, he goes into a deep depression.

After some time, his colleagues send him an incredibly bright student to console him. They begin conversing and the student gives a dozen reasons why Rabbi Yochanan is correct in his argumentation. He replies “Resh Lakish would tell me 24 reasons I was wrong!” He goes out, tears his clothes, and publicly mourns Resh Lakish. Then he dies. 

The narrative is very dark. It is one of hope squashed, of friendship destroyed because someone went too far. When there was the opportunity for apology and forgiveness, stubbornness won and tragedy ensued. The loss of their friendship directly led to the death of both these incredible scholars.

In contrast to these warring scholars, we see a much more positive example, with an earlier pair, Hillel and Shammai. Throughout Jewish sources we hear about their differences: Hanukkah, conversion, marriage, divorce and everything in between. Yet even as they are our tradition’s ultimate foils, great respect is always demonstrated between the two sides. Their children and disciples married one another. They do not insult, or dehumanize. They do not hold grudges.

Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a "Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Shammai and Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Hillel."]

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

Just because the argument is for the sake of heaven, does not mean that there is not a right or wrong answer. We can disagree, respectfully and we can still be incorrect. Even if we are right, it does not give us permission to hurt the other.

The Gemara asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

What made the school of Hillel’s answer correct in the eyes of Gd? They showed significant respect to the school of Shammai. Our tradition is one that accepts multiple understandings. The classic editions of Torah commentaries or Talmud editions are not entirely linear. They make beautiful pictures as the commentary surrounds the source texts. We grow and learn when we study together, when we use the experiences of one another to help us better parse the texts. Our Torah becomes more complete when the conversations continue over the generations.

After morning minyan we have discussed the importance of studying with a hevruta, with a partner, so that we can increase our understanding. From my time at JTS to this day, I study with colleagues and with you so that I can grow my Torah. I cannot teach, preach, live if I do not study on a regular basis. For that reason, I have spent the last seven years attempting to study a page of Talmud per day. Perhaps in January you will join me as the cycle begins again?

Throughout the Talmud we discover pairs of scholars, from Yossi ben Yoezer and Yossi ben Yochanan, who lived in the time of the Maccabees, to Ravina and Rav Ashi several hundred years later. These pairs pushed each other. They challenged one another’s arguments. They thought carefully about how to refine one another’s thoughts. Tractate Ta’anit 7a teaches us that שני תלמידי חכמים מחדדין זה את זה בהלכה “two scholars sharpen one another”, that through discussion and debate they are better able to understand a text. Later in that tractate there is a powerful phrase poetically translated by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, “Give me havruta or give me death.” How can we bring these relationships to our lives? How can we bring civility back?

First, let us remember that there is only one team--humanity. Whether we are working to repair the environment, fix healthcare or find the right melody for Adon Olam, we are not fighting a war. We are rarely playing zero sum games. There are almost always ways for everyone to “win”--if we reframe our thinking. We have to be open to more than one solution. And if we are wrong, let us learn to grow from our mistakes. Working towards the common good requires all of us to work!

Second, let us listen to one another. Many people listen to others only enough to figure out how they are going to respond. We may be hearing the words, but we are not really processing them. When we do respond, we should focus on the substance of the argument. Let’s talk policy not personality. If we are trying to find the most Jewish way to include music on Friday night, let us look at our history--not only what the synagogue down the street does.

Third, let us remember the most important lesson of all. We are all created in the image of Gd. Genesis teaches us that every human being, not just those who agree with our politics, is holy. We all have the spark of the Divine. If we see holiness in one another, we are far more likely to treat the other with respect. In the words of Buber, we can create an I-Thou, a relationship driven conversation, instead of an I-IT, a transactional conversation.

There is one rather large caveat on civility. It is very hard to be civil when someone else is not being civil to you! It is very challenging to be civil when someone ignores all facts and creates their own out of thin air. Regardless, in our homes, in our shul, ad hominem arguments have no place. We do not advance an argument through name calling, insults or hurting others. We advance an argument through respectful dialogue.

Today’s conversation is not a one and done. It has been discussed for thousands of years and will require continued study, continued practice, and continued effort. Our speech patterns and argumentative styles began when we were children. Bringing them to adulthood is a lifetime project. Rabbi Elliot Dorff and the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards recently published two different papers on “modest communication” and “harmful communication.” In the coming year, we will find opportunities to discuss them and other sources on healthy conflict resolution. As we enter a presidential election year, more than ever, we must find ways to stand together, to work together, to live together--regardless of our leanings.

G’mar hatimah tovah, may you be SEALED in the book of life.