Rabbinic literature is dedicated to respectful dialogue across large divides. By preserving minority opinions and framing a process of discourse, this literature models how we can talk even when the world seems to be falling apart. One such classic story is the Oven of Achnai. I won’t belabor the story here – essentially, Rabbi Eliezer ends up arguing with the rest of the Rabbis about the purity of a particular oven. Many teach this story because Rabbi Eliezer invokes a variety of miracles to prove his point, all rejected by the Rabbis. Finally, a heavenly voice calls out in support of Rabbi Eliezer, saying he is right here and in all cases. The Rabbis essentially rule God out of order in favor of majority rule and logical argumentation.
Yet less often taught, which I learned from Joel Rubinstein at NYU in his amazing book Talmudic Stories, is the key word of the whole story: Kavod or Respect. This story mourns the inability of the Rabbis to see past this dispute. Their long history and connections are abandoned as the Rabbis cast out Rabbi Eliezer. It wreaks needless harm and devastation on the world and the sanctity of their endeavor.
We too live in an era lacking in kavod. Online and elsewhere insults and nasty demonizing language predominate. Our political culture, left and right, has been infected by a crudity that poisons real discourse. We need to find ways again to talk respectfully to one another even when the gaps are real and painful.
Martin Luther King talks a lot about breaking the cycle of hate. Our tendency is to respond to hate and anger with hate and anger of our own. Yet nothing changes until we choose love. When confronted with love, hate in the long run will be defeated. He staked his life on love and changed our world as a result.
Online, I regularly see anger and hateful words. I see insults when someone strays slightly from “orthodoxy.” My daughter saw a link from a woman questioning the efficacy of the women’s march.
A man made a nasty youtube video accusing this woman of being a “secret” Trump supporter and then proceeded to use sexist language to belittle her all while defending the women’s march.
Kol Emeth endeavors to be an intentionally pluralistic community. We know that perhaps 15% of our congregation supports Trump and we choose to create a safe space for a minority. That work, in our increasingly polarized era, is only going to get harder. Yet that means we are all the more committed to the effort.
Dr. King warned passionately of the temptation to use immoral ends to achieve moral means. But he called on his followers to be different and to realize that a moral transformation of our civilization required moral means to achieve moral ends. Inspired by his words, I am calling on our community to speak with respect and love even across deep political divides. Inspired by Dr. King, I am calling upon us to leave behind insults and demonization in favors of respect and argumentation. We need in forthright ways to state our positions and to advocate for the changes we seek in our culture. Yet we need to do so in a fashion that is filled with blessing.
Perhaps in this small way we can begin to heal that which is broken and bring about the change we so desperately need.
Rabbi David Booth