Jewish Texts and Learning

Barry Shrage: Despising Strife and Loving Peace

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Despising Strife and Loving Peace

D’var Torah – Shavuot 2010, Congregation Shaarei Tefillah
by Barry Shrage


In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain (Exodus 19:1-2).

Rashi comments that the verbs for they arrived (ba-u), they journeyed (va'yis-u), they arrived (va'yavo-u), and they encamped (va'yachanu) are all plural. But when the text states: “Israel encamped there,” the Torah uses a singular verb (va'yichan). In a well known comment, Rashi notes that the encampment at Sinai was “like one person with one heart” (k'ish echad, b'lev echad), although until that point every encampment had been filled with complaining and rebellious Jews!
According to a commentary quoted by Rabbi Yissocher Frand:

Great is peace and unity for in connection with all the travels we find “They traveled,” “They camped,” indicating a multiplicity of opinions and strife. However when they came to Sinai, they camped in unity as it is written (singularly) “Israel encamped opposite the mountain.” The Almighty said, “Since they despised strife and loved peace and camped as one person, the time has come for Me to give them My Torah.”

Israel's encampment opposite the mountain was "k'ish ecahd, b'lev echad." There, the unity was created because of the love that bound the community together. Everyone felt they were brothers and sisters. This was real unity, not merely superficial unity to achieve a common agenda. This sense of identity of "k'ish echad" of course led to an identity of purpose as well – "b'lev echad."

They felt they were family, they shared a common identity and so they were able to develop a common purpose.
So peace and friendship and shared purpose bring Torah – and perhaps ultimately, redemption.

And what does disunity and hatred bring? We all know the terrible answer: the Gemara in Talmud Yoma 9b lists “Sinat Chinam - Causeless Hatred” as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. According to Rashi, “Sinat Chinam - Causeless Hatred” is hatred directed toward individuals who have not committed any action for which it would be justifiable to hate them.

Peace brings Torah and redemption but hatred brings destruction.

Over the last 23 years, as a member of Shaarei Tefillah and as a person who works for the Jewish community, I have had far more than my share of peace and friendship and unity and great relationships. In my experience, relationships are at the heart of the idea of community. The more and the deeper our relationships, the more love binds our community together, the more we enjoy working together and the more we seek and are willing to compromise to form a common purpose. In Boston, we have dreamed and planned and many have worked unceasingly to build relationships so that our sense of communal peace might create space that we might fill with Torah, so that God might say of us:

Since they despised strife and loved peace and camped as one person, the time has come for Me to give them My Torah.

But there is a contradiction here: The study of Torah is filled with argumentation. In fact, it can be said that argument is at the heart of Torah. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his new book, Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, describes the process:

The standard form of a Mishnaic teaching is: Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that. The standard form of Midrash—the literature of early Jewish biblical exegesis—is a series of interpretations, usually incompatible with one another, of the same words. The Talmud, instead of softening the arguments, deepens and intensifies them. Mikraot Gedolot, the classic Jewish editions of the books of the Bible, come with multiple commentaries, Rashi saying one thing, his grandson Rashbam another, lbn Ezra saying a third, Nachmanides explaining the views of others and then disagreeing with them all. Jews know what it is to argue: it is their primary form of discourse. But an argument is a collaborative activity a conversation scored for many voices.

So, to allow for dynamic and creative debate without destroying the relationships that hold communities together, the tradition provides rules for argument, for the seeking of truth among brothers and sisters that Rabbi Sacks powerfully describes.

  • He reminds us that “God lives in language” and that words are sacred and have the power to build and to destroy.

God made the natural world with words. We make or unmake the social world with words. The distinctive feature of homo sapiens is our power of language. It is this that allowed human beings to communicate with one another and thus form collaborative groups. The rabbis said that “evil speech” is worse than the three cardinal sins—idolatry, murder and incest—combined, because evil speech (gossip, slander, character assassination) destroys the relationships of trust on which society depends. So words are holy.

      And they must be used with great care.
  • He warns us that “when words end violence begins.”  When Cain stops talking to Abel, murder happens and when communication breaks down between Joseph and his brothers, violence becomes inevitable.

If we can speak together, we will be able to live together. Speech heals hate; silence incubates it. Such is the verdict of Jewish narrative and law.

  • He stresses that “without argument there is no justice.”

Justice, in the Hebrew Bible, is a transcendental quality to which God himself is answerable. No power, even divine power, is self-authenticating. No force carries moral authority by virtue of might alone. Even God, ruler and creator of heaven and earth, is a constitutional monarch, bound by moral law.

For justice to be done and be seen to be done, both sides need to be heard. Until an argument for the defense is heard, there can be no guarantee that the verdict is correct. In the case of God, we have faith in the total justice of his decree. But in Judaism faith is not blind. Therefore there must be a trial, and that is what the dialogue between Abraham and God is. The plaintiff is God, representing justice. The accused are the people of Sodom. Abraham is cast, by God, in the role of counsel for the defense. The judge of all the earth cannot be seen to be performing justice until the case for the defense has been made.

  • Rabbi Sacks insists on the importance of dissent and that a free society requires more than the tolerance of dissent, it requires acknowledging the “dignity of dissent.”

The free society depends, in other words, on the dignity of dissent. Judaism itself is predicated on the dignity of dissent. That is what is happening in the dialogues between Abraham and God, and between Hillel and Shammai. Dismiss a contrary view… and you impoverish the entire culture. The book of Job is built on this idea. It is not about whether Job is right or wrong in his complaint about the injustice he feels has been done to him. It is that he has the right to speak, to challenge God, to be heard and (in some sense) to be answered.

  • Sacks believes in “argument as a mode of conflict containment.”

Cohesion does not need agreement. It needs respect for difference under the overarching canopy of a shared culture. So the sages devised a culture of conflict containment in which every view is granted a voice, every opinion tested against the evidence of sacred texts, and even rejected views like those of the school of Shammai were preserved and treated with respect. Thus was born — continuous with the character of the Hebrew Bible, but in a non-prophetic age — a unique rabbinic culture of questioning, critical reflection and argument, containing without suppressing the differences of opinion that must characterize any group of people who think long and hard about the problems they face together.

Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. That, supremely, is what Judaism is.
  • Finally and most importantly, Sacks insists that arguments are sacred and need to be carried out “for the sake of heaven and truth.”

Any argument for the sake of heaven will have enduring value, but any argument not for the sake of heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and all his company. Following Meiri and other medieval commentators, the sages are here distinguishing between an argument for the sake of truth and one for the sake of victory. Hillel and Shammai were arguing for the sake of truth, the determination of God’s will. Korach, who challenged Moses and Aaron for leadership, was arguing for the sake of victory: he too wanted to be a leader.

In an argument for the sake of truth, if you win, you win, but if you lose, you also win, because being defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory. We are enlarged thereby. In an argument for the sake of victory, if you lose, you lose, but if you win, you also lose, for by diminishing your opponents, you diminish yourself. Moses won the argument against Korach, but only at the cost of invoking a miracle in which the earth opened up and swallowed his opponents. Yet this did not end the argument. The next day the people gathered against Moses, saying:

‘You have killed the people of the Lord’ (Num. 16:41). In this kind of confrontation, there is no benign outcome. You can aim only at minimizing the tragedy.

But these days it seems that we are forgetting these rules of creative engagement so that disunity and strife grow day by day. The political culture, in the United States and in Israel, which seemed as bad as it could get, seems to be growing coarser and more destructive. Parties have stopped talking to each other altogether and the possibility of constructive compromise, of intelligent decision making, of peace, grows ever dimmer.

Worse, all sides in the political argument, both in Israel and in the US, seem intent on dragging the American Jewish community into a destructive no-win contest between the left and the right.

“The President and the Democratic Party are enemies of Israel and any Jew that supports them is a fool or a traitor,” they say.
Or

“President Bush and the Republicans were enemies of peace and human rights and the poor and any Jew who supported them was a fool or a traitor to Judaism’s most basic teachings.”

The peace of the Jewish community and our ability to work together in common cause seems threatened as we are pulled between the extremes. Moreover, as our consul general frequently warns, the political polarization of the Jewish community threatens the bipartisan support for Israel upon which the entire American-Israel relationship hangs.

But why? Why now? And why with such terrible anger?

Rabbi Sacks suggests that at the heart of divisiveness and polarization is a terrible fear, a sense of abandonment and a failure of optimism and courage. Too often when confronted with the world’s hostility and hypocrisy we remember the curse/blessing/curse of Balaam, the pagan prophet who is called upon to curse Israel as they are in the desert on their way to the Land of Promise.

It is a people that dwells alone,
not reckoned among the nations (Numbers 23:9).
That, says Sacks, is the perennial Jewish danger.

Jews these days increasingly seem to be finding themselves under attack and alone. That may be the Jewish condition, but it is not the Jewish vocation. It is yet another negative consequence of believing Jews to be the people that dwells alone.

If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, that will be your fate. You will convince yourself that you have no friends; you are isolated; no one understands you; the world hates you. Your efforts at self-explanation will be half-hearted. Your expectations of winning allies will be low. You will not invest as much effort as others do, to make your case in the audience chamber of the world. For inwardly you are convinced that all efforts will fail. You will have decided that this is the Jewish fate that nothing can change. It was ever thus and always will be.

Jews have enemies, but we also have friends, and if we worked harder at it we would have more.

In the end, Sacks believes that our sense of isolation, while real in many ways in an increasingly hostile world, is also self-imposed in that we sometimes seem to welcome it, even to revel in it, with terrible consequences for Jewish unity:

A people that dwells alone will eventually be full of people who dwell alone. Unable to construct relationships with others, it will eventually be unable to sustain relationships within its own ranks. It will fragment, religiously into a series of non-communicating sects, politically into a multiplicity of parties. It will suffer destructive divisions, internal wars of culture and creed. Even its communities will be unstable. They will give rise to disagreements they cannot resolve, and they too will split apart. Families will fragment. There will be high rates of divorce, even domestic violence. If these syndromes sound familiar, they are. All of them afflict the Jewish people today, in Israel and outside.

This would be tragic under any circumstances. It is doubly so because Judaism contains some of the most original thinking about relationships between self and other in the entire religious experience of humankind. Judaism is about relationships.

We live in a world where Israel seems to be delegitimized every day; where the United Nations can’t seem to find another country worthy of condemnation among scores of violent dictatorships and genocidal conflicts; where Israel is faced with the very real threat of annihilation by many of the same nations that would judge it in the court of world opinion.

In our pain and frustration every internal Jewish conflict can seem to be a matter of life or death. To make matters worse, the Internet provides a perfect forum for those whose own political agendas drive their communication with the American Jewish community, exacerbating our worst nightmares and helping us find scapegoats for our anger and targets for our frustration within our own people. Polarization, vituperation and divisiveness make it increasingly difficult to find common ground and act in our true self-interest.

As Rabbi Sacks puts it:

There is too much anger and vituperation in the Jewish world today; too much speaking and too little listening; too much condemnation and too little understanding; too much self-righteousness, too little humility; too much seeking respect and too little paying respect; too much preoccupation with our fears and pains, too little attention paid to other people’s fears and pains.

The inability of Jews to contain their conflicts is a recurring tragedy, one that continues unabated to this day. It remains Jewry’s single greatest weakness. Time and again, Jews find themselves unable to speak with a single voice. It leads, often, to Jews being their own worst enemies. In a world in which Jews are not short of enemies, this is devotion to divisiveness beyond the call of duty.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-State Palestine, famously wrote that if the Second Temple was destroyed and the people scattered through Sinat Chinam, causeless hatred, then the Temple will be rebuilt and the people gathered together again though Ahavat Chinam, unconditional love.

But the use of the English word "hatred" may be too strong. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 27b as well as the Chafetz Chaim describe “hatred” as a situation where people don't speak with each other or avoid meeting.

This warning seems particularly important for our community and for our Jewish people in this difficult, divisive, and polarized time, a time in which we face real dangers from real enemies including a threat of actual nuclear annihilation. In this environment, debate is essential, but the community must also be able to act. Dissent must never be allowed to impede community action, but the dissenters who support Israel and act in what they believe to be its best interest, must never be excluded from the community.

This issue emerged recently when CJP included JStreet in our community’s “New England Celebrates Israel” celebration and in our communal farewell to our highly respected Consul General, Nadav Tamir. JStreet placed itself far outside the communal consensus on many issues, and many Jewish organizations protested their inclusion. But on the advice of Nadav and the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, we included them. Our theory was that anyone who wanted to celebrate Israel or express appreciation for our Consul General ought to be able to join, but the Ambassador’s thinking was more profound: He believes that Israel’s security depends on a strong American Jewish community – and that our strength depends on the largest possible tent filled with Jews tied together by strong and respectful relationships. Israel, in the end, considered our unity to be in its own national security interest.

In other words, Nadav and the Government of Israel seem to agree with Rabbi Sacks that:

A people that dwells alone will eventually be full of people who dwell alone. Unable to construct relationships with others, it will eventually be unable to sustain relationships within its own ranks. It will fragment, religiously into a series of non-communicating sects, politically into a multiplicity of parties. It will suffer destructive divisions, internal wars of culture and creed. Even its communities will be unstable. They will give rise to disagreements they cannot resolve, and they too will split apart.

And that a bitterly divided American Jewish community is a real threat to Israel’s security.

In fact, Ambassador Oren acted on this idea when he continued his dialogue with JStreet and announced that “the J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving. The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process.” He cited J Street’s support in December for the Iran sanctions bill, its condemnation of the Goldstone Report and its denunciation of the British Court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, as evidence that JStreet is now much more in the mainstream.

Locally, we reached out to JStreet when a small group of students protested Ambassador Oren’s appearance at Brandeis University. JStreet joined the entire Jewish community in welcoming Ambassador Oren to our community. This, of course, does not mean that we don’t still have profound disagreements, but it does mean that we’ve preserved our relationships and maintained civility.

The Jewish community faces many challenges: supporting Israel; strengthening Jewish identity; education and spiritual life; increasing Taglit-Birthright Israel participation; fighting Jewish poverty here and around the world; working for the betterment of the general community; meeting the needs of unemployed Jews and Jews with disabilities; reaching out to interfaith families and others who feel alienated from Jewish life. We can agree on our approach to some issues and disagree on others, but in the end, we can’t afford to lose a single Jew from the community or from the vigorous debate that will help shape our responses.

We may disagree on our approach to Israel’s security today, but we will need each other tomorrow to build a day school or a home for Jews with disabilities!  Even in the face of vigorous debate, we must remain connected and our relationships must remain strong and respectful. Rabbi Sacks says it best:

The concept of “argument for the sake of heaven” allowed the sages to reframe disagreement as a unifying, not just divisive, force. They went further still, in the yet more radical idea that each of two opposing opinions can represent “the words of the living God.” This is how they characterized the famous disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai:

For three years there was a dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. The former claimed, “The law is in agreement with our views,” and the latter insisted, “The law is in agreement with our views.” Then a voice from heaven (bat kol) announced, “These and those are the words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the school of Hillel.”

Since “both these and those are the words of the living God,” why was the school of Hillel entitled to have the law determined in accordance with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the school of Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the teachings of the school of Shammai before their own.

The greatest minds know that theirs is not the only truth. The school of Hillel knew that more than one interpretation can be given. That is why they studied the views of their opponents alongside, and even before, their own. They were “kindly and modest” because they realized that truth is not an all-or-nothing affair. It is a conversation, scored for a multiplicity of voices. The intellectual arrogance of knowing that you are right, your opponents wrong, is ruled out from the beginning. In the search to know what God wants of us, here, now, every voice is part of the argument, and the argument itself is as important as its outcome.

So, in Boston, we will continue to build relationships and maintain civility so that our sense of communal peace might create some space that we might fill with Torah. So that God might say of us:

Since they despised strife and loved peace and camped as one person, the time has come for Me to give them My Torah.
Chag Sameach.

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