Resolution on Civil Discourse
Adopted May 2010
Whereas political discourse has become increasingly rancorous and disparaging, replacing reasoned argument with demonizing invective and ad hominem attacks;
Whereas public debates too often descend into what novelist Thomas Mann calls, “The politics of accusation and moral annihilation,”;
Whereas Jewish law and ethics have deep-rooted concerns about the power of words to harm. We learn from Proverbs, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” We learn from Rabbi Israel Salanter, “Be vigilant in protecting the honor of all people, especially those with whom you disagree.” We learn from countless examples in the Talmud how to conduct vigorous debate without abusive language, thereby exemplifying the principle of kavod ha-briyot ;
Whereas John Adams, one of the founders of American democracy and its second president also warned about the necessity of civil discourse: “I fear that in every assembly members will obtain an influence by noise rather than sense, by meanness rather than greatness, and by ignorance and not learning. There is one thing…that must be attempted and most sacredly observed, or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of every rank, or we are undone,”;
Whereas the most egregious misuse of language draws on imagery from the Holocaust to demonize political opponents; and
Whereas democracy will fail unless society treats issues and ideas as serious questions that require critical thinking and wide, respectful discussion, not as sticks with which to beat one’s opponent.
Therefore be it resolved that we as rabbis act as models of proper dialogue in all of our communications including our discussions with one another, both in person and electronically;
Be it further resolved that leaders and representatives of the Rabbinical Assembly continue to speak out against demonizing rhetoric (especially Holocaust imagery) and ad hominem attacks within the Jewish world, in North America and in Israel, reaffirming our 1994 resolution, “On Civil Discourse and Violence in Communal Jewish Life”;
Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly advise our institutions to establish clear norms for discussion, debate and communication;
Be it further resolved that members of the Rabbinical Assembly counsel its constituents to be discriminating consumers of entertainment and information, avoiding angry rhetoric and speaking out against personal attacks; and
Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly call upon government and international officials, and members of the media to conduct themselves according to the highest standards of civility in all public discourse.