The Lost Art of Disagreement – Rosh Hashanah Day 1

Just a few days ago, I went to the grocery store with two of my kids – it was one of the grocery stores where I am sure that many of you shop as well.  We were putting our items on the little conveyor belt, waiting to pay when we saw something so disturbing that it will stay with me for a long time.

We saw a family – two brothers one about 6 or 7 years old and the other about 13 or 14.  They were with their mother and grandmother.  The younger boy was having a tantrum.  Nothing new.  Maybe he didn’t get to buy the cereal that he wanted or maybe he didn’t want to be at the grocery store in the first place.  But, then the older brother started hitting, kicking and slamming the grocery cart into his little brother.  Maybe he was jealous of the attention the little one was getting, maybe he was tired of the sound of screaming, or maybe he was frustrated.

The mother got very upset, but instead of yelling at the older boy who had just violently attacked the younger one, she yelled at the little one to stop screaming and threatened to call the boy’s father if he couldn’t be quiet.

At first, it didn’t feel real.  I felt as if I was watching some dysfunctional family on a reality TV show.  As the mother pulled the screaming younger boy out of the store leaving only the grandmother and the older boy behind, I felt that someone had to say something to this teenage boy about his behavior.  Someone had to tell him that even when we are frustrated, even when we are angry, even when we are tired, we have an obligation to protect those who are smaller and weaker.  And with no one else stepping forward, I got the aliyah.  I had maybe 15 seconds to try to explain to him some things that parents should spend a lifetime teaching.

We never have permission to physically harm another person no matter how much we don’t like their behavior.  No one deserves to be beaten.  Besides, if we really want to influence someone’s behavior, we are far more effective communicating with our mouths and actions than we are with our fists and feet.  Sure, we might intimidate someone into changing their behavior in the short run, but in the long run they will resent us and defy us.  I’ll never know if I had any kind of impact on that young man’s life, but at least I tried.

Now, I need not tell anyone that this kind of behavior is not new.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been humans communicating badly and ineffectively.  When John Adams became president toward the end of the 18th century, he said: “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,”

I think if John Adams were still with us, he might conclude that we have reached that state of undone-ness.

I really believe that we see more outrageous behavior in public today than we used to see – whether it is our politicians, TV personalities or everyday people in grocery stores.  And I am not 100% sure why.  But I have a few ideas.

Growing up, I knew that no one really lived like the Cleavers, the Cunninghams or the Bradys – the All-American families portrayed on TV.  Sure they had to get the laughs and the ratings in order to stay on TV, but those families were out there as role models, as ideals.  They could be corny or campy, but there was underlying goodness to those characters.

But, then TV changed.  Even before the internet changed the way that we all view the world and take in information, a few TV hosts changed things for us.  Oprah Winfrey in particular – but other daytime TV hosts as well – invited guests onto their shows to discuss topics that had never been discussed in public venues before – abuse, addiction, affairs, depression and more.  A lot of positive came out of this – it got people talking about their problems and seeking help.  It made viewers realize that they were not the only people in the world dealing with a particular challenge.

However, a different breed of TV hosts like Jerry Springer and Morton Downey, Jr. invited guests onto their show to reveal all kinds of inappropriate family secrets in front of the wronged parties in the hopes that the families would get into screaming matches and fistfights on the sets of their shows.  It was like a bad car accident, and people couldn’t stop staring.  These guys got great ratings.

TV producers realized that using everyday people as talent was far cheaper than producing sitcoms and dramas with professional actors.  Every day people were looking for their 15 minutes of fame – and perhaps more money than they had ever earned before.  They believed that these shows were turning them into stars rather than using them and mocking them.  It was the perfect storm in which reality TV was born.

Today, instead of June, Ward and the Beaver, we have Kate Gosselin, The Situation and Snooki.  Today, instead of learning life’s little lessons from carefully crafted characters, we learn that conflict and outrageous behavior are what sells.

I don’t want overstate the influence of TV and other media.  After all, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and teachers SHOULD have more influence.  But, these messages are pervasive and persuasive.  So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when our kids think that conflict is good and that outrageous behavior will be rewarded in some way.

The truth is – it’s not just TV personalities and it’s not just our kids.  It’s all of us.  The tone of public discourse has changed dramatically in recent years – and NOT for the better.  It is impossible to watch a TV news show without seeing two so-called pundits yelling at each other.  Political debates are no longer debates – they are simply an exchange of insults and ‘gotcha’ statements.  It seems as if we have lost our ability to express our disagreement without resorting to childish slurs.

We are all that boy in the grocery store – angry and frustrated – but unsure how to express those complex feelings.

I worry that if we don’t re-learn the lost arts of debate and disagreement that we too will resort to fisticuffs.  And it’s not just in our American society.  It is taking place among Jews worldwide as well.

As part of my rabbinical training, I spent one year studying in Jerusalem at the Schechter Institute.  I very specifically remember making the plane reservations for that trip.  This was long before you could make flight reservations on-line.  You had to actually pick up the phone and call a travel agent.  As we were going through the details of the trip, the travel agent asked me which meals we wanted.  I said, “kosher” – but I was thinking to myself, “Aren’t all the meals on El Al kosher?”

She replied that there were six different kosher meals available – each one under the supervision of a different rabbi.  I was blown away by that statement.

After all, if ANY rabbi supervised the preparation of a meal and declared it kosher, that was certainly good enough for me.  I would never say that a rabbi’s supervision was inadequate or unreliable.  I trust that anyone who has completed his or her rabbinical training can tell the difference between ‘kosher’ and ‘treif.’

The truth is that the laws of kashrut evolved out of a sense of trust among members of a community.  We trust one another to prepare food for one another.  We have faith in the other members of our community.  I have always held the position that if someone tells me that their home is kosher or the meal that they have prepared for me is kosher, I trust him, I believe her.  Besides, as my teacher Rabbi Elliott Dorff used to say, “If someone accidentally declares that some non-kosher food is kosher and I eat it, the person who declared it kosher has the problem with God – not me.”

And so I told the travel agent that I simply wanted the default, regular meal on that flight to Israel.  Because if I chose one particular kosher meal, I would essentially be saying that I don’t trust those other rabbis who have put their seal of kashrut on those meals and I didn’t want to say that.  I know that it was a subtle statement, but it was really just small sign of larger things to come.

From the time that I was first ordained a rabbi in 1997, I have been asked on a number of occasions to provide a letter for members of my congregation confirming their status as Jews.  Such a letter is necessary to qualify for The Law of Return if one wishes to make aliyah to Israel. I would typically write out a letter with names of parents and grandparents, giving dates of bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings.  I would provide the person’s Hebrew name and then I would sign it as a rabbi.  It was my pleasure to help someone as they fulfilled their dream of moving to Israel.

However, as of the last five years or so, a letter from a non-Orthodox rabbi is no longer sufficient to prove one’s Jewish identity.  So, a life-long Conservative Jew who might be the child of life-long Conservative Jews needs to find an Orthodox rabbi to write them a letter.  And the letter of an Orthodox rabbi who may have met that Jew once has more value than the letter of a Conservative rabbi who has known that individual his whole life.  Rabbis no longer trust other rabbis to identify Jews.  They no longer have faith that we are all interested in what’s best for K’lal Yisrael – the Greater People of Israel.

It was not always this way.

The Talmud lists 312 disputes between the disciples of Hillel and the disciples of Shammai.  That’s a lot of arguing.  Some were hypothetical discussions and some were practical disputes.  Some were about big philosophical issues, while others were about small legalistic details.  But, there were 312 of them.

Despite these 312 disputes, the Talmud makes a point of telling us the following:  “Though these forbade what the others permitted… Beit Shammai, nevertheless, did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from the families of Beit Shammai (see BT Eruvin 14a).”  In other words, each school considered the members of the other school to be fully Jewish despite their many differences.

Instead of following this example from nearly 2,000 years ago, we have been moving in the opposite direction.  I don’t know how many disagreements there are between the Orthodox world and the rest of us, but there is a greater gap between the Orthodox world and the rest of Judaism than I can ever remember.  And this gap, this talking past each other, this unwillingness to accept the kashrut of fellow Jews, this unwillingness to trust someone who says he’s a Jew – it’s all creeping into the rest of our communal lives.

But there are a few people in this world who are working to counter this phenomenon.

In 1971, Rabbi Donniel Hartman – an Orthodox rabbi – moved to Jerusalem from Montreal.  Within a very short time, his house became Beit Midrash – a house of study.  Eventually, his students outgrew his house and they went to a synagogue.  They soon needed their own building.  This Beit Midrash became the Shalom Hartman Institute named for Donniel’s father.  It is no small coincidence that his father’s name is “Shalom – peace.”

Rabbi Hartman’s mission has been to remind us that independent thinking and varied opinions are ultimately good for the Jews.  It is only when we take into account all perspectives that we can truly engage in transformative thinking.  Before last week’s theatrics at the UN, he wrote about the split between so-called “AIPAC Jews” and so-called “J-Street Jews.”

About J-Street, he wrote the following:  “J StreetcriticizesIsraelpublicly and called on President Obama to refrain from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements in order to force Israel to end an occupation they believe is deeply harmful to the future of Israeli society. I think J Street was wrong in doing so, but does that place it and its thousands of supporters beyond the pale?”

About AIPAC Jews, he wrote: “AIPAC, with its official policy of supporting the agenda of the democratically elected government of the State of Israel, now finds itself defendingIsrael’s current policies on settlements and negotiations….In doing so, AIPAC serves to entrench the current status quo and occupation.”

In imploring the two sides to come together, he wrote:  “It is time for us all to sit together again at one table and to recognize that we are all necessary if we are going to prevail over indifference. We must all contract our egos and stop believing that our ideology or organization has somehow been endowed with the sole truth, the message, and the way.”

In those last two sentences, Rabbi Hartman really connected a lot of dots for me.  It comes down to ego.  When we think that our ideas are so much better than anyone else’s, when we think that we are more important than other people, when we think that our needs should be considered before someone else’s, when we think that we have all the answers, we start treating other people badly.  Sometimes, it leads to one person denigrating another verbally. But, for those who don’t have the verbal skills, it can lead to physical abuse as well.  In the public sphere, we have seen public figures speak to one another as if they were professional wrestlers, and we have seen individuals and groups use violence to make political statements.

The truth is that if we go back to the Talmud for a moment, there are only 5 actual disputes between Hillel and Shammai as individuals.  The remaining 307 took place among their disciples.  Hillel and Shammai were humble and respectful enough to have debates and disagreements.  It was when their students got caught up in the cause of preserving the great rabbis’ honor that things got a little testy.  But, somehow, back then, even after the School of Shammai lost about 300 of these 312 arguments, they never forgot the other side was made up of good guys too.

The Talmud ultimately tells of the end to a three-year-long debate between these two groups of scholars:  “Then a bat kol (divine voice)issued announcing, ‘Eilu v’Eilu Divrei Elohim Hayyim – [The utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel’. Since, however, both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beth Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beth Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before theirs (see BT Eruvin 13b).”

In other words, the School of Hillel was preferred because they considered other points of view, they treated their adversaries with respect and, as a result, they ultimately came to the wisest conclusions.

As Rabbi Hartman pointed out, we tend not to do that in this country.  We don’t do it in our Jewish community and we don’t do it in our greater community. It may not be a new problem, but it’s getting worse and not better.  We can no longer ignore it

In May, 2010, the members of the Rabbinical Assembly (of which I am one) passed a Resolution on Civil Discourse.  It’s a lengthy resolution, but here is part of it:  “Be it resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly advise our institutions to establish clear norms for discussion, debate and communication; 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 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.”

In other words, we should always act as if our children are watching us – because they are.  And then, they test out the behaviors they have learned from us and from TV in the strangest of places – like grocery stores.

Our country in general – and our community in particular – can be divided up in so many ways – a native vs. a transplant, married vs. single; young vs. old; gay vs. straight; Democrat vs. Republican and I could go on.  It’s easy to start thinking that our concerns are more important than someone else’s, our views make more sense than some else’s, or our ideas are more likely to succeed than someone else’s.  It’s easy to start thinking that if we can talk louder and longer, then we deserve to win the debate.  It’s human nature.

But when we do that, we end up undervaluing other people and their ideas, denying ourselves the opportunity to benefit from their thinking – which ultimately diminishes our own value.  Instead, let’s all follow the good advice of Rabbi Donniel Hartman:  Let us all contract our egos and stop believing that our ideology or organization has somehow been endowed with the sole truth, the message, and the way.  Let us treat the ideas and opinions of our fellow human beings with the utmost respect.

Let us follow the example of the School of Hillel who won virtually every argument in its ongoing debate with the School of Shammai by carefully considering Shammai’s positions and incorporating the best of those ideas into their own.  And in so doing, we will teach our children how to respect and be respected.

L’shanah Tovah,



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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