Old Challenges Anew – Political Civil War (Rosh Hashana 5780/2019

This post was delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

I chose to talk about political civil war a few months ago. Did I have any idea what was coming? Did you see the headlines this morning? NO! But here we are, so here we go.

2000 years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. What did it mean? How would Judaism, and Jews, survive the catastrophe? WHY did it happen? Many explanations were offered. The Romans knew it happened because the Roman Army was irresistible – images of Roman soldiers crushing the Jewish Revolt and carrying off the Temple Menorah still appear today on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The Romans believed the Roman Empire would stand forever; and for centuries, it stood, until it fell, undermined from within by decadence and factions. Another explanation: The small band of Jesus followers were convinced the Temple’s destruction demonstrated the mistake of rejecting him. These early Christians knew that, despite Roman persecution, Christianity would eventually reign supreme; and it did, until it did no longer, undermined by schism and corruption and Reformation and Enlightenment.

Why did the Rabbis think the Second Temple was destroyed? Some followed Biblical prophets from the First Temple’s destruction and blamed a lack of Jewish piety, the infection of foreign cultures and cults and ideas. Our story about banning Greek Wisdom? That text was written after the Second Temple’s destruction, the trembling caused by the pig’s hoof in the days of the Maccabees foreshadowing the Temple’s fall centuries later. Other rabbis saw the destruction as the dawn of the end of days, a battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. The main reason given by the Rabbis centuries later was sinat khinam – baseless hatred. The sin of baseless hatred, Jewish mutual intolerance, was just as bad as the sins that caused the First Temple’s destruction – “baseless hatred is equivalent to three sins: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and shedding blood.” (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 9b)

The historian Josephus, who saw the Second Temple’s destruction first hand, might have agreed with the rabbis – he describes Jewish Zealots as fanatics willing to kill anyone, even fellow Jews, before they withdrew to Masada for the final fatal siege. Why did the Second Temple burn? The Judean rebellion against Rome was doomed by military realities, but it was also doomed by schism and corruption and factions – the same political diseases that overthrew first the Roman Empire and then Christian hegemony. The same diseases we grapple with today.

Philosopher Mitchell Silver has called the Jewish people “The Veterans of History”. We have experienced much, we have made many mistakes, and we offer many lessons for what to do, and what NOT to do, in communal life. Jewish history is a record of our journey through the human experience. And therefore it is relevant not just to Jews, but to anyone who wants to learn from the human experience. The fact that we Jews kept talking and writing and writing and commenting and would not shut up about our experience means we provide a lot of material to consider.

So we are going to talk about political civil war today, in Israel and in America, not just in Jewish history a long time ago and far, far away. Some people complain when sports figures or sports talk radio go beyond sports to comment on issues of the day. They are told “shut up and dribble” – stay in your lane, stick to what you are supposed to be doing. If I only wanted to connect to Jewish history or Humanist philosophy at an academic level, I could have stayed in the university. A rabbi has a different job – our job is to make our philosophy, our culture, our identity relevant and meaningful to our real lives. If we avoid talking about the hard stuff, be it Israel or society or anything else, the divisions fester under the surface. If you walk out of these doors and forget what was said today and sung today, if what is said and sung here does not shift something or strengthen something inside you to help you face life, then we have both missed an opportunity.

History can be thought of as a spiral staircase – we come around again to certain moments, more advanced but able to look down and see the other times we have been here before. There are times our societies are unified by a common threat; there are times they are torn apart by rival interests and ideologies. American Nationalism during the Great Depression and the Second World War drew the country together to be the arsenal of democracy because we were all in it together; nationalism today is driving the country apart as we argue over the true meaning of the American experiment – is it America First or a lamp lifted beside the golden door? The task of founding and building a Jewish state in the land of Israel unified Israelis from many nations and Jews around the world with stirring slogans like “We are One”. Today, issues around Israel divide families and communities, putting organizations at each others’ throats and poisoning conversations.

The divisions have gotten so bad that we cannot even agree on reality! Maybe weather forecasting is not the best place to look for absolute truth, but at least a good faith effort. Arguing over inaugural crowd size; or thinking that canceling presidential primaries to help an incumbent is unprecedented (it’s been done by both parties multiple times); is the economy doing well or poorly – all too often we spin the same data positively when “our” party is in power, and negatively when “they” are in power. This is nothing new in political life – partisan and biased news sources were the rule for most of human history. Just imagine what the Canaanites might have written about the Israelites, we only have one side of the story!

Bias a very human phenomenon: as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written, when we hear information we like, that supports our side, we ask “CAN I believe it?” Is there any shred of evidence or reason that I can lean on to accept this as true? But if we hear information we do NOT like, facts that undermine our side, we ask “MUST I believe it?” Is there any way, any doubt even implausible that I can latch on to so I can avoid accepting the unacceptable? This dynamic of CAN I believe versus MUST I believe applies to theology, to history, to morality, not just to politics. I am reminded of a story I once heard about a man who grew up in a traditionally religious community but never really believed it. So one night, he goes out into a field and calls out, “All right, God, if you’re out there, give me a sign right now!” And a shooting star flits across the sky directly in front of him. He says, “Wow, what a coincidence!”

If we want to be the kind of people we aspire to be, who respond to facts and use reason and are fair, then we have to interrogate ourselves – am I rejecting this because I do not like the conclusion? Am I believing and Facebook sharing this because I want it to be true? Many love Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous line, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” The more we learn about the human mind, the fuzzier the line between opinion and fact becomes, and thus all the more important to do our best to distinguish the two and escape our knowledge bubbles.

Today we have gone beyond the realm of mere academic dispute. We are in the more dangerous realm of demonization. It is very tempting to see the world in black and white, good and evil, all or nothing and to dump everything bad over the line. We are surprised to find someone who opposes both abortion AND the death penalty, like the Catholic Church. Or a person who supports both gun rights and abortion rights. We are surprised because binary thinking means the other side is always wrong, and everything wrong is on the other side.

They are not just wrong – they are actually evil: the right is cruel and heartless and eager to cause suffering, or the left is simplistic and naïve and disloyal. Before the Israeli election two weeks ago, this message appeared on Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page:

…on Tuesday, you can determine the future of our nation. Prime Minister Netanyahu brings a right-wing policy of a Jewish state, security, and a strong Israel… we cannot have a dangerous left-wing government with Lapid, Odeh, Gantz and Lieberman in a week’s time. A secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men, and will enable a nuclear Iran that will eliminate us. We cannot allow this to happen! … make sure [you] vote Likud….

These “dangerous Arabs” are not Arabs in Lebanon or Syria – they are Israeli citizens. The message here is not just that the other parties are wrong. The other parties are dangerous, they are siding with the enemy, they ARE the enemy. You can absolutely find similar messaging in American politics; remember “pals around with terrorists”? This is not just politics, this is political civil war.

And it is very personal. A study this year asked if you would be unhappy if your child married someone different from their identity. Only 16% of Americans were opposed to interfaith marriage for their child, and only 13% opposed to another race or ethnicity. Maybe they were just happy their kid got married at all! That is real progress on intermarriage towards one America. But what about a POLITICAL intermarriage, if your child married a supporter of the other side? For Republicans, 35%, and 45% of Democrats, would be unhappy with an in-law of different politics. This is a huge difference from 1960; back then, 90% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage and only 4% disapproved of political intermarriage. It’s almost as if we HAVE to have SOMEONE we disapprove of our children marrying! If politics has become just as tribal as ethnicity and religion used to be, political positions will be held with religious fervor and opponents will be quite literally DEMONized, exchanging epithets like “papists” and “Christ killers” for “fascists” and “baby killers.”

When politics becomes civil war, then all becomes fair: voter suppression, deplatforming, gerrymandering, violating unwritten norms and practices. Each side blames the other for sinking to a new low, and down we go. Jewish tradition had a concept called yeridot ha-dorot – the decline of generations: the earliest sages and rabbis were the holiest, the closest to Mt. Sinai and the Torah revelation, and so they were the most authoritative. As time went on, later generations could interpret those earlier teachers but rarely challenge them directly. We see the end results of this process today in the ultra-Orthodox world, with its high walls and narrow windows and locked doors. And in its self-segregation from, its disdain for any other flavor of Judaism, which in their minds has degraded even further. Of course, liberal Jews in America and secular Jews in Israel can also disdain the ultra-Orthodox as backward, insular, and making us look bad. Let’s be honest: they would not be happy to marry us as we are, and we might not be happy about marrying them! The challenge of sinat chinam, of baseless hatred, is that we always assume it is the OTHER side that has baseless hatred; WE have very good reasons for how we feel about them!

I am not minimizing the stakes. I am NOT trying to say this is all just backwards tribalism and why can’t we all just get along. Tribalism is a part of our psychological makeup, something we have to manage and that can sometimes get the better of us. We do live in dangerous times; elections are truly a matter of life and death to people more vulnerable than many of us. We are short on compassion, we are short on thinking through long-term consequences to major social changes, we are short on the feelings of collective purpose and mission that might bind us together across our differences.

It’s not as if anti-Semites care about Jewish mutual dislike: Orthodox Jews have been physically assaulted in New York City because of their visible difference, and liberal Jews have been shot and killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue because of their support of immigrants. That 1960 American willingness to politically intermarry was the fellowship that came from the challenges of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. In the mid-1970s, during the Watergate era, THREE QUARTERS of Congress had served in the US Armed Forces; today that is 18%There are many ways to serve your country, including criticizing it when it goes astray, but one factor in our hostility across party lines is a lack of common experience and common purpose. The same chasm and suspicion has grown in Israel between those who do mandatory national service and those who claim religious exemption for Talmud study.

What can we do? I have three suggestions today. The first is “A Plague o’ Both Your Houses.” You may recognize the line from Romeo and Juliet. If you see something that divides us more, simply for the sake of division, no matter who said it or did it, say something. It will be easy when your opponent crosses the line; it will be harder to call out your allies, or accept self-criticism. The Jewish New Year is a time for self-examination, self-correction, and we are more effective at suggesting correction to others if we have first examined ourselves. This is deeper than fact-checking, more significant than tone policing. Sometimes we NEED to speak angrily, to type in ALL CAPS, to share the depth of our emotion. If we strive to live by our values, however, then that means honesty and avoiding hypocrisy. Sometimes we can fairly wish a plague on the other house, but that means we must also be willing to face our failings.

The second strategy is an old Jewish idea called Eilu v’Eilu”. Two thousand years ago, there was a near rabbinic schism. Two major teachers created two major schools: the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel), and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai). They could not even agree on how to light Hanukkah candles: Beit Hillel said light one and add one each night, Beit Shammai said light eight and then one less each night. Beit Hillel won most of the debates, and it was a descendant of Hillel who was the Nasi, or head of the rabbinical assembly, for many generations. But one day, Beit Shammai outnumbered Beit Hillel in the assembly, and they voted through 18 prohibitions that Beit Hillel would have allowed (Mishnah Shabbat 1:4); sounds a bit like the North Carolina state legislature that rammed through a budget while half of the lawmakers were absent – for a 9/11 memorial event! This rabbinic court session was very contentious – a later report in the Talmud claims the argument was so intense,

they placed a sword in the study hall, saying ‘those who enter may enter, but one who wants to leave may not leave. That day Hillel the Nasi was bowed and sitting low before Shammai like just another student, a day as difficult for Israel as when the Golden Calf was made. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 17a)

In the Torah, the Golden Calf results in 3000 deaths, but this dispute between Hillel and Shammai did not. What was the difference?

Stories about Hillel and Shammai were collected in the aftermath of the Maccabean civil war and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. And they were told in a conceptual framework that accepted there were many ways to understand the world. In another Talmudic account (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b):

For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, one asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’ and the other asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’. Then a voice from heaven announced, ‘Eilu v’Eilu both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. If both are ‘the words of the living God’ why was Beit Hillel entitled to have the law fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, so much as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs.

This is why I read FoxNews.com AND HuffingtonPost.com – to escape the knowledge bubble requires some knowledge humility. Humanists believe that truth changes in response to evidence, and that our knowledge of the world is at once extensive and limited – we know a lot but we do not know everything. So we can learn from everyone, and follow Beit Hillel’s example.

The third strategy: sometimes in a civil war you cannot only stand on the side of civility. Sometimes you have to pick a side. The Union was right to fight to abolish slavery, the Confederacy was wrong to defend it. If we value democracy, then we have to fight those who would undermine it to impose their authority, be it religious or political, in Israel or America. I have no tolerance for intolerance. And American democracy, by spirit and by letter, must be greater than any one person or political party; those who undermine it must be fought not for partisan advantage but for truth, justice and the American Way. We can always examine ourselves, do our best, play by the rules. But if we have to fight back to preserve the concept of rules themselves, then fight we will.

However, do not give up too easily on bridging the divide. We have to try to speak so they will listen. Remember, teaching without learning is just talking. Offer a positive response before a criticism; show that you care about an issue important to them before asking their help on your cause. Find a common experience you can share. If Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes can agree on lobbying reform, at least over Twitter, then anything is possible.

Sometimes, yes, we need to fight fire with fire. Some perspectives, some actions ARE beyond the pale, unacceptable, to be condemned absolutely and utterly and always, by our side and by any side worth respect. And do not think this only applies to geopolitical disputes. The Jewish New Year is a time of relationship repair – we apologize for the wrongs we have done, we forgive those who apologize for wronging us.

In our relationships, we should strive to be honest and consistent, evaluating our own behavior as well as the other’s. We should understand that disagreements can be between right and right, that we are not always right and the other always wrong, And yes, sometimes it is not fixable. But not without trying to speak so they will listen, trying to find a solution with dignity for both sides.

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was a Jewish disaster, but like a forest fire, it planted the seeds of new growth. After the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were once walking past the destroyed sanctuary, perhaps in the New Year season. Rabbi Joshua lamented: “How shall we atone for the sins of Israel? The house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins.” Rabbi Yochanan had himself escaped the siege of Jerusalem and Jewish Zealots who sought to kill him by sneaking out hidden in a coffin. He knew about sinat khinam, baseless hatred, first-hand. Yochanan comforted Joshua, saying “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), as it is written, ‘I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice.’ (Hosea 6:6)” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 17a) And so began the rabbinic project of changing sacrifice to prayer and good deeds, channeling argument into debate and discussion, harmonizing opposing opinions on one Talmud page. We are the heirs of this experiment in holy disagreement; I hope we have learned its lessons well. Shana Tovah, a Happy and Healthy New Year to us all.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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3 Responses to Old Challenges Anew – Political Civil War (Rosh Hashana 5780/2019

  1. Pingback: Old Challenges Anew – High Holidays 5780/2019 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  2. Lori says:

    I like the image of history as a circular staircase. Thank you for your insights. Shana Tova.

  3. Pingback: Old Challenges Anew – Jewish Future (Yom Kippur 5780/2019) | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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