Debate Fervently, But Love Fiercely

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ADS_7983.jpgRecently, the United States Holocaust Museum asked my synagogue to host an event of theirs. So this past Wednesday night, we hosted Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic for a conversation about anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, a topic he has researched extensively and recently written about. Growing anti-Semitism is a universal concern for all Jews. It is a non-controversial topic and one in which we can all find common ground to learn about and to work together to combat.

Nevertheless, because Jeffrey Goldberg has also written articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many find troubling and disagree with, when some people found out he was going to speak at our shul, they shared their displeasure. I am pleased and proud to say that the few members of our shul who emailed me did so respectfully and explained why they thought hosting him was a bad idea. However, non-members who learned about the program and were upset emailed large lists of people, and some of the resulting emails were forwarded to me.


They said things like: “IF THIS IS TRUE, APPARENTLY IT IS – GOLDBERG LOVES OBAMA – WE SHOULD ORGANIZE A PICKET LINE 4 JEFFREY GOLDBERG to teach him to be PRO-ISRAEL.” (I must admit, I had to read the email three times before I realized that I wasn’t the Goldberg they were talking about). Another email called him a “NO GOODNIK OESVARF KAPO SOROS SUPPORTER.” Yet another email called on people to boo him.


Let me be clear: I disagree with Jeffrey Goldberg on many issues. For a good forty minutes following his talk, we had a passionate discussion in my office during which I argued (respectfully) regarding where I think he is dangerously wrong about Israel.


Individuals may have heated, passionate, and significant disagreements with him on Israel. But he is a fellow Jew. He is a fellow human being. Moreover, he risked his life voluntarily serving in the IDF following college, something most of us cannot boast to have done. Can those who disagree with him about Israel say with full confidence that they love Israel more than he does?


Moreover, have we gotten to the point that because we love Israel differently than Jeffrey Goldberg, we cannot learn from him about an entirely separate topic about which we have no disagreement? Is that what the Jewish community has come to?


In the charged atmosphere that currently permeates Jewish communal life, there is a verse from last week’s Torah reading that keeps reverberating in my mind:


“The brothers saw that it was Yosef whom their father loved most of all his brothers, so they hated him” (Bereishis 37:4). It isn’t just that Yosef’s brothers didn’t like him. They hated him. Hate is a very strong word and describes a toxic and destructive emotion.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that the Ramban, Nachmanides, refers to the book of Genesis as Sefer Ha’simanim, the Book of Signs that foretells the future of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the times of blessing, success, and good fortune that our sacred Torah foretells. It also anticipates the persistent civil strife and conflict between fellow Jews that has unfortunately punctuated our history and still rear its ugly head today.


Yosef’s brothers hated him. The text makes that clear. But what does “v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom,” a phrase mentioned separately, mean? It is a clumsy expression and hard to translate.


The great medieval commentator, R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra explains, “v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom — afilu l’shalom.” It isn’t that they just couldn’t talk about the issues they disagreed about. It isn’t that they didn’t want to be close, loving brothers. And it’s not that they couldn’t debate respectfully. “Afilu l’shalom” — The issue with Yosef and his brothers was they couldn’t even give each other a Shalom Aleichem. The hatred and intolerance had grown so deep that they couldn’t stand to even extend greetings to one another or to be in a room together. For the Ibn Ezra, this expression describes a disgraceful state of affairs. They couldn’t even say “good morning,” “how are you,” or “good Shabbos” to one another.


We tend to read the story of Yosef and his brothers and see them as petty. They fought over jealousy and favoritism. But that is not entirely true. Rav Ahron Soloveichik and others show that their true fight was about ideology and the future of the Jewish people. Each side was convinced that the policies of the other would bring destruction and were categorically not what God wanted. It was a deep ideological battle of issues that were of grave consequence. And yet, the Torah and our rabbis are nonetheless incredibly critical of their strife.


Even in the context of firmly and passionately held views, one can never lose the capacity to say “hello,” “good morning,” or “Shabbat shalom.” We are a family. We must maintain the ability to suspend the conversation about controversial issues and enjoy an exchange about something we agree upon, or to simply engage in small talk.


Rav Yehonasan Eibschitz in his Tiferes Yonasan has an additional insight on the verse in question. Translated literally, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom” means “they could not speak to him to peace.” What could that mean? Rav Eibshitz suggests that when we disagree with people, we withdraw from them and stop speaking to them. We see them as “the other,” different than us and apart from us. As our communication breaks down, the dividers rise up stronger and stronger.


We can never resolve conflict, or find common ground, or maintain a relationship despite our differences, if we boo, call for pickets, call each other names, and refuse to have civil conversation. Had Yosef and his brothers been talking, he might have communicated how he felt isolated and alone, and they might have explained how his tattle-telling and the favoritism their father displayed toward him were very painful to them. However, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom.” They weren’t talking, so they couldn’t use speech to achieve peace, or even just civility, between them.


It always amazes me when I speak to someone who is on the far right politically while on the far left religiously (or the opposite), and he or she protests any openness in our community towards anyone to the left of them politically or to the right of them religiously (or vice versa). We demand that everyone be exactly where we are, even if we are complex and nuanced ourselves.


Conversation and communication themselves build a relationship that allows resolution, or at least mutual respect, even when there are differences. We can and we should have strong feelings and passionate opinions. I have mine, and I am happy to share them, though not from the pulpit or in the capacity of a rabbi. We are entitled to and deserve our opinions, but we are not entitled to call names or disrespect.


The consequences and implications of our debates are no greater than that of the ideological battle of Yosef and his brothers. And yet, the Torah is categorically clear that it was the breakdown of their ability to speak, to have a relationship, to make small talk and to find common ground that led to “sin’ah”– to hatred, to the selling of a brother into servitude, and ultimately to slavery for a nation.


What have we come to if we can’t say good Shabbos, or develop friendships, or invite someone for Shabbos meals, unless they vote exactly as we do, love Israel exactly as we do, send their children to the exact same school that we do, and dress as we do?


It is not achdus, unity, to relate to those who are like us. Achdus, meaningful unity and togetherness, is only achieved when we relate to those with whom we have differences or even passionate disagreements.


We can disagree about Israel’s policies, or ordaining women, or educational opportunities in our community, or gun control, or global warming, or a host of different issues. And when we disagree, we can disagree passionately and fervently. For some, these issues are of the highest importance and with great implications for the future of the Jewish people. We can advocate and seek to persuade. But we can’t be nasty; we can’t be negative; we can’t attack personally; we can’t be disrespectful; and, most of all, we can’t lose our capacity and will to, despite it all, say “good Shabbos” or “have a great day.”


In 1966, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, author of the Sridei Eish, wrote an essay called, “Es echai anochi mevakeish,” “My Brothers I Seek.” He challenged the religious and secular communities to not just be soveil, tolerate one another, but to love one another. Tolerance is something we should do with a bad rash or a traffic jam or a toothache. It is not an attitude towards a fellow Jew. We need to not just tolerate one another, but to find the capacity to connect with one another, to feel unified with one another despite our differences, and even to love one another.


It took a famine and trauma to bring Yosef and his brothers together again. Why must it take tragedy and trauma for us to focus on what we have in common, rather than that which separates us? The terrorists in Israel don’t ask their victims if they are chareidi, chiloni or mizrachi before stabbing them. They don’t ask what school they send their children to, or to which political party they belong to, before ramming them with their car.


Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau at last year’s March of the Living said, “We always knew how to die together. The time has come for us to know also how to live together.”