Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosh HaShanah - Talk Amongst Yourselves, by Rabbi Shira Stutman

Talk Amongst Yourselves
-Rabbi Shira Stutman

It was a dreary evening in San Francisco, late December many years ago, and I was driving the hills of the city with a friend. Lots of small homes, with huge picture windows, and just about everyone shared the same “picture”—a huge Christmas tree. One house after the other had one of these trees.

I turned to my friend, surprised. “Who are all these people who have trees?” I asked. I knew there was such a thing as someone who is not Jewish, but I did not know there were so many of them.

It was one small hiccup in an otherwise wonderful childhood. We just didn’t know many people who weren’t Jewish. Our family’s life revolved around school (Jewish) and synagogue (also Jewish). Just about all of my friends were Jewish. A difficult feat in a country where Jews comprise less than 2% of the population.

College opened me up a little bit more, but not too much. Meeting my husband, better. My work at an authentically inclusive place like Sixth & I and my children’s attendance at a secular school--even more.

Now please don’t roll your eyes at me, all of you who are judging me for being surrounded by—and yes, surrounding myself with—lots of Jewish friends. It gets worse. I could just have easily begun the sermon by discussing how many people of the “other” political party I associate with. How many friends, colleagues, students, teachers voted for the other candidate in last year’s election? A quick survey of my gmail contacts: five that I know of. I scrolled through my Facebook feed for those who are, if not friends, at least “friends,” but still could only find a few.

I have to be honest. I am conflicted about this lack of diversity. Part of me doesn’t mind: from a religious perspective, of course it makes sense that anyone for whom Judaism is the primary defining factor of one’s life would hang out with a lot of Jews. As for the politics, I’m perfectly comfortable with indoctrinating my three children with certain values and opinions. I took my son to the Supreme Court last March, to stand for marriage equality as opening arguments began in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases (you’re welcome), and we saw hundreds of people protesting against marriage equality. He turned to me, surprised. “Who are all these people?” he asked.

And yet. There is something…what is the right word? Dishonest? Close-minded? Sad? about the lack of diversity of opinion. What good does it do for me or for the world to keep company only with those with whom I agree?

I’ll tell you what good it does. It keeps my blood pressure way down. The thought of wading into conversations with people with whom I disagree on certain topics that are very important—marriage equality, choice, Israel—literally makes me feel ill. And thus, we’re getting to the point where we can’t talk to each other any more; we only talk at each other. We all know how this is playing out on the political scene. Commercials are more vicious, attempts to stick to facts totally thrown by the wayside. The 24-hour news-cycle seems to permit even the most pernicious fallacies to gain their 15 minutes. I prefer to sign off altogether.

Judaism teaches, as one might expect, that to a great extent we are not permitted to sign off from discussing difficult situations. The entire Jewish mode of discourse is one of argument. But not just any kind of argument, of course: argument l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Consider the following aggadah, the following story from the Talmud:

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.

Consider the following:

1.       The dispute raged for three years. Three years of forced discussion means finding time for nuance, for marinating interesting ideas, for taking a break if it gets adversarial. And then consider today’s world of Tweeting and Texting, which I would pose is the opposite of three years of argument. And consider: what are the ways that we can—without leaving the 21st century and the 24 hour news-cycle, neither of which is going anywhere—have a “three-year” conversation in a much shorter amount of time?
2.      We all know that the typical depiction of God, especially from the ancient’s perspective, is very male one. But the voice from heavens, the one that settles the dispute, is a “bat kol”, a female voice. I’m not going to unpack that one. Just saying.
3.      They do not come to agreement. This is not a story when, with enough time, both sides realize that they actually can find a way to agree and isn’t that swell! Someone wins, someone loses. That’s the way the real world works sometimes.
4.      The school of Hillel does not win on the facts. It wins because it’s “kindly and modest”, because it studies its own rulings and that of Shammai’s. This is an interesting turn of events and perhaps not comfortable to those of us who live and die by facts. Yet interesting to consider in a world in which some facts are more fungible than others.

The Judaism that we practice is not Biblical Judaism, with its dictatorial God of decrees. It is rabbinic Judaism, with its arguments and disagreements for the sake of heaven. It is a religion where people can disagree with each other across the table and across the centuries, yet a people we remain. In fact, one could argue that one of the reasons that Judaism has remained is not because of its monolithic sense of practice—there was always a range—but instead because of the opposite, the encouragement of arguments l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. It is not that we permit arguments because we must but instead that arguing is the Jew’s most sacred form of interaction. We learn in Pirke Avot (6:6) that

Torah is greater than the priesthood or kingship, for kingship is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are [I am going to read only a sampling]: study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, companionship with one's contemporaries, debating with one's students, slowness to anger, good heartedness, qualifying one's words, likableness, love of G-d, love of humanity, love of charity, love of justice, love of rebuke, lack of arrogance in learning, reluctance to hand down rulings, participating in the burden of one's fellow, judging him to the side of merit, correcting him, bringing him to a peaceful resolution [of his disputes], deliberation in study, asking and answering, listening and illuminating, learning in order to teach, learning in order to observe, wising one's teacher, exactness in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker.

Such an amazing, empowering, humbling list of qualities. What I want to write here is—let’s send it on to the media.

But what I should write here is: let’s take it in ourselves.

I tried. Earlier, I mentioned that I could name five people who vote for the other political party. I ran into him a few weeks ago. Since it was July and thus already peak sermon-writing time, I did something that I haven’t done in all the thirty-two years I’ve known him, including lots of those years when we were adults: I asked him about his political opinions. Know that it was only because of you all that I chose to do this. Usually, our conversations veer more toward kids or mutual acquaintances, not politics.

Because I judge him. When I talk to this person I care deeply about, I don’t want to think about his political opinions because it makes me angry. So I don’t address it at all.

But that day—because of you—I did. We didn’t have three years, to be sure, but we did have about 10 minutes, which is basically a life-time. I talked about my guy; he talked about his. He talked about where his guy fell short—and instead of just agreeing that his guy does indeed fall short, which I wanted to do with every ounce of my body, I talked about where my guy fell short. And it turns out, of course, that the Venn diagram of the things that we agree on overlaps more than we ever would have guessed. We drew each other in closely and looked carefully at our words. We realized hold many of the same values, but in the end just privilege different ones. He didn’t change my vote, nor I his—but just the moment of hearing his struggle made a difference for me. Together we could change the world.

And then he brought up Israel. And then the conversation got so painful so quickly, in the way that only conversations between family members, with their coded words that seem innocent to outsiders but that we know are not. Human rights (leftie). Security (hawk). Democracy (leftie). Jewish State (right). JStreet. AIPAC. Palestine—or Palestinian? So we said our—goodbye! Oh I have to find my kids! And whatever else excuse came up and gave a quick kiss and walked away. Don’t go there.

It is hard enough to talk about diversity of opinion when you’re talking about subjects that you care deeply about: poverty or international affairs. It feels impossible to talk about diversity of opinion when you’re talking about subjects that are you: racism, marriage equality, “anti-Zionism” that reads more like anti-Semitism.

What to do then? I am reminded of the amazing quote from the Maharal Be’er HaGolah, which I learned from colleagues of mine who work on intercultural dialogue programs:

For the love of inquiry and knowledge, it is advisable that one not reject what contradicts ones view. This holds especially true for [an interlocutor] who does not intend to provoke but to honestly declare his beliefs. Even if these are counter to our beliefs and our religion, it is not proper to say to him, 'Speak not, say nothing,' for by doing so there will result no clarification of beliefs. On the contrary, one should say, “speak up as much as you wish!” Such is the proper manner in which to establish the truth: to hear their arguments, which they hold in truth, and not merely to provoke. Therefore it is not right to dismiss the words of one's opponent, but to draw him close and look carefully into his words. 

We can tease out a few good points from the rebbe here. First and foremost, we need an interlocutor who does not intend to provoke. We can only go deep with those who are willing to go deep with us. And second, to “draw him in close”. Consider the March, 2013 study released by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press concerning changes in support for marriage equality.

More than a quarter of same-sex marriage proponents (28%) say their views have changed. This represents 14% of the American public overall. When those who say they have shifted to supporting same-sex marriage are asked why their views changed, people offer a range of answers. Roughly a third (32%) say it is because they know someone – a friend, family member or other acquaintance – who is homosexual. 

As painful as it is for all of us who feel personally about any topic, and as time-consuming as it is, we can’t get around it: the best way to get people to expand their knowledge or change their mind is through personal interactions. What was one reason that Obama “evolved” on marriage equality? His kids are in school with other kids whose parents are in same-sex relationships. All families deserve the same rights.

The path is long and rocky. And the hardest part is that a lot of the rocks are hidden. I spoke about marriage equality four times in this sermon because that moral arc of justice is bending more and more each year; we will, in my children’s lifetime, have full marriage equality. I did not speak in depth about racism, though. That conversation can be so much more treacherous because it requires us—all of us, but especially white people—to surface prejudices we don’t even consciously know we have and acknowledge privileges we don’t want to give up.

But continue with the conversations we must. You’re issue isn’t going to be not knowing anyone who has a Christmas tree; that was mine, and I’m working through it. I have others. And you have yours. Consider looking up the work of the Public Conversations Project, which hosts dialogue groups, publishes, and generally works to help Americans have conversations about very difficult issues.  Or consider the work of the Jewish Dialogue Group, which uses the PCP methods to get Jews talking to Jews about Israel. Or just consider going out to lunch with someone in your office who you know holds different opinions than you do. And bring the list of the 48 qualities with you as a talisman.

My friend Aaron Dorfman reminded me of a beautiful story told by David Foster Wallace before he passed away.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

It’s okay to have our own beliefs, our own bodies of water in which we swim and in which we raise our children to swim. What is not okay is not to recognize that in the larger world, there are others—not everyone but enough—who swim in their own waters with deep integrity, and just don’t know enough about yours to understand you, nor you them. May the year to come provide us with the opportunity to learn from each other, deeply and with authenticity, and may that learning bring our world just a little closer to the healed and holy place that it can be.

Shanah tova.

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