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Disagreements and Country

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah Morning.

Hey rabbi, everyone is excited to hear what you have to say this year. But… Don’t talk about politics. Don’t get too controversial. Keep it inspirational. Give us something meaningful. I wouldn’t want your job—especially this year. Good luck.

What am I to do? What should a rabbi talk about during one of the most contentious and divisive years in memory? Well, I wouldn’t be the rabbi that you know, and perhaps love, if I avoided controversy. I understand that some want me to leave such divisiveness at the synagogue’s door, that here there can be shalom, peace. That this place can be an escape and refuge from all that mishegas. This place can be a sanctuary. I appreciate that perspective. It is not mine. I believe that Jewish teachings have to give us some guidance for how to make our way through this mess, that they must give us wisdom and strength to face the everyday. Quite frankly, if we can’t take Torah out there, into the everyday, if it’s only about the internal and not the external, then it’s useless.

I also wouldn’t be the rabbi that you have come to know if I didn’t offer some wisdom from our great Jewish teachings, in particular from the sages of the Talmud. That’s what Jews do when they are searching for what to do today. We look back at what was said, and done, yesterday. And that, by the way, is what I am sure my friend Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l would advise me to do if I were able to ask him.  My first duty is to teach. And we must always learn. So here are three lessons from the Talmud that I think help us deal with today’s controversies.

The first. Soon after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. the rabbis gathered to debate why this terrible catastrophe occurred. The obvious answer was, the Romans were the most powerful army in the world and they liked to conquer other nations. They saw the Jews as rebels and wanted to quash any hope of Jewish independence. And so, they leveled Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple and carted the survivors off to Rome. The rabbis asked: how did this happen? Why did this happen? They avoided the obvious answer. They did not say, the Romans did it. Instead they said it was because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. That’s why, they said, this terrible tragedy occurred. Here is their fantastic story.

A certain man had a friend named Kamza and an enemy named Bar Kamza. The man once threw a party and said to his servant, “Go and invite Kamza.” The servant went and instead invited Bar Kamza. (Not good. I imagine the servant stammered, “I really thought you said Bar Kamza. Kamza. Bar Kamza. It’s so confusing.”) Back to the story. When the man saw Bar Kamza at his party he said, “You have been saying terrible things about me. You have been gossiping about me. What are you doing here?” He screamed, “Get out!” Bar Kamza replied, “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The man said, “No way!” Bar Kamza said, “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” The man again said, “No.” Bar Kamza said, “Then let me pay for the whole party.” The man still said no. And he grabbed Bar Kamza and threw him out.

Bar Kamza thought to himself, “Since the Rabbis were at the party and did not stop the man this shows that they agreed with what he did. I will go and report this to the Romans.” He went and said to the Roman Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” The Emperor said, “How can I be sure?” Bar Kamza said, “Send them an offering and see whether they will sacrifice it.” So, the Emperor sent him with a fine calf. On the way Bar Kamza made a blemish on the calf in a spot where the Jews count it as a blemish, but the Romans do not. The Rabbis were inclined to sacrifice the offering in order not to offend the government. (I guess they were suspicious of Bar Kamza.). Rabbi Zechariah then said, “People will then say that blemished animals can be sacrificed.” Some even proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he would not go and inform against them again. But Rabbi Zechariah again chimed in, “Is one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals to be put to death?” (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b)

So, they didn’t sacrifice the Emperor’s gift. The Romans were offended. And then they destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple. All because of a mistaken invitation. All because of the heated disagreement between two ordinary folks. Look at the incivility of our ancestors. Throwing people out of parties. Saying terrible things about them behind their backs. Look at the rabbis standing idly by while their fellow party goers, and congregants, rip into each other. Perhaps the rabbis blamed themselves for Jerusalem’s destruction. They turned away from what was happening all around them. Look at the tragedy that unfolded from one terrible, and ugly, exchange.

It begins with ordinary people. The Talmud does not even record the name of the man throwing the party. It starts with us. When we point fingers, we should really only point them at ourselves.

So rather than leveling blame at our leaders I am going to take a cue from the rabbis of old and look within. The rabbis could have blamed Rome but instead they said let’s examine our deeds. This is of course Rosh Hashanah when we are supposed to examine our hearts. Perhaps there is nothing as controversial as the inner workings of our own hearts. So here is my question for this morning. How are we to blame for the divisiveness that infects our nation and our Jewish people? We can no longer even agree about the facts. We can do better. We must do better.

Here is what we must do. We have to recover how best to argue. One of Judaism’s greatest gifts is the idea of machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. It is my favorite and most cherished of our tradition’s teachings. For Judaism the debate is how we discern God’s presence in our lives. People often think that the Talmud is a law code. It is not. It is instead a record of the rabbis’ debates and disagreements. It is a masterful, and voluminous, book. Sometimes rabbis who did not live in the same city or even the same century are found arguing with each other on the same page. And the most remarkable thing of all is that even when the dispute is resolved the opposing opinion remains on the page. It is not written out. Winners and losers are not declared. Think about that point. Our most important book is one big, ongoing argument.

Sure, the rabbis had to decide what we were supposed to do. Hillel and Shammai, two great first century rabbis, argued about everything. Let’s take their arguments about the Hanukkah menorah as an example. Shammai said that you should light eight candles on the first night and then one less each successive night. He was more of a literalist and felt this was more in keeping with how the miracle must have happened. The flame must have burned brighter on the first night because there was more oil day one. Hillel, on the other hand, thought that we should light one candle on the first night until we get to eight on the last night. His logic was that our faith had to increase each night and that God’s miracle grew day by day. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b) You know of course what we do. We follow Hillel’s interpretation. But the Talmud preserves both arguments. They are both well-reasoned opinions. In the end, we had to decide one over the other because we have to be doing the same thing—even if we were not always thinking the same thing. We could not have some people standing and others sitting when we pray. We could not have half having four cups of wine at the Seder and others five. We could not have some people lighting eight candles on the first night and others one.

So, the vast majority of the time Jewish law sides with Hillel. I wonder if it was simply because he was known as a nicer guy. The Talmud appears to agree. “Why does Jewish law follow Hillel?” it asks. “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious.” It then goes on to say, “Hillel taught their own ideas as well as the ideas of Shammai’s students. They also went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). That is the key. And this is the second lesson from the Talmud. You must afford the arguments of the opposition respect. You must be able to teach their ideas as well as your own. Imagine how that philosophy might transform our current times.

We have surrounded ourselves with amen choruses of likeminded friends. That does not sharpen arguments. All it does is further entrench us and concretize our own prior held convictions. Instead, make your case. Use your reason. Lay out your logic. Open your ears to other voices—and most important, opposing opinions. It is not an argument to say how stupid or misguided others are. Stop with the invective. Stop with all of the Facebook posts that point out the opposition’s hypocrisy. It is not an argument when we denigrate others. It is not an argument when we malign people who hold opposing views.

For Judaism everyone sits at the same table, Democrat and Republican and Independent. We are one country. We have to fight the tendency to throw people out of the party. We have to battle the tendency to size up new acquaintances to discern whether or not they agree with our political sensibilities. I recognize that it can be emotionally satisfying to point out the other side’s wrongs and to commiserate with people who agree with us, but this is not what helps us to decipher the truth and most certainly not what leads to unity. The central question for the rabbis of the Talmud was how we can remain one people while affirming many, different, and even antagonistic, opinions. For Judaism there are no winners and losers in an argument. There are only two sides of the same community trying their best to discern what God wants us to do in this moment. We are losing that sensibility here in America. We are losing that in Israel. We are losing that among our Jewish people.

Again, it would be easy for me to point fingers at our leaders and blame them for this disharmony. I wish for us instead to look within and point fingers at ourselves. What can we be doing differently? How might we argue in a more civilized manner? It is about reason and discussion. It is not about calling the other side names. There are right and wrong ways to argue. How we argue with each other, each and every day has cosmic significance and historical import. That’s what our tradition tells us.

A final lesson from the Talmud. It is the story about our rabbis’ arguments about whether or not an oven is kosher. Rabbi Eliezer said it was clean. The rest of the rabbis said it was unclean. Majority rules. It is unclean. But Eliezer was certain of his interpretation and quite a stubborn, firebrand. He was also a miracle worker.

Most of the time Eliezer’s arguments won the day, so he became quite impatient with his colleagues when they would not accept his reasoning in this particular case. He then resorted to miracles. He made a tree magically move 150 feet and then a stream run backwards. He then made the walls of the academy start to fall to prove his point. (Imagine that. He was willing to destroy their study hall and bring the walls crashing down on everyone in order to prove he was right.). Eliezer finally called upon God. And a heavenly voice said, “What is it with you guys regarding Rabbi Eliezer. The law always follows him?”

Rabbi Yehoshua jumped up and citing Torah, said, “Lo b’shamayim hee. It is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 29) The Talmud explains: we do not listen to a heavenly voice, since You, God, already gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai, as it is written there, “Incline after the majority.” (Exodus 23). Wow. You gave us the Torah, so we get to interpret it as we see fit. Majority rules. No miracles are allowed. Not even better arguments. We follow the majority. So, says the Talmud. The story continues. Rabbi Natan then came upon Elijah, the prophet, who according to lore continues to wander the earth searching out miracles. He said to him, “What was God doing when the sages defeated the great Eliezer?” He said, “God laughed and smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b)

This legend is often told and retold. More often than not we stop here when recounting it. Here is evidence, we say, that we are supposed to interpret, and reinterpret, God’s Torah. Even God wants us to do that and is pleased when we do that well. God gave us this Torah not as a static document that is frozen in time but instead one that we can continue to interpret. We must argue about its meaning; we must debate our interpretations, but in the end when we have to figure out what to do, and what we think God wants of us, majority rules. But that is not where this story really ends. It has a tragic conclusion that is often censured out.

The rabbis then voted to excommunicate Eliezer. He broke the rules about how to argue. “You should tell him Rabbi Akiva,” they said. And so Akiva went to do the sages’ bidding. He cried as he shared the news with his beloved colleague. But it’s not good to get a miracle worker angry. The Talmud reports that the wheat, barley and even olive harvest were decimated. I quote, “Every place where Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes was immediately burned up.” And then Rabban Gamliel, the head of the court that ruled against Eliezer, nearly drowned on an ocean voyage. I know, it sounds wacky. And I don’t much believe that rabbis can zap stuff with their eyes. The Talmud is not history. It offers lessons.

Yet, it is frightening lesson. The rabbis recognized that within every disagreement, even the inconsequential ones like who gets invited to a party or whether or not an oven is kosher, there can be found the seeds of our own destruction. Lurking within every argument and every disagreement lies the potential for us to lose everything we love and everything we hold most dear. The rabbis were keenly aware of the dangers of how we argue with each other. Their warnings serve as lessons for today. Their project was about how to argue while preserving community because they believed, as I do, that discussion and debate is how we discern God’s truth and how we improve our world and how we can figure out how to secure a better future, and that we cannot do any of those things alone and that we cannot achieve any of those things surrounded only by likeminded people. The rabbis taught that community, and country, transcend disagreement. Whether we agree or disagree with each other we need each other—Republican, Democrat and Independent.

And so, I thank all of those who continue to send me Wall Street Journal articles because they think I read The New York Times too much. I remain unsure which of these papers we should label Hillel and which Shammai but I am certain that both opinions must be arrayed before us. And I am thankful to all those who continue to read my writings, and listen to my sermons, despite the fact that they feel there is sometimes a gaping disagreement between us. We must forever affirm and recognize that each of our ideas are sharpened in dialogue with each other, and that no matter how vociferously we might disagree we are one.

We can do better. No more name calling. No more blaming. No more pointing fingers at anyone but ourselves. Let’s stop trying to throw each other out of the party. Otherwise we are all going to end up weeping with Akiva and excommunicated along with Eliezer.

And finally, even though Senator John McCain is not to be found among the pages of the Talmud he deserves to stand alongside our great sages. These past few weeks he has served as my rabbi. And so, I conclude with his wisdom. He said, “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.” And that 2008 concession speech continues to stir my heart and I have found myself reading it and rereading it these past weeks.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. That’s as good a lesson, and as good a prayer, as any I can find on this Rosh Hashanah. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.