Religious Life

A Call For Civil Discourse – A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Davis – July 17, 2019

Shalom Chaverim

I have spent a few days this week visiting Camp Ramah. (In a week, I’ll go up to Herzl.) With limited cell phone coverage, I missed what I understand has been a very difficult week at home.

Nevertheless, allow me to share some thoughts.

As you may know, earlier in the week Rabbi Olitzky posted a message of support for Rep Ilhan Omar who was attacked by the President and told to go back home. Despite being a strong, vocal critic of Rep Omar’s Israel policies and her use of antisemitic trope, Rabbi Olitzky was harshly criticized by some and praised by many others.

I have to tell you I am surprised and disappointed by some of the critique which poured in. Many of the most vitriolic and utterly inappropriate comments came from outside our congregation. I expected and am calling for a more sensitive, nuanced response.

Back in March, Rabbi Olitzky and I put out a message in response to a series of statements by Rep Omar laced with antisemitic undertones. In part we said “Just as we reject Representative Omar’s use of hurtful and dangerous antisemitic language, we reject the hurtful and dangerous attacks on the congresswoman as a woman, a woman of color and as a Somali Muslim. There is no contradiction between forcefully condemning her words as well as those who use them to vilify her personhood. As Jews schooled in the art of thoughtful debate, called upon to pursue justice and to stand up to discrimination, we should have no hesitation at making that not-so-subtle distinction.”

Today, that message needs amplification.

There is a way to disagree, even to disagree strongly. And then there are words that cross a line. The President’s use of racially charged language targeting four women of color crossed a line and must be rejected (just as Rep Omar’s use of antisemitic language had to be publicly rejected.)

Recall the famous disputes of Hillel and Shammai. In Jewish law, we almost always side with Hillel not because he necessarily had the best argument but because his argument was presented most respectfully. It’s a lesson we need to relearn today and to share with others.

We can take issue with a policy without stooping to personal attacks, without denigrating a person, maligning their background, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. There is a way to voice objection without resorting to obscenities or distorting the truth.

Judaism teaches us the art of debate. Judaism teaches us about making distinctions. Judaism teaches us how to fight fair. Judaism teaches us to be particularly sensitive to immigrants for we were once strangers. Judaism teaches us to watch our words, to guard our tongue. Judaism teaches us to honor the dignity of every human being.

If we fail to learn these lessons, I fear that as a Nation we will be torn apart, including with violence. I am concerned about the rift in our own Jewish community as well.

This shabbat, we enter the Three Weeks. These are the weeks that lead to 9 Av which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Beginning on Sunday with the minor fast of the 17th Tammuz, it is a time to reflect on sinat chinam, the internal strife and hatred that lead to the destruction back then and that threatens us today. God forbid, we fail to heed this warning.

Rabbi Alexander Davis