Friday, September 28, 2012

Yom Kippur 5773 - Getting Real

Maybe it’s because it’s an election year, or because football season is just heating up, or because things in the world are not stable as we’d like them to be, but for whatever the reason, our world seems like a pretty divisive place these days.   It is hard to find what, if any, common thread streams through all of society, binding us together with one shared value or foundation.  But I think I may have found the one force that spans all socio-economic groups, ages, education levels, and even sports team loyalties and political party affiliations?  Want to know what it is?  Reality TV.   You know these shows: American Idol, The Real Housewives, The Amazing Race, and the list goes on and on with unparalleled popularity. My personal favorite right now is Storage Wars, and I watch with bated breath hoping for the day they find a shofar in one of these storage lockers! It seems we just can’t stop watching this so-called “reality”.  Interestingly enough, a little while back, Psychology Today published a study that addressed why. It concluded: “Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too can become celebrities….”[i] Ironically, reality TV provides the ultimate escape from reality, because on some basic level, behind the quest for fame is the human desire to have significance beyond oneself; it is ultimately the quest for immortality. 
Unfortunately, that quest, as we know, is a futile one.  No one lives forever.  We know it’s unrealistic.  But in our world where it is hard to know what is real, where much of our reality seems unfixed and un-centered, it’s hard to find something to hold on to. 
So today, I want us to get real - real in a way that doesn’t indulge a fantasy, that isn’t mind-numbing and simple, but in a way that provides some traction.  But to do that, we’re going to need to get out of our comfort zones a bit, in a way that might be difficult. I promise it will be worth it in the end. OK?
Let’s start with what is arguably the only real religious question there is: If there is an all knowing Divine being we call God who is good, then why do bad things happen?

Yom Kippur’s liturgical centerpiece – Unetaneh Tokef – seems to give us the answer.  You know it – “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day – it is awesome and full of dread.  On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live and who shall die.” It’s really scary, difficult stuff – at least it is for me. But after the long, frightening list, the passage seems to indicate how we can avert our fate – “uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah maavirin et roah hagzeirah – but repentance prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”  In other words: do good stuff, like repenting, praying, and giving charity, and you’ll be ok. Don’t and the consequences are clear.  So the answer to that question we asked before seems to be that if good things happen to people, God is rewarding them and if bad things happen, God is punishing them. For me, and likely for many of you, this concept proves hard to swallow. 

But on the surface, we buy in.  Like the child that learns early on that actions have consequences, we as adults often unintentionally internalize the doctrine of reward and punishment. We ask of some insignificant problem – say getting stuck in traffic when we are already running late – “what did I do to deserve this?” then searching for some offense we must have committed that would yield such a punishment.  “If only I hadn’t yelled at my spouse this morning” or “I should have given the guy outside of Starbucks the change in my pocket instead of ignoring him and walking away.”

Intellectually, we know this is ridiculous.  Road construction and rush hour cause traffic jams, not reckoning and retribution.  But the child’s voice won’t be silenced, and we find ourselves plagued by bad answers to a most difficult question.   This, of course, is especially hard when it isn’t just a petty problem but when something truly devastating – soul crushing happens.  When horrible things happen for reasons we can’t explain, we default to the traditional interpretation: it must be a punishment. Maybe we look to blame ourselves – what did I do to cause this or what could I have done to avert it, when most of the time, the answer is nothing.[ii]
And as such, we often jump to the false conclusion that either God is cruel and abusive or the world is devoid of purpose and meaning.  And either way, unfortunately, people erroneously tune out of Judaism and tune in to things like reality TV.

But here’s the thing: there is actually a different option!

In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an incredible, healing book offering a Jewish response to his own family tragedy: the death of his young son from a horrible disease.  The book has remained a best-seller for over 3 decades.  Everyone thinks that the book is called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  But the book is actually entitled:  When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  Not “why” but “when.” Kushner wasn’t interested in the root causes of something that happened in the past; he was interested in what possibilities exist for our responses. 

What if Judaism and Jewish practice weren’t about blindly following an all-knowing God meting out judgments at will?  What if Judaism wasn’t a system to help us gain reward and avoid punishment at all? – and what if instead these High Holy Days, specifically Yom Kippur, served to teach us exactly why Judaism is so incredibly relevant, meaningful, and necessary for our world today?  And it’s all wrapped up in just one liturgical poem that we’ve been reading wrong the entire time.
So, at this point, if you are a cynic or a seeker or anything in between, I’d ask you to suspend your disbelief and just for a moment, forget anything you ever learned about Judaism and God in Hebrew School, and let’s go back to Unetaneh Tokef ‘s frightening statement about the sealing of fate and the troubling  list that follows.  What if this list wasn’t intended to be understood literally, but rather metaphorically, to remind us that so many of the events in our world are beyond explanation.  They aren’t moral declarations about our lives, but they remind us that there are occurrences that are sealed from us. As one of my own teachers says, they are “…sealed off from our control, sealed off from our best intentions and best efforts. We will be struck by diseases that we have done nothing to invite.  Hurricanes and flashfloods and human evil will wreak havoc, shattering the foundations of our homes and our most treasured assumptions.”[iii] The list reminds us that regardless of our successes, our appearances, our health, or our zip codes, we are all vulnerable, dependent, and finite. It’s incredibly di
difficult stuff to swallow, no less say aloud, but it is real nevertheless.
Here’s the twist though. Unlike secular culture that views this self-limitation as failure, Judaism sees it as opportunity, blessing even.  Remember that troubling refrain: Repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree? Want to know something? It’s translated wrong.  Translated literally, it says: Repentance, Prayer and charity help the hardship of the decree pass.  These three actions don’t impact the length of our life or alter that which is out of our control.  What they do is help us control what we can!  While describing the horrific realities of his experiences at Auschwitz, theologian Victor Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way…Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”[iv]

This is what Yom Kippur asks of us – what is real in our life?  What is the core of our life?  Are we living by it? Are we moving toward it?

Did you ever wonder why tradition picked these three actions – repentance, prayer, and charity?  I think it might have to do with the fact that the three chosen here each entail a diminishing of the self. 

Think about it: Repentance or teshuvah, ultimately a returning to the best of who we can be, ironically requires a diminishing of who we are and our ego.  To be in true relationship with another, and to return to who we really are, we can’t take up all the space. 

Prayer or tefillah involves a similar phenomenon.  Whether you just say the words, direct them to God or to the community, as Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, to pray “is to forget the self…In prayer, we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”[v]

And charity or tzedekah – this is of course most obvious.  By giving to the other, we literally give away a part of ourselves – whether its our money or our time. Only through our substance becoming less can something greater occur.

These three practices don’t erase our pain, but rather, they move it, convert it into something that might be transformative for someone else, and then for us as well.  Want to know what else these three tasks do for us – they let us write and seal our own legacies!  Because we may not live forever, but our legacies do! And that we can very much control!

I heard this story in a TED talk that Brad Meltzer – the best selling author– gave last year, where he spoke about the power of legacy leaving.  In it, he told the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese businessman who on August 6, 1945 took a business trip to Hiroshima.  The same day the first atomic bomb detonated there. He survived.  Injured but alive, he saw the devastation around him and decided to return to his home town - Nagasaki – where three days later the second bomb landed.  He survived again, and spent the rest of his life talking, writing, and teaching about the importance of peace and the dangers of nuclear arms.  Before he died 2 years ago, he wrote that he saw his life and work like a baton, and that every time the baton was passed, it helped form a raft for others – a raft that might lift people above the turbulent waters of war for generations to come.[vi]

Our world does not have to be meaningless.  Each and every one of us can bring a sense of the Divine into the world and raise up every bit of that goodness, not just regardless of, but influenced by any tragedy or trauma that happens. It is why 20th century master Theologian Martin Buber got it right when he said that God isn’t above us, God is between us.  The Divine exists in the space between people. 

Why will I take Judaism, not just over reality TV, but over just about anything else, any day?  Why does Judaism matter now more than ever?  Because Judaism won’t change the dates at the beginning or end of our lives, but it will, in a most real way, let us live our lives and traverse whatever realities of life come our way better, giving real purpose to that which would otherwise remain meaningless.  

Modern psychologists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what causes people to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives, regardless of their circumstances.  Psychologist and researcher Dan McAdams teaches that at every major turning point in our lives, we have the choice to make our life’s story one of contamination or one of redemption.  Contamination stories occur when a person encounters troubles and allows them to dominate their lives.  Redemption stories, on the other hand, take a very different turn.  Redemption stories occur when a person encounters troubles, but chooses to grow from them, give from them, to let them impact the future for the better.  And the interesting thing about this concept is that the ultimate outcome of the story isn’t what matters.[vii]   A story, even one without a happy ending, can nevertheless be a redemption story.  All Jewish stories are redemption stories, even if they don’t end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

At the very end of the traditional Unetaneh Tokef there is a beautiful verse.  For some reason, our Machzor doesn’t include it, but it reads, “Ushmeinu karata v’shmecha” “You, God, named us after You.”  It means that our names endure; as God endures. Our legacies live beyond us.  Our actions grounded in the work of connecting to others outside of ourselves, our work to make the world better not for ourselves but for others, these have timeless significance “even in a world that sometimes breaks our hearts.” 

And so this beautiful poem by renowned ethicist Michael Josephson: “What Will Matter.”
“Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end…
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.  It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
So what will matter?  How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is … not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew but how many will feel a lasting loss when you are gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those you loved.
What will matter is not how long you lived, but how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.”[viii]

Because the essence of who we are and what we do for the good is Eternal, and in that very real way, we live on forever.  And in that we see the very real promise of Un’taneh Tokef, of these High Holy Days, and the very heart of our faith.  

In this New Year of hope, and goodness, and blessing for us all, Shanah Tovah.


Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence A, PhD, Ed. Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef.  Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2010

Lew, Alan.  This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.  Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 2003

McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: The Guildford Press. 1993.

McAdams, Dan P.  Josselson, Ruthellen, Leiblich, Amia, Ed.  Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  2001.

[ii] Hoffman, Dr. Joel M.  “How Was Your Flight.” Who by Fire, Who by Water.  P. 95.
[iii] Stern, Rabbi David. “Moral Matters: The Faith of Un’taneh Tokef”. Ibid.  p 173.
[iv] Frankel, Victor.  Man’s Search for Meaning. P. 65.
[v] Heschel, Joshua.  Man’s Quest for God. P. 15.
[vii] Based on the work of David McAdams. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

The High Holy Days, the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Rotten Tomatoes

(Published originally by the Huffington Post)
As Jews, we find ourselves in one of the most spiritually intense periods of the year the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah the 10 Days of Repentance carrying us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  Our tradition envisions that the gates of Divine Judgment open on Rosh Hashanah and close at Yom Kippurs end, necessitating reflection and atonement for our sins in the past.  The Jewish liturgy offers an expansive confessional section called Vidui where the community verbally confesses together to any number of offenses.  This year, Ill be adding a verse to list: Al cheit shechatanu lfanecha for the sin we have committed against You by mindlessly reaping the benefits of slavery. 
September 22, 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln issuing the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first major step to rid the scourge of slavery in America forever.   In truth, though, the fulfillment of the ideal that the document envisioned has never been realized on American soil.  Systems of indentured servitude and forced labor continued throughout the decades, and although slavery is certainly illegal today, it endures nevertheless, and in fact proves just as, if not more brutal, albeit much more hidden.
According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 17,000 foreign nationals
are trafficked into the United States and enslaved annually. Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. They do not come to knowingly be enslaved. In order to afford the journey, they pay their life savings and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondageBy definition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, but it is the slave trade.[i]

Where can we find evidence of this slavery?  Look no further than American tomatoes. 
90% of the fresh tomatoes consumed in our country between November and May come from Florida and are likely harvested by forced labor. These workers picking tomatoes do not earn wages based on the government-established minimum hourly wage.  Instead, their income is based on how many tomatoes they can pick, and the rate of compensation is stunningly low.  Workers must pick and haul a staggering 2.5 tons of tomatoes in order to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day. In addition, as Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights pointed out, Forced labor and slavery in Florida is just the extreme end of a continuum of worker exploitation that includes sexual harassment, dangerous exposure to pesticides, wage theft, and violence.[ii] 

Enter the Coalition of Immakolee Workers in Florida, a worker-driven grassroots organization working to legally end this horrific reality through its Fair Food Program.  The market-based initiative seeks to improve the tomato harvesting wage floor and institutionalize a voice for farmworkers by requiring large food retailers to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, to pay a penny more per pound for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to buy only from growers who meet those higher standards.[iii]

Many retailers have signed on to the Fair Food Program, including Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and McDonalds.  One notable hold-out however is Chipotle Mexican Grill.  Despite the fast-food chains claim of providing sustainable, integrity-based ingredients in its food, there is no way to assure that a Chipotle tomato was not harvested by slave labor.  Chipotle has said that they will pay the extra wage to the workers and only purchase tomatoes from appropriate producers, but to date, they refuse to sign a Fair Food Agreement, thereby refusing to commit to transparency, accountability, and third-party monitoring to assure their actions match their commitments. 

The process of true repentance demands not only a verbal pronouncement of the offense, but among other things, a commitment to assure that the offense will not be committed again.  We can all engage in this process by strongly encouraging Chipotle to take the next step and sign on to the Fair Food Agreement.  You can do this by taking a letter to the manager of your local franchise or clicking here for information.  Among the countless Jewish teachings mandating fair treatment for the slave and other disenfranchised among us, Deuteronomy 24:14 commands: You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.  Whether grounded in the teachings that have carried the Jewish people over the millennia or from the values written down by Abraham Lincoln a century and half ago, the ideal of freedom for all is still one, not only to which we must aspire, but one for which we are responsible in assuring is made fully real.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Elul 5772 – Top 10 List for High Holy Day Readiness

In attempts to prepare for the High Holy Days, I've been making lists. Lots of lists: Grocery lists, lists of things to get dry cleaned, service order lists, lists of sermon ideas for Yom Kippur, and the list goes on. But I realized in all my trivial list- making, I had failed to make what is probably the most important list - a list to detail the steps of how to fully spiritually prepare for these coming Holy Days. So in that spirit, I have made such a list: The Top Ten Things To Do in Preparation for the High Holy Days, given the fact that there are only 2 days left until they begin!

10) It is never too late for personal reflection, meditation and prayer. Try and conduct a Cheshbon HaNefesh “an accounting of the soul.” A Chasidic tale sums it up nicely: “Where are you running to?” questioned the Talmud professor to his student hurrying by. “I’m rushing home to look over the High Holiday Machzor before Rosh Hashanah begins.” The teacher replied, “The Machzor hasn’t changed since last year, but perhaps you have. Go home and look over yourself.” This work of repentance and return is not meant to be taken lightly – you can simply dedicate a period of time this evening or tomorrow to sit quietly and really think about the last year. Open a scrap book, track your online postings over the last year, think about your work, your relationships, your tzedakah or charitable giving over the past year. Be honest about what you did well and where you missed the mark. We can’t move forward with our lives until we have a real sense of where we have been.

9) Take note of the world's majestic beauty. Visit the lake at sunrise, take a walk around the botanic gardens, really study a leaf changing color with the season. Rosh Hashanah is the day when we thank God for the miracle of creation. But our liturgy doesn’t know your favorite spot to watch the sunrise at the beach. Carry that image with you on Rosh Hashanah, and let your appreciation for the world's beauty inform your experience.

8) Think about the prayers we intone on the High Holidays – then, think about the parts that you struggle with – maybe it is a prayer or a reading, a word or a depiction of God. Open up your Machzor and look at that part, read it again, wrestle with it, do an honest assessment of what really bothers you and why. You don’t have to accept the absolutes of tradition without question, but you should work with them, wrestle with them. Don’t forget, Yisra-El literally means one who struggles with the Divine. To live up to that name necessitates some wrestling.

7) Give more tzedakah: whatever you usually do, do it a little more – awareness of others in need is a powerful reminder to us of all of the blessings we have. To spend lots of time on words, but not to open our hands to those in need in our midst, is to miss the point of what it means to be God’s partners in the world’s renewal. We also need to think generously and broadly about what “those in need” means. Of course, we must give to the poor and the disenfranchised among us, but we also need to think honestly about the institutions in our community from which we draw benefit
and that ensure our community’s very existence. We must ask ourselves if we have supported those parts of our lives with the same open heart and hand. And then, once you’ve decided to whom you will give tzedakah, on Sunday morning, the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah, drop a check in the mail, go online and make a donation – start 5773 having fulfilled the commitments that matter most.

6) Think about someone you’ve lost. Tradition actually encourages us to visit our loved one's burial places during this time. In the process of teshuvah, we remember that we are not here in isolation – we have come from somewhere, been influenced by those who have come before us and we are charged to carry their memories with us in these most powerful of days. Then when you come to synagogue, carry that loss along with and your genuine gratitude as well.

5) If you have a tallit, set it out tonight and bring it to services this year and wear it. Not only is this a good idea because they tend to get a little musty after a while, but it’s a pretty incredible symbol, an enveloping garment in which we literally and metaphorically surround ourselves with reminders of the covenant between us and God. How powerful to begin the new year with a fresh tallit – signifying our whole hearted intention of beginning the new year with a clean and fresh understanding of our relationship and partnership with God.

4) Find a poem or reading that you find meaningful and inspirational, something that speaks to you, cut it out or print it out and bring it with you to High Holiday services - look at it during meditative or reflective moments in the service.

3) Apologize to those you’ve hurt. A colleague recently shared that on NPR’s Car Talk, a show where they talk about cars, car problems, car solutions, they offered a suggestion list of standard features they’d like to see added to all cars. #10 on their list was an “ I’m Sorry!' Button . Commenting on the common driving scenario, when you offend another driver, say you cut them off or don’t yield to the person on the right, he or she has little choice but to remind you of your mistake through laying on the horn. It is likely you will retaliate with a clever, defensive retort like, "laying on the horn even louder in response" or offering certain hand gestures that impart your message. But what if instead your car had an “I’m sorry button” – you know, after they honk at you, you could press the button and it would call out, “So sorry, I was jerk. I shouldn’t have done that. Hope you have a great day.” it could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.
This colleague suggested that we need to take that advice and install our own “I’m sorry” buttons in ourselves. We need to get more comfortable with saying sorry. It takes a lot of guts to do the hard work of teshuvah – of repentance and return: to judge ourselves without the self-condemnation that sometimes lets us off the hook. Our tradition teaches us that for sins between the individual and God, God forgives, but for sins between one individual and another, we must actively seek their forgiveness – and doing that starts with saying, “I am sorry.”

2) Offer Forgiveness– perhaps the only thing harder than saying “I’m sorry” is saying “I forgive you.” A few years back, a Harvard study identified personality traits that seemed to forecast happy, successful and long lives. Of the key traits discussed was the willingness to forgive people you’re upset and angry with. George Valliant, who wrote a book on the study, defines forgiveness as the recognition that it is too late to have a different past, and points out that holding on to grudges rarely hurts the person we are angry at, but is guaranteed to eat away at us instead. If someone who has offended against us has come forward and offered us a sincere apology and commitment to not hurt us again, we have to put away our self-righteousness, our desire to be right, our fear of being vulnerable, and we have to say the words, “I forgive you.”

1) Allow these coming days, the time, the words, the music, the community in to your heart, mind, and soul. There is not another time of the year when the entire people of Am Yisrael – in Israel and Diaspora, from ultra-Orthodox to the completely unaffiliated, men and women, boys and girls, democrats, republicans, white sox and cubs fans, come together, on the same physical and spiritual page. Whatever your theology, whatever your baggage, if it was ever going to count for something, this is the time. Tradition teaches that the gates of Divine justice open on Rosh Hashanah and for 10 days until Yom Kippur remain open, offering each and all of us our most intimate opportunity to stand together in defiance of the notion that the world is a place devoid of meaning and holiness. If you are doubter or a cynic, suspend your disbelief. Of you are seeker, dig deep now. Each and all of us together can open ourselves to the true potential of these truly Awe-filled days. If we do that, then indeed, whatever we face this coming year, we will do so with an outlook of goodness, meaning and blessing, and holiness will be felt by us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

"We Can't Talk to Each Other Anymore"

My remarks from this last Shabbat - Friday, August 31, 2012

Only my closest friends know I did this.  You’ll never guess where I was. You may have read about this event or even seen clips  of it on TV, but let me describe the scene to you, from my first-hand account: The less-than-desirable weather conditions didn’t hinder any of the fanfare.  People were everywhere – swarming, in their seats, up in the stands, inside and outside the venue staring at huge screens. They had cameras, they were recording everything on the video feature of their phones and uploading to YouTube, they were live-tweeting and posting to Facebook.  I noticed that everyone seemed to look the same, clad in shirts and hats emblazoned with “the team’s” name, and they were waving these banners and signs, hand written or painted with their own “We love so-and-so” depending on whose big “play” was coming up next.  There was press everywhere too.  Each time a new person made their way into view, the crowd went wild, shouting and cheering in a growing wave of euphoria. 

As one who doesn’t hold the same affection for this “team”, I have to say I felt really out of place. It’s hard to silence me, I am not usually easily intimidated, but the power of those united around me and seemingly against me, I think they could tell I wasn’t a real “fan”, made me feel small and inadequate. When the people in front of me heard me make a dissenting remark under my breath, they turned around and gave me a nasty look.  I was frightened that if I spoke up, they might go on the attack, throw their popcorn at me, or hit my head with one of their poster-board signs.

I imagine given what we all know has been going on, you know what I’m talking about.

That’s right, preseason football and my experience at New England Patriots Practice! 

On our recent trip out east, I had the “opportunity” to go with my husband and our kids to watch the New England Patriots practice.  This was, as I was told by my husband, my brother-in-law, all our Boston family and friends, even my kids (who have clearly been brainwashed) a really big deal. So we are sitting there, in the stands on the hottest day imaginable.  My family at my side camouflaged and swimming along with the massive crowd of Tom Brady navy jerseys, cheering, waving these really weird signs, and most notably praising anything Patriots and talking a whole lot of smack, really mean smack, about anyone and everyone else.

Which I really didn’t get since it is was only a practice – not even a preseason scrimmage.  Now, personal disclosure – I am not into watching sports.  But I get I am in the minority, I get that people find meaning and community in the teams they align with, and probably, these teams serve as important psycho-social receptacles for many people’s feelings of frustration, anger, pride, and hubris that would otherwise manifest themselves in more inappropriate and even troublesome ways in society.

And amidst this brewing, bubbling cauldron of “Brady’s gonna kick so-and-so’s you know what this year,” “so and so’s an dummy” signage, and then the subsequent hi-fives, fist and chest bumps, yes chest bumps, all I could think of was how this was just a small picture of the larger “if you aren’t with us, you are against us” world we all live in now, and I started to think about how we can’t talk to each other anymore on the things about which we disagree.

Some of this is a result of modern day social media.  Now, more than ever, we can self-select exactly which viewpoints we want to be exposed to and which we want to block out, so that we might not ever have to encounter the “other side.”  This can give us the false illusion that everyone must hold the same “likes” as we do.  And if they don’t, clearly, they are wrong.  

When we do this, something interesting happens: in lifting up the validity and absolute right of our own view, we connect to it deeply and with passion.  We feel it reflective of us, a part of us, and as such we want to defend it, and ourselves, against anything that might threaten it. Essentially, we develop an intimate, humanized relationship with our view and those who hold it, so we cannot separate our view from who we are as a person.  But then, as a result, we completely dehumanize the opposition.  We allow ourselves to forget that the “other” side is a view held by another person – our neighbor, family member, community member, what have you.  We see every conversation not as opportunity to learn and grow through hearing and learning about a different perspective, and instead, we see the other side, the view and the person connected, as a threat – an enemy, that rival team that, whether better than us or not, we will rip to bits so that our side, or really we feel that much stronger, that much more powerful, without a moment’s thought about the damage we might leave in our wake. 

And when we either become so wedded to our own views that we can no longer even stand in the presence of the other with a different view, we have a real problem.  The truth is the likelihood of a conversation where disagreement occurs while nurtured in mutual respect is slim to none these days.  As Arnie Eisen recently wrote: we “…so fear to articulate serious arguments.  We seem afraid that critique of a person’s point of view will be taken as critique of the person and cause insult. And fearing barbs, we restrict ourselves to pleasantries.  Minds grow dull on a heavy dose of…what Eisen calls: ”the pleasure of agreement.””[i]  And with that, Eisen brings up the other real draw back to a world in which I stick to my team and you stick to yours and never the two shall meet – real, anesthetizing boredom and stagnation.

While this may very well be the way of our world today, it is not, nor has it ever been the Jewish way.  We Jews wrote the book on how to argue – literally. The entire code of Jewish Law on which all modern Jewish practice is based – the Talmud – is nothing more than a cataloguing of arguments between Jews.  But these weren’t disagreements that escalated into name-calling, threats, and violence.  These disagreements were understood as the basis for holy Jewish living and believe it or not, a pluralistic Jewish practice for nearly the last 2000 years.

Take this story for example: The Talmud describes that two opposing schools of thought – Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel (think Michigan and Ohio State) were in a dispute over a certain halacha – or Jewish law - for 3 years, each proclaiming that the law sided with their respective view.  All of a sudden, a disembodied, Divine Voice announces, “Both of you are right, but the halachah goes with Beit Hillel.”  Since both were right, what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halachah fixed with their rulings? The Talmud gives this reasoning: Because they were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of BS, and were even so humble as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before their own.”[ii] 

I wonder if we might see a greater willingness to engage in discourse and in fact a return of civility to discourse if we all followed those Talmud guidelines for disagreement.  Because the truth is, disagreement is a cherished part of what it means to be in community, to be a part of a growing and evolving world that moves toward improvement.  Disagreement is the space from which choices and ultimately progress comes. 

As you know, tonight marks the 13th day in the month of Elul: the Jewish month preceding the High Holy Days; a time of renewal and reflection.  The death of civil discourse, the pervasive presence of fear, lack of trust, and an odd distortion of accepted group-think that now seems to govern so much of the ways of our world – all of these must necessarily be a part of our work toward teshuvah - as individuals and a community.  We can start this process by practicing the three concepts raised up for us in the Talmud in each conversation we have where we disagree:
1)   Be kind and modest.
2)   Listen to the opinions of others as well as your own.
3)   Come to understand and give respect to the other by stating their view before your own.

Three simple tasks football fans, politicians, and every one of us can easily apply to start to make a real difference in how we engage with each other.

In his master work “I and Thou”, the famous 20th century Theologian Martin Buber professed, “All real living is meeting” – meaning that the highest form of existence is when we sit and really see each other, eye to eye, and hear each other, ear to ear, look at each other, not me against your idea, or you against mine, but person to person, heart to heart, soul to soul.  If we do that, Holiness will dwell within us, God will abide among us. 
Shabbat Shalom

[i] Sermon “On Civility” March 15, 2012
[ii] Eruvin 13b