There’s something extraordinary about Jewish texts. What is it? You may have heard of Hillel and Shammai, or any of the many famous rabbinic voices recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. Our foundational religious texts record and evaluate both the “winning” voice, the rabbi whose opinion became mainstream in our traditions, and minority views.
Sometimes, communities or people follow a viewpoint that was originally the minority voice. I’ve heard people say that they chose a less popular rabbi’s ruling, based on their study of the relevant texts. I’ve been at a Talmud study session where learner pairs presented summaries on why they sided with the minority in a debate.
Analysis and debate remain at the core of our Jewish identities. We’ve all heard the joke, “Two Jews, three opinions!” Sandwiched in that is the idea that we learned and thought deeply about it. There’s another angle to this joke though – the assumption that, if we’ve come to this point, we’ve heard differing opinions. We learned enough to make a judgment. We’re also committed to a civil discourse to get there, because, if every study session or discussion meant people fought violently, we’d never have survived for thousands of years.
Jews are traditionally committed to behaving appropriately – derech eretz, literally “the way of the land,” means “how we behave” – promoting peace and avoiding embarrassing others unnecessarily. We value a good argument but, in the end, agreeing to disagree – with civility – is key.
I recently read a piece written by historian Henry Abramson. It was published by online newsfeed JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) about the Bergen-Belsen marriage contracts (ketubot) produced after the Second World War. After the war, this concentration camp became a displaced persons camp. There was a marriage and baby boom, seen as a way to repopulate the many lives lost there. However, the “standard” ketubah issued there did something very different. These marriage contracts acknowledged that many people didn’t know what had happened to their prewar spouses and families. It took years to find this out, and the contract stated that, if their first families reappeared, the people who signed this contract must take the situation to a beit din (a Jewish court) to figure out what to do. Jewish law was flexible and resilient enough in this terrible situation to find recourse in civility and law.
Unfortunately, the effort to accept difficult, diverse situations and opinions is being lost to the larger culture’s problems with incivility. Recently, the Charedi Orthodox deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Eliezer Rauchberger, was the keynote speaker at a national convention for Israel’s Real Estate Appraisers Association. He canceled at the last moment when he saw the event was being held in facility owned by the Conservative movement. He took the opportunity to condemn those who affiliate with the Reform and Conservative movements, calling them heretical. He sought to embarrass and shame others rather than be inclusive. (Hint: That’s not in line with the commandments.)
These are “distant” stories, but, closer to home, we’ve just demonstrated both sides of this civility debate in Winnipeg. Limmud supports the wide diversity of Jewish opinion and, as such, organizers of the learning event in Winnipeg invited Lex Rofeberg, a rabbinical student, educator and activist to speak. Rofeberg’s Limmud and Shabbat dinner topics weren’t controversial. His lecture subject was Digital Judaism, a topic that’s long overdue. (Parts of Winnipeg’s Jewish community look like they still use the abacus compared to other communities when it comes to this topic.)
Some people, however, disagree with Rofeberg’s Israel activism. Instead of respecting the right of others to hold a different opinion, they use their social media bullhorns to protest. These voices were loud in this case. It seems they had the attention of those with deep pockets who donate to support Jewish events. But, being loud, bullying others and manipulating funders doesn’t mean they were right.
Jewish tradition teaches us that minority voices deserve to be heard. It teaches us to respect others’ right to an opinion and to behave appropriately. These aren’t just Jewish values, they are our country’s democratic values. We should be flexible and resilient in our responses, not quick to condemn others.
Canceling Rofeberg’s Shabbat Across Winnipeg lecture (even though Rofeberg wasn’t going to make any comments about Israel or politics) was described as an action that would maintain shalom b’bayit, peace in the home. That’s another aspect of derech eretz many of us invoke as we try to hush shouting children. Limmud Winnipeg, by contrast, continued to support Rofeberg’s appearance at its event.
I missed this real-time drama. My kids go to bed early, so we eat Shabbat dinner at home. I’m not on Facebook. I didn’t get to Limmud this year. However, based on what I’ve read and heard, I’m saddened that some Jewish institutions bowed down before the social media bullies and donor dollars, and withdrew their support for the event.
Can we learn from people with whom we disagree? Of course. Does shaming others whose opinions differ with yours have a place in Jewish discourse? No.
North American Jews emphasize education. With that learning comes the ability to do analysis and think critically. We’re lucky to live in a country that allows us to voice those differing opinions. Shame on us, Winnipeggers, for bowing down to bullies who would silence that discourse – all for a little peace on Shabbat. We should know better. We should support healthy debate about things that matter to us. As adults, we should be able to behave appropriately and peacefully on Shabbat regardless.
We lost an opportunity to be our best selves – thinking, discussing and disagreeing while we break bread together. That said, I believe our community will have many opportunities to do this better in the future. The research indicates that younger Jewish community members may have different views – including those on Israel’s politics – than their grandparents do. It’s time to listen respectfully to one another.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.