High Holidays

News Analysis: Group urges rabbis to use the bully pulpit

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (JTA) – If the Jewish Council on Public Affairs has its way, it won’t be the presidential election, the ailing economy, social justice or personal ethics that top the list of High Holidays sermon topics this year.

The public policy group is hoping that the study materials and sample sermons it released late last month will inspire rabbis to address the topic of civility — in particular, the lack of it in communal discourse — when they ascend the pulpits later this month.

“Increasingly, conversations are giving way to diatribe,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow in a news release accompanying the materials. “We can do better.”

The new materials come as JCPA continues to push its Year of Civility campaign launched in 2010, and after years in which civility has been a focus of communal attention. Back in 2008, Hillel, the Jewish campus group, made civility the theme of its summit in Washington. In 2010, a group of Northern California rabbis launched an initiative to foster civil discourse out of concern for the corrosive impact of the Israel debate.

It’s not only the Jews hopping the civility train. Overheated rhetoric has been blamed routinely for tragedies large and small, including the massacre that nearly claimed the life of a U.S. congresswoman in Arizona, the suicides of victims of Internet bullying and the inability of elected leaders to reach agreement on ways to steer the country out of the economic doldrums.

The JCPA’s latest contribution to the civility effort is a series of study texts, source materials and sermons touting the rich Jewish history of dialogue and debate. Several invoke the precedent set by Hillel and Shammai, heads of competing schools of rabbinic thought nearly 2,000 years ago who disagreed endlessly on matters of law but managed to remain friends. Others cite the extensive legal prohibitions on slanderous speech to show how Jewish tradition recognized the immense destructive power of words.

There are multiple references to the teaching that the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of baseless hatred. And thinkers as diverse as the medieval biblical commentator Rashi and the modern-day Reform philosopher Eugene Borowitz are cited in support of the notion that respect for the humanity of all people must always be preserved.

There is much talk about the evils of technology. Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco, in a sermon titled “Civility in the Age of Immediacy,” faults the BlackBerry, snarky online commentary and the obsession with connectivity, among other evils, for fueling a disregard for kindness. For Rabbi Paula Marcus, of Aptos, Calif., the Genesis story is proof that God wants humanity to remain in relationship with those with whom we disagree.

Rabbi Melanie Aron of Los Gatos, Calif., offers a bit of anatomical rabbinic wisdom to demonstrate Judaism’s intense concern with the power of words.

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue, the Bible teaches, and the rabbis tell wonderful stories about body parts, arms and legs, thighs and shoulders, competing for supremacy, only to be shown up by the power of speech,” Aron writes. “The strongest muscles, literally and figuratively, are not the biceps or the quads, they are the muscles in the tongue.”

While the JCPA in its news release does not note the specific issue that has aroused its concern over the corrosion of intracommunal discourse, the rabbis are not so reticent. Nearly every sermon on the policy council’s site notes the intensity and often demonizing nature of communal dialogue on Israel.

Some do it in passing. Others, including Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga, Calif., dive right in, opening with a cinematic description of the Jews fighting among themselves as the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground. Failing to curb the anger and hatred animating discussion of Israel could see the country lost again.

“The danger of being quick to attack someone as anti-Israel, or assuming that only those who agree with you really love Israel, that unless everyone agrees with you Israel is doomed, is that you force people out of engagement,” Pressman writes.

Perhaps it is to be expected that a disproportionate number of writers included by the JCPA are non-Orthodox rabbis from Northern California. It is there, in one of the country’s most liberal corners, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had the most corrosive impact.

It was a young Jewish San Franciscan that was allegedly punched when she interrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year. In Berkeley, Rabbi Michael Lerner has had his home vandalized several times with graffiti branding him a supporter of terrorism. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival sparked furor and lost some funding over its decision to put on a program featuring a film about Rachel Corrie, the activist killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the West Bank, and an appearance by her mother. And just last week, in Oakland, an exhibition of Palestinian children’s art was canceled because the subject proved too controversial.

On the flip side, the region has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel activism — with protesters associated with the University of California, Berkeley disrupting appearances by pro-Israel speakers, including Netanyahu (then between stints as prime minister) and scholar Daniel Pipes. Jewish college students say they have been violently harassed.

The rabbis included in the JCPA materials are excruciatingly judicious in their handling of the issue, and generally avoid fingering either side, but it’s hard to miss that they mostly emerge from along the liberal end of the spectrum. This could reflect the reality that while conservatives within Jewish communal politics feel besieged on a host of issues, liberals more often are the ones fending off accusations of disloyalty and being threatened with excommunication.

Nor will everyone agree, even with something as innocuous as a civility campaign.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote recently in the Huffington Post that all the civility talk was making him uncomfortable. Citing several of the same texts that JCPA does, Yoffie nevertheless concludes that civility “has become an end unto itself, distorting norms of democratic debate and distracting us from matters of more fundamental consequence.”

And FailedMessiah.com blogger Shmarya Rosenberg, writing this month in the Forward, noted that the Hillel and Shammi camps weren’t as friendly as we’re often led to think. Rosenberg cites a story from the Jerusalem Talmud that Shammai’s followers once ambushed students of Hillel, killing some and holding the rest captive until they capitulated to Shammai’s view.

True or not, no one disputes that civility is generally a noteworthy thing. And for some, the lack of it is of more than a passing concern.

In her speech to the JCPA plenum in 2010, the text of which is included on the council’s site, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub made the case for why civil discourse must become a communal priority.

“We believe the ways the Jewish community is and isn’t currently talking about Israel is preventing us from having the kind of vibrantly alive culture of learning and creative problem-solving we need to survive and thrive as a people,” Weintraub said.”Nothing less than the Jewish people is at stake.”