Make America Sane Again

Friday, 29 December, 2017 - 11:07 am

In the early generations of the Chasidic movement, the opposition was very fierce. Sadly, much of the opposition was a result of insidious individuals fanning of the flames of divisiveness. It had reached such a frenzied state, that many were unwilling to even take an honest look for themselves to see whether the accusations were rooted in truth or falsehood.

The first scholarly work that Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Chabad Rebbe) published was an excerpt of his Code of Jewish Law, the Laws of Torah Study. It was published anonymously by his request. The story is related, that when the book was brought to Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, who was the Rabbinic leader of the opposition, he was thoroughly impressed and highly praised the scholarship. Once he found out who the author was, he changed his tune and refused to reconsider his opposition. This story indicates to us the climate of inflexibility that reigned in the Jewish world at the time. Change came about when certain individuals were willing to get “out of the box,” as well as by the necessity of working together against common adversaries.

I cite this only as a point of reference; as a means of learning from history. My intent is not to draw a comparison between individuals or ideologies. We live in a time where the climate in our society is so partisan, that one can rarely find an example of willingness to even hear the ideas of “the other side,” let alone actually work together for common good. Our political atmosphere is so poisonous, that one would not even consider an idea put forth by the other, simply because of the name or party associated with it. As social media has given everyone a platform, all we do is shrilly shout into the echo chamber, not stopping for long enough to even contemplate the possibility that there may be some valid points being made by the other.

I wish to share something I wrote in 2016 after the Orlando shooting. “Let’s take a page from the Talmud in how to deal with divergence of opinions on important issues. The Talmud is filled with Halachic disputes between sages. Perhaps the most famous disputants are Beit Hillel (school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (school of Shammai). They argue about hundreds of cases. In the vast majority of cases the Halacha follows the opinion of Beit Hillel, as the majority of sages supported their opinion in those cases. In explaining this phenomenon, the Talmud declares that the reason why Halacha so often followed the opinion of Beit Hillel is because they were humble and they cite the view of Beit Shammai before citing their own view.

The question is, humility is very nice and being polite is also very nice, but what does that have to do with verifying truth and determining Halacha? One of the commentaries explains it in this manner. When Beit Hillel cite Beit Shammai’s opinion first it is because they truly wished to hear the opposing view and seriously consider it before offering their own. When one is seeking the truth one is truly open to hearing what the other person has to say and will seriously consider that opinion before either accepting or rejecting it.

Contrast this approach with what we have in our society today. We have sides that are entrenched, each so stuck with their agenda that they don’t pause for a moment to consider the possibility that the other side may have a legitimate contribution to the discussion. These agendas color the ability to seek truth wherever it may be found, as the saying goes, “don’t confuse me with the facts.” Or, I may add, “don’t confuse me with logical arguments.” It may actually be, that in our situation there is legitimacy to many of the arguments and the answer lies somewhere as a blend of the solutions. But if we don’t stop shouting for long enough to consider the view of another, we may never resolve these issues and more and more people will be victims of our inability and unwillingness to cooperate.”

Let us introduce sanity into the public discourse of 2018 by listening before dismissing an idea just because of by whom it is presented. Our society and our lives will be enriched as a result.

We welcome Rachel Sadres to New Orleans and to our Chabad Uptown community. Wishing you much success in all of your endeavors; may the new location bring mazel in all that you do.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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