(Please sing this abridged version of the Bob Dylan classic with a nasal twang and imagining a harmonica in the background)
Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side
Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side
I’ve learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
So, what’s wrong with saying you have God on your side? The Rabbis tell a famous story about this. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and the Rabbis were engaged in a debate over a point of Jewish law. All the rabbis ruled one way and Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.
But, Rabbi Eliezer was convinced he was right. So, he proceeded to produce miracle after miracle to prove it. And, finally, he said, “If I’m right, let there be a heavenly voice confirming my opinion. Sure enough, a heavenly voice declared “Rabbi Eliezer is right.” And, the rabbis turned to God and said, “It is not in heaven,” meaning, ‘God, you gave us the authority to interpret your Torah. You can’t interfere now.’ And, God laughed approvingly and said, “nitzchuni vaani”/my children have defeated me.”
Now usually, we use this story to teach that God wants us to think for ourselves, not just obey blindly. But, I want to use this story in a different way today. This is a story about a man who believed God was on his side. And, the rabbis rejected his premise. More dramatically, God rejects his plea. Why?
The Rabbis reasoning is revolutionary. Up until that moment, we believed that God communicated God’s will most effectively through an individual person, like Moses. But, the Rabbis said there are two Torahs: the Torah she’bichtav/the written Torah and the Torah she’b’al peh, literally, the “Torah by mouth,” the “Torah of conversation.”
How does the Torah of conversation work? The Rabbis say, “when two people sit and study Torah, ha’shechinah shruyah beineihem, God’s presence is felt between them.” And, what that means is when you and I argue, God is not on my side and God is not on your side. God is on the inside. God is in the argument itself.
In other words, God is heard most clearly when we reason things through together. And, this holy arguing is what we Jews do best. Judaism is a 3000 year old conversation about right and wrong. And, this same ability to disagree without acrimony is at the core of America’s genius, too.
But, lately we have defaulted to the position of Rabbi Eliezer. More and more, we are retreating behind the insistence that God is on our side. And, we are missing the mark as what is most threatening our democracy.
Of course, it’s true that an individual leader can do great harm. But, here is the irony. Why have so many Americans reacted so viscerally against the president’s words and actions? It’s the theme of ‘us against them’ that most disturbs us. We are being told that all of America’s problems are being caused by ‘them’–outsiders. They are violating our boundaries, they are violating our women, they are stealing our jobs and they are killing us.
What American has not at one point in time been this ‘they’—this hated outsider? Throughout history, America has been the refuge of the outsider, the country where there is no ‘us and them’–only ‘us.’ And, the only people who are benefitting from this polarization are the Canadians who are licking their chops at the prospect of luring the next Steve Jobs to their more hospitable shores.
And, yet…it is easier to condemn this demonization in others than to see it in ourselves. A few weeks ago, I received an email from a politically conservative member of our community disagreeing with something I said. He begins his letter this way: “I’ve been hesitant to write this letter. I’ve already lost most of my liberal friends, and I don’t want to lose you, too.”
It broke my heart to read this. Why should this person have lost a single friend because of his political opinions? And, of course this intolerance swings both ways. People I know to be decent and kind have told me that President Obama is evil, and that Hillary is evil. Well, if we support evil, what does that make us?
And, we cannot blame this on Donald Trump. It is naïve to think all this will just magically disappear if we simply elect a different candidate next time. It is we who have turned out country into a zero-sum game. The election of a leader who exploits this world view is a result, not the cause. And, if we want things to change, we need to attack the problem at its root. We need to relearn the Torah of conversation.
What might that conversation look like? When I was in Washington, D.C. my son David’s Austrian born Jewish friend, Peter, told me that as an immigrant himself he was horrified by the president’s new policy. But, he also told me that in his native Austria, the failure of the moderate community to allow a grown up conversation about the realities of immigration in Europe has created a vacuum in which xenophobia has flourished.
An adult conversation would first acknowledge the need to respond with compassion to the needs of millions of displaced persons. These needs must be our overriding concern. But, an adult conversation would also acknowledge the following: Jews all over Europe have been attacked by Muslim immigrants. In our own country, Jewish students on college campuses in America are increasingly being intimidated and harassed for supporting Israel.
These concerns do not justify the president’s extreme response. In Rashi’s commentary on the story of Hagar and Yishmael, he tells us why not. The child Yishmael was dying of thirst and God came to his rescue. The angels argued: “How can you do that? Someday, the children of Yishmael will threaten the Jewish people!” But, God says ‘No. I will judge Yishmael b’asher hu sham/by where he is now. And, where he is now is a human being in desparate need.
And, it is the same with the children of Yishmael.
So, it would be inhuman to turn our backs on people whose lives are in danger. But, it is not inhuman to worry about the long term impact of the growth of a population that is currently very hostile to Israel.
I have been involved in Muslim-Jewish dialogue for five years now. And, I have profound respect and personal affection for our Muslim friends who we have gotten to know over the years. At the same time, truth be told, we have generations of work to do together. There is a huge gap between us when it comes to Israel. In my own personal experience, I have rarely encountered even a moderate Muslim who has been willing to acknowledge in public or private the moral legitimacy of the very existence of the State of Israel.
Is this a reason to suspend our dialogue? On the contrary, I believe these conversations are more important today than they have ever been before. If anything, we should quadruple our efforts in this area now.
But, I have also learned that the most meaningful intergroup conversations are the most honest ones. I personally believe that it is our inability to have a truly adult conversation about Islam with our Muslim friends and neighbors in the years since 9/11 that has created a moral vacuum in which xenophobia flourishes.
In the Book of Vayikra, the Torah warns us not to hold back a feeling of being wronged for fear that pent up feelings can lead to something more ominous. Our fear of offending our Muslim neighbors has fueled a hatred that is far more dangerous, and this hatred has already begun spilling over onto us. The sin is ours. We should have offended them more.
But, why should we be capable of having an adult conversation about such a sensitive moral issue when we don’t seem able to have an adult conversation on any moral issue? Name calling has replaced nuanced moral reasoning. Righteous indignation has replaced thought provoking discussion.
Again, I go back to Abraham. When God first informed Abraham of God’s plan to destroy Sodom, Abraham was filled with righteous indignation. “What kind of a God are you?” said Abraham, Yet, what follows Abraham’s initial burst of passion is a carefully calibrated discussion about the precise point at which judgement must overwhelm mercy. Is it 50 righteous people? 30? What started out as a screaming match was transformed into a thoughtful debate about when rehabilitation is possible and when public safety has to be our first priority.
Of course, there are not always two sides. Sometimes, we just have to speak out. And, I encourage all of us to speak out with the greatest passion for the things we believe in the most. But, let’s do it with humility, as Abraham did. Let’s be prepared to listen, as well as talk. If I take a stand on a moral issue and you disagree, tell me why. I will not be offended. I hope we can all give that respect to each other.
One final thought. About 13 years ago, Carla Bauman told me that when the family dog died, they tried to comfort Aliyah, now 17, by telling her that the dog was in heaven with God. And, Aliya asked: “Is God a big dog?”
From time immemorial, we have made the mistake of creating God in our image instead of the reverse. We make that mistake whenever we expect our sacred institutions to ratify what we already believe. That includes our politics, which we are in danger of turning into the most intolerant of faiths. When we do that we turn God into a big dog who wags his tail and comforts us instead of stretching us and getting us to think more deeply.
But, there is an alternative, and that is to re-capture the ‘Torah of the mouth’, the Torah of conversation. Idealism is in the air. People are looking for something to do to express our convictions. We at Herzl-Ner Tamid will provide that outlet, more than ever before. But wouldn’t it be something if HNT could do this in a unique way: by reviving the Torah she’b’al peh, by modeling the kind of thoughtful moral debate that has been so missing from our country and all around the world, and by reclaiming the conversation that is the bedrock of democracy and which has made America unique among the nations of the world.
I truly believe that if we re-learn how to have that conversation, then the moral issues that are most precious to us will benefit exponentially.
These are my thoughts. I am eager to hear yours.