1 Tishri 5776
For the Sake of Heaven
The past several weeks I have debated whether or not to speak about the Iran nuclear deal on Rosh Hashanah. On one hand, I am acutely aware that I am not an expert in international relations, nuclear physics, or national security. On the other hand, this is an issue of upmost importance for us, both as Jews and as Americans.
Several of us are deeply concerned about the deal. Some of us have lobbied on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC,) which expresses concern that it might “facilitate rather than prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would further entrench and empower the leading state sponsor of terror.” Rabbi Rick Block,2 a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, explains:
“Under prior legislation, most sanctions on Iran were to sunset only when the president certified to Congress that Iran no longer provides support for acts of international terrorism and has ‘ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of, and verifiably dismantled, its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology.’ The deal accomplishes none of these goals. Rather, Iran receives as much as $150 billion in frozen assets, will reap immense profits from post-sanctions commerce, and can spend as much as it will to promote terrorism. Much of its nuclear infrastructure remains intact and it can continue R&D in weaponization….Administration officials initially promised a deal would include “anytime, anywhere” inspections. This one does no such thing. Instead, a cumbersome, convoluted process to address Iranian violations provides ample time to conceal most kinds of evidence.”3
At the same time, just as many of us believe that while the deal is not perfect, it is the best viable option. Many of us have endorsed the Jewish organization, J-Street, which issued this statement:
“[This] agreement…is the best chance for keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…. It creates the most rigorous, intrusive inspection regime in history. It opens Iran’s program to the light of day, keeping illicit military uses off the table. It protects the international sanctions regime, allowing them to snap back into place if Iran cheats. It puts a long-term, lasting end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And it cripples Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, blocking every pathway to a bomb.”4
“The agreement prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10-15 years,” said Eran Etzion, Former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council, “this agreement is not about trust, it’s about verification.” Former Mossad Director Efraim Halevy added, “Without an agreement, Iran will be free to act as it wishes, whereas the sanctions regime against it will crumble in any case…if the nuclear issue is of cardinal existential importance, what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances it from the bomb?”5
Both sides of the debate have produced thoughtful arguments for their positions, neither having an exclusive claim to the Jewish communal voice. This morning, I do not wish to convince you that one side is more correct than the other. Rather, I’d like to speak to the nature of the debate itself: something about which our Jewish tradition has a lot to say.
I have been incredibly disheartened by the way in which this important discussion has progressed into an outlet of poisonous rhetoric, name-calling and fear-mongering.6 Some supporters of the deal have made terrible accusations about opponents of the deal—particularly Jewish ones, even when their decisions weren’t primarily out of a concern with Israel. Such opponents have been called “Netanyahu’s marionettes,” “warmongers,” or “traitors.” New York Senator Charles Schumer was subjected to many of these accusations. When he came out against the deal, one website posted a cartoon of a news reporter calling a woodchuck version of Charles Schumer “traitor”, as the American flag in the frame was suddenly transformed into an Israeli flag.7 Sadly, many others were also accused of dual-loyalty or of being traitors. A CNN reporter made a different and equally disturbing accusation: that Schumer’s motives were primarily economic. He said, “If [Schumer] were to support this deal, he knows it would create a firestorm of opposition, particularly among…. wealthy supporters.”8 In other words, this reporter didn’t believe that Schumer’s stance on the issue was rooted in careful deliberation or a deep concern for the US, Israel and the world. Rather, he believed that the only possible reason that Schumer could have to oppose the deal is selfish financial gain. It is hard to recover from that accusation with any level of productive civil discourse.
The poisonous rhetoric of this debate has not been one sided, either. President Obama has been accused of effectively declaring war on Israel, or of leading Israel “to the door of the ovens,”9 a startling allusion to the Holocaust. Others have slandered the Obama administration, saying that it had become “the leading financier of terrorism against America in the world,”10 and that John Kerry was an agent of the Iranian government. As one of the 440 rabbis who signed a note in support of the proposal, I have personally been accused of not being a “real rabbi,” of being a traitor, an Israel-hater, an Arab-lover, and my personal favorite: a Nazi fascist.
This use of language is not just unfortunate. It is not just hateful rhetoric spewed without consideration for the people being attacked. It is not just polarizing. It is downright toxic. Whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” was absolutely wrong. And words don’t just hurt the person they’re used against: they hurt the very fabric of our community, more than we might even realize.
There is a verse in the Talmud—a Jewish book of wisdom, which explains that 24k disciples of Rabbi Akiva died at the same time. The reason? שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה “because they did not behave with respect for one another.”11 Upon hearing this text we might wonder if this was some kind of divine retribution. Was God punishing them for not treating one another with respect?
Prolific writer, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin does not believe it was a punishment at all. Rather, it was a “natural outgrowth” of the mistrust that existed between them. When Rabbi Akiva’s disciples stopped having civil conversations, and stopped treating one another with a basic level of respect, they could no longer work in tandem. They lost the ability to cooperate with each-other even when cooperation was needed for their very survival.
Consider two Jewish communities during the start of World War II. The Nazis had invaded Poland and the Jews of the Lodz ghetto were terrified. Leo Baeck, the leading Reform rabbi in Germany sent Rabbi Frank Rosenthal on a special mission to meet with the Jewish leaders in Lodz. He wished to offer them suggestions as to how some Jews could be saved from the Nazis. To Rosenthal’s dismay, the Jewish leaders in Lodz refused to listen to anything he had to say. According to historian Leonard Baker, “Much of their distrust stemmed from him being a German Jew, not an eastern European Jew, as well as a representative of the leading Berlin Jews. The Lodz Jews could not forget the offensiveness that they and their fellow eastern European Jews had met years earlier when they came to Berlin. Rosenthal’s mission was a failure.”12
In other words, because the Jews from Lodz had once been treated with contempt by their fellow Jews from Berlin, they could not bring themselves to trust a German rabbi, even if doing so could save lives. They were so sure that they were right—so sure that they shouldn’t trust the German Jews—so fixated on what distinguished them from one another that they failed to see how much they had in common, something which feels so obvious to us today. They were all Jews, struggling to survive under the Nazi regime. If only they had seen past their differences, how many more lives could have been saved?
It is hard to believe that anyone could feel so hurt that they would be entirely unwilling to listen to suggestions of someone wishing to help, especially in these circumstances, but it goes to show how damaging rhetoric and polemics can be.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how we naturally align ourselves with groups—be they political, religious, or something else. When we agree with our groups we actually receive a hit of dopamine, which can be addictive. We do this because it is so powerful to be surrounded by others who view the world the way that we do: so powerful in fact that we are sometimes willing to adjust our view of the world for the sake of the group. In some ways, this can be positive. We are not solely concerned about ourselves, but rather for the group as a whole. We work towards forwarding the same mission.
The downside to this, of course, is that we fail to see the merits of those who disagree with us. Researcher David Perkins brought people of various ages and levels of education to a lab, asking them to think about social issues, such as “Would giving more money to schools improve the quality of teaching and learning?” Students were asked to write down their initial judgement. Then they were asked to write down reasons in favor of their initial judgement and reasons why someone might be on “the other side” of the debate. Perkins found that the higher the IQ of the participant, the more reasons they came up with in favor of their initial judgment. The more intelligent, the better the lawyer. But then Perkin’s results become more disturbing. People with higher IQs were no more likely to come up with solid “other-side” arguments than people with lower IQs. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”13
Even the most intelligent among us are unlikely to recognize that there are powerful, legitimate reasons for being on either side of many current debates, the Iran nuclear deal included.
Because we cannot see the world through one another’s eyes, there is a trend to avoid debate altogether—a trend which sparked the saying “In polite company, it’s not proper to talk about politics or religion.”
In order to remain “polite” almost every social justice issue on the Jewish scene now has an organized policy to avoid making any stance about Israel for fear of polarity. Congregations all over the country are fearful about engaging in conversation about Israel, Iran, gun violence, and so many issues which are plaguing our community not just on a political level, but on a human one.
Think of how much we’re losing by following suit: congregants with a point of view different from the majority, who become less active out of fear of uncivil discourse; people who choose not to engage with Jewish life because it’s not addressing the issues that matter to us the most; Opportunities for new initiatives and events.
Even the Stanley Theater refused to host an Israeli-Palestinian band for fear of it sparking outrage, from someone.
Friends, I understand why we might wish to avoid debate in a world in which debate can be uncivil and unfair. But avoiding debate altogether has never ever been the Jewish way. We are Jewish. “Two Jews, three opinions” is our motto. We can do better than this!
As you may know there were two competing rabbinic voices in the Talmud: Hillel and Shammai. One group said “The law is according to our position.” And the other said “The law is according our position.” God answered saying “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim– These words AND those words are the BOTH the words of the living God.”14 Although they are competing beliefs, they are both right. They both contain wisdom. When will we look at two sides in a debate and realize that we can learn so much from one another?
Another Jewish text talks about the nature of controversy. It says “A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korach.15
Korach was a priest, but did not have the social standing he desired. Like a small child he asked “Why does Aaron get to head Priest?” and “Why is Moses our leader?” He sparked outrage amongst the Israelites in hopes of stripping Moses and Aaron of power and claiming it for himself.
Korach created a controversy out of his desire for power. Hillel and Shammai debated over a controversy that already existed, in pursuit of answers. Korach had no desire to debate: his mind was made up. Hillel and Shammai approached the debate wishing to learn from one another, and to grow. They debated for the sake of heaven. Korach did not.
Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai offers a poem entitled “The Place Where We Are Right.”:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Amichai wrote this poem around the time of Israeli independence, in a world of great controversy and harsh words, even amidst the excitement of a new state.
The poem today can be found near the exit of the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, as if to demonstrate that the country’s foundation, and its road to peace rests on our abilities to see the humanity, even in our opponents.
Amichai underscores the commonalities we all share: the anxieties and concerns we hold, as well as the priorities and loves that matter to us most.
What if we approached the topic of the Iran Nuclear Deal with the acknowledgement that although we might come to different conclusions all of us are forming our opinions centered around our a love of Israel, a love of the United States, and a concern for overall safety? “How might things change if we began our political conversation not from our certainties but from our doubts and loves?”16 How might that have changed our debate? How might that change future debates?
As of today, Congress and the Senate have not yet voted on the Iran nuclear deal, but we know the deal is an inevitability. The votes are there. Now is the time to focus on doubts and the loves we have in common, to ask the questions “What can we do to support our government in enforcing this deal?” and “How can we work to support the strongest possible US-Israel relationships going forward?” But those are not the only questions we must ask. The Iran Nuclear Deal is a huge controversy, but it is not the only controversy of import. We must also ask “How do we wish to participate in the debate next time?”
In the past several weeks I have been approached by a handful of people wishing to have civil discussions about the issues that so deeply affect our lives. I, myself, have been hesitant to say yes, for fear of an uncivil discourse.
And yet, we stand on the backs of giants, like Hillel and Shammai, and Yehuda Amichai. We come from a tradition that upholds the beauty of the individual. Ben Zoma taught “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”17 Looking out at all of you at this moment I am reminded of the Jewish blessing we say when in the presence of a crowd:
Blessed is the One who knows secrets—Blessed is the One who understands that this crowd is filled with individuals, each of whom have their own secrets, uniqueness and individual needs. Blessed is the one who sees these differences as a blessing. Blessed is the one who understands that truth, itself, is multifaceted.
We come from a tradition which upholds the beauty of civil debate.
And we, too, can choose to model the teachings of Hillel and Shammai, to debate for the sake of heaven.
In the coming weeks ahead, I will be meeting with members of the congregation who wish to build a strong foundation for civil, Jewish debate. If you are interested in joining this task force, please let me know; it would be an honor to include you.
Together we can create an environment in which we can share our views while inviting in curiosity, collaboration and constructive debate.
Let’s make it happen, for the sake of Heaven.
1The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
6See Congressman Jerrome Nadler’s 5200 word essay about the rhetoric of this debate: https://medium.com/@RepJerryNadler/congressman-jerrold-nadler-statement-on-the-p5-1-joint-comprehensive-plan-of-action-f7ca527e3f50
8Fareed Zarakania on CNN
9Mike Huckabee made this delightful accusation.
11Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b
12From words by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin https://engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org/c/627/p/salsa/web/common/public/content?content_item_KEY=10440
13Perkins, Farady, and Buskey 1991, as quoted in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, p. 94-5.
15Mishnah Avot 5:19
16Parker Palmer https://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-place-where-we-are-right/6630
17Mishnah Avot 4:1