Few things are as satisfying or as much fun as a passionate conversation full of disagreement and dispute, be it at a Shabbat table or on an inner-city stoop. This has been a great Jewish sport through the years. A game of chess in Washington Square Park, or tea in a Lower East Side cafeteria, were often accompanied by passionate debates about everything from the Hitler-Stalin pact to the Ladies Garment union, along with colorful and heated Yiddish insults, now sanitized by nostalgia. Cleverness was once valued more than civility. Civility, at times, was distrusted as more British than Yiddish.
Times change. This week, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs is urging rabbis to devote a High Holy Day sermon to the virtues of civility, and of course its virtues are many. “Increasingly, conversations are giving way to diatribe,” warned JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow.
Yes, we live in heated times, partially because the stakes are presented as nothing less than social Armageddon: “Jewish survival” and “Jewish continuity.” Debates over Israel involve one side being for “peace” or for “appeasement.”
Is this really something we’re “increasingly” seeing? Compared to the decades-long feud between the establishment Zionists and the Revisionists, leading to charges of murder in the Chaim Arlosoroff case, or the sinking of the Altalena, or the charges of “perfidy” and wholesale blame leading to, and then following, the assassination of Rudolf Kastner and years later, Yitzchak Rabin, well, the last 15 years of Jewish differences seem almost idyllic.
When some Jews joke that Chabad is the closest religion to Judaism, is that good fun or incivility? When some Jews say that President Barack Obama is “anti-Israel,” or that Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry are “complete idiots,” is that just lively debate or incivility, a kind of bullying that shuts off all discussion?
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has written in the Huffington Post, “All this talk about civility is beginning to make me uncomfortable … distorting norms of democratic debate.” Of course, personal attacks are unacceptable, but he cites God’s instructions to Isaiah: “Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn!”
And yet, civility is essential, said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub to a JCPA plenum. “Nothing less than the Jewish people is at stake.”