CK, Laya and I met up last night in an attempt to work out the differences between us, and to find some sort of way that we can remain pleasant towards one another in our discussions, even if we deeply disagree with one another politically and religiously.
See, my general beef with some of the folks at Jewlicious — as well as several other folks in the Jewish blogging world, let alone the countless visitors to our sites — has squarely focused on the fact that while individuals are more than entitled to disagree with one another, it is unproductive and harmful to resort to insults and ad hominem attacks when presenting their positions.
This is an issue that permeates throughout the Jewish world and perhaps one of the most destructive tendencies of the Jewish community which need serious attention and direct action. A long-range perspective is offered by Jonathan Sarna in American Judaism:
American Jews, living in a society that privileges individualism and gives no official recognition to religious group identity, face the challenge of preserving Jewish unity. With so many bitter divisions in Jewish life—between the different religious movements and among them; between Jews of different backgrounds and ideologies; between in-married Jews and intermarried Jews; between matrilineal Jews and patrilineal Jews; between straight Jews and gay Jews; between born Jews and converted Jews; between American Jews and Israeli Jews; between committed Jews and indifferent Jews—some have questioned whether Jews can remain a united people at all in the twenty-first century. Knowledgable observers have forseen “an unbridgeable schism” in Jewish life, “a cataclysmic split,” “the bifurcation of Jewry.” Well-regarded volumes on contemporary Judaism carry titles like A People Divided and Jew vs. Jew.
A recent book entitled One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them (2002) captures this dilemma. Its two authors, rabbis who stand on opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum, prove by the very act of communicating with each other that “discourse among Jews can be civil even when disagreements exist.” Yet the controversy generated by the book also demonstrates the fragility of these efforts, for the Orthodox coauthor, at the behest of his fervently Orthodox colleagues, withdrew from a seventeen-city speaking tour where he and his Reform counterpart were set to appear jointly on stage. This mixed message of communication and cleavage reflects, perhaps even more than the authors intended, the parlous tension between “compromise” and “principle,” “one people” and “two worlds.” The fate of American Judaism—whether its adherents will step back from the edge of schism or fall into it—hangs perilously in the balance.
What is the value, we are compelled to ask, of civil discourse? Ian Angus writes in Emergent Publics:
The interaction between the public spheres and meeting places internal to social movements and the process of democratic debate in society as a whole is the locus of contemporary democracy. Its dynamism stems not from the peace of the complacent, but from the bringing of conflict into the realm of discussion and debate. Conflict is thus tamed, or civilized, into an adversarial relationship and ceases to be a potentially violent conflict with an enemy. Too much emphasis on peace, agreement and consensus leads only to stagnation. Contemporary society often blocks change in the name of consensus with those who have not felt or attempted to appreciate the claims of social movements against institutionalized injustice. One cannot avoid conflict, even though it should avoid being violent and involve a respect for the adversary. It is the blockage of democracy that leads to violence, not its extension.
Thus my concern is not that we all get along or think the same… Rather we should respect the plurality of views within the Jewish community, taking each as another perspective from which to learn. Reb Simcha Bunim of Przysucha taught, “There is a person who has reached the quality that he learns from everyone. Even from ordinary people speaking about worldly matters, he finds some allusion to wisdom, how to serve God.” Thus, as David Graeber writes in Fragements of an Anarchist Anthropology (PDF):
Most anarchist groups operate by a consensus process which has been developed, in many ways, to be the exact opposite of the high-handed, divisive, sectarian style so popular amongst other radical groups. Applied to theory, this would mean accepting the need for a diversity of high theoretical perspectives, united only by a certain shared commitments and understandings. In consensus process, everyone agrees from the start on certain broad principles of unity and purposes for being for the group; but beyond that they also accept as a matter of course that no one is ever going to convert another person completely to their point of view, and probably shouldn’t try; and that therefore discussion should focus on concrete questions of action, and coming up with a plan that everyone can live with and no one feels is in fundamental violation of their principles. One should see a parallel here: a series of diverse perspectives, joined together by their shared desire to understand the human condition, and move it in the direction of greater freedom. Rather than be based on the need to prove others’ fundamental assumptions wrong, it seeks to find particular projects on which they reinforce each other. Just because theories are incommensurable in certain respects does not mean they cannot exist or even reinforce each other, any more than the fact that individuals have unique and incommensurable views of the world means they cannot become friends, or lovers, or work on common projects.
Point being, we can retain our cohesion and even actively collaborate as a Jewish community, even if as individuals we have extremely divergent views, so long as we “agree to disagree” and do so with civility and decency.
I can’t tell you the number of times I, and other contributors to Jewschool, have been deeply hurt by some of the remarks people have made here and elsewhere on the web, when responding to political or religious ideas we’ve expressed that dissatisfy them. Many have ceased posting to Jewschool all together in response. Now, of course, I don’t claim perfection. I’ve certainly allowed myself to be baited on numerous occasions and have opened up an unholy mouth, at times also with minimal provocation. And also, perhaps, as Aryeh Dworkin suggests (as did CK again last night), my harsh remarks towards 50 Shekel were the chilul Hashem which broke the camel’s back and drove Aviad Cohen into the deceptively welcoming arms of Jews for Jesus. Lord knows what other damage I may have done with my words, and for that I plead forgiveness. I have made public apologies in the past for allowing my yatzer harah (evil inclination) to get the best of me. As I often say, I am a mere benoni (one who walks the middle path) and certainly not a tzaddik (righteous man). However, as I learn and grow, I am becoming all the more sensitive towards issues of lashon harah (improper speech, lit. “the evil tounge”) and have recently had the epiphany, were we only to try our best to observe the guidelines of shmirat halashon (“guarding the tongue”) as proscribed by The Chofetz Chaim, that we could engage in serious and even tense discussions without resorting to name calling and other destructive behavior. This would enable us to disagree peaceably while still maintaining our love and respect for our fellow Jew, as we are obligated by Torah:
Midrash Rabba 24:6-7: “Ben Azzai said: ‘This is the book of the descendants of Adam’ is a great principle of the Torah. R. Akiva said: But ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ is even a greater principle. Hence you must not say, ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbour be put to shame.’ R. Tanhuma said: If you do so, know whom you put to shame, [for] ‘In the likeness of God made He him.’“
Therefore today I am announcing a new initiative: The Jewish Bloggers Campaign For Responsible Speech Online.
Interested parties should link either Pirchei Shoshanim’s illustrated presentation of Shmiras Halashon or Torah.org’s Ethics of Speech to the following image, which should be featured prominently in your blog’s sidebar. (I’d have recommended The Shema Yisrael Network’s Shmiras Halashon Center or The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Center, but both sites are barren of content. If anyone knows of a better link, please do suggest it.)
The recommendation for bloggers carrying this banner is that they be mindful before pressing the “Publish” button and that they ask this consideration from their site’s contributors — both other bloggers on their site and visitors. Ask yourself before posting, “Is what I’ve written a kiddush Hashem (a santification of God’s name) or a chilul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name)?” If it’s the latter, consider revising your remarks to preserve your point, while minimizing whatever harm you may do to your fellow. In other words, attack the idea, not the person, and do so tactfully and respectfully.
This campaign may not save the Jewish world from autocannibalism, but it may make the Jewish blogosphere a more welcoming, informative and enjoyable forum, and perhaps encourage some greater degree of Jewish unity despite the differences between us. B’ezrat Hashem (with the help of God), it shall be so.
On a side note, Jew Watch appears to have returned to the top of Google’s results for the word “Jew.” If you haven’t already, please include a link in your blog’s sidebar to the Wikipedia entry for “Jew” like so: Jew.