How To Win a Jewish Argument

Image: Two women arguing. (Anetlanda/Shutterstock)

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Avot 5:17

Arguments among Jews are raging on social media and elsewhere these days. We argue about Israel. We argue about the rights of the groups who have been historically diminished or disenfranchised by Jewish communities: women, people of color, converts, LGBTQ Jews, disabled Jews. We argue about the proper labels for friends and enemies: Christian Zionists, Palestinians, Donald Trump. We argue about anti-Semitism: where it comes from and who it oppresses. The arguments grow bitter and lately I have come to believe that we spend too much time fighting one another while real dangers circle around us.

The rabbis worked out much of what we think of as Rabbinic Judaism through a process of machlochet [argument.] First a rabbi would raise a question, then the other rabbis would share what their teachers had taught them and what they had observed. These discussions have come down to us through the Talmud, and also by way of mouth through our teachers.

In the passage above from Mishnah Avot, the writer gives us an example of “argument for the sake of heaven.” His contemporaries would immediately recognize the reference to Hillel and Shammai, which is recounted at greater length in Eruvin 13b:

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha [law] is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

The Gemara asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

Eruvin 13b

The rabbis of Hillel’s academy “won” the argument because “they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted,” and when they taught the law they would teach both their opinions and those of their opponents, prioritizing the opinions of their opponents.

In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the argument for the sake of heaven is an argument in search of the truth. Its opposite, the argument not for the sake of heaven, is an argument in search of victory. When we argue to seek the truth by hammering it out between us, that is a wonderful thing. When we argue to diminish or humiliate our opponent, it is disgraceful.

When we argue only to win, when we make ad hominem attacks, when we wreak our anger by inciting others to words and acts of hatred, we tear down Am Yisrael [the Jewish People.] When we argue out of envy, out of spite, or out of a desire to humiliate, we do terrible harm. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully of other Jews we hurt ALL Jews. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully to other Jews, we are truly losers, no matter what our cause.

So let us ask ourselves, whenever the rhetoric gets heated, whenever we feel the adrenaline flowing, whenever we are arguing with another Jew, “Is this argument for the sake of heaven?” Am I seeking Truth, or attempting to impose my truth by arguing louder, more angrily, with more name-calling? The rabbis call to us across the centuries to tell us that how we argue matters.

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Yom Kippur and #MeToo Issues

Image: A tree-lined walkway in autumn, with light at the end. (Johannes Plenio /Pixabay)

I’ve written before about some of these issues, in Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors, but Yom Kippur is approaching and I gather from Twitter that I’m not the only survivor feeling twitchy as the Day of Atonement approaches.

Issue: Loss of Control: Over the years, I’ve realized that one aspect of Yom Kippur is that we give up a lot of our autonomy for a day. For many Jews, that’s a useful thing. We have a list of things to do which fill the 24 hours of the day, and we do them, and there isn’t room for anything else. If we are born Jewish, or have been Jewish for a number of years, there is also the communal expectation that we will do these things weighing upon us. It doesn’t feel like a choice – it’s just what we must do. For a person who has had trauma involving control over their body, some of usual Yom Kippur observances can be triggering.

Reply: If the loss of control is a spiritual barrier, then perhaps some alternative observance would be more effective. If sitting in shul becomes too much, it’s OK to quietly exit and take a walk, even just a walk down the hall. If fasting is likely to trigger problems, make alternative plans. Tell yourself ahead of time that you are free to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. You are free.

Issue: Guilt & Shame: For many of us, shame was a big part of the abuse experience, used like a weapon by an abuser. Remind yourself that shame is different than guilt: a guilty party has something for which to atone. The person who feels ashamed is turned inward on themselves in disgust or anger. The Day of Atonement is very much about guilt, and about the cure for guilt, which is teshuvah. Shame, however, doesn’t need teshuvah; the one who suffers from shame is a wounded soul in need of healing.

Reply: Healing from shame is not a one-day project, but it can be done. For Yom Kippur this year, try resolving to be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a five year old who felt horrible. Think about a trusted person to whom you could reach out, even a little bit, with the shame that has bound you. That person might be a therapist, a rabbi, or a good friend. Then in the days after this Yom Kippur, reach out and say, “There is this thing bothering me and I need help.”

Issue: Anger: One year I felt angry during Yom Kippur. We kept reading the Vidui prayers, listing sins, and it suddenly put me in touch with my anger at things that had been done to me. I was furious! I wanted an apology this minute! I could barely sit still. I fumed all the way through the prayers, and at the same time, I knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt angry and ashamed about that.

Reply: For some of us, there’s a point at which anger is progress. If you have had trouble feeling angry, then this response to Yom Kippur is really a gift. Follow up on that gift with a call to a therapist, if you have one, or get a therapist, if you don’t. This is an opportunity to get work done. On the other hand, if anger is where you are stuck lately, maybe lists of sins aren’t the healthiest reading right now. Take a walk, get out into nature, exercise, do something else to blow off the energy.

Are there emotions or experiences with Yom Kippur that I haven’t addressed here? Do you have ways you deal with these issues? I encourage you to share what you feel comfortable sharing in the Comments section.

Here is a psalm I keep in my machzor (HHD prayer book):

The Holy One is a haven for the oppressed, a haven in times of trouble.

Those who know Your name trust You, for You do not abandon those who turn to You, O God.

Sing a hymn to the Holy One, who reigns in Zion; declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

For God does not ignore the cry of the afflicted; God who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.

Have mercy on me, O Holy One; see my affliction at the hands of my foes, You who lift me from the gates of death,

so that in the gates of Fair Zion I might tell all Your praise, I might exult in Your deliverance.

Psalms 9: 10-15

Jewish Ethics: Links to Books

Image: An Amazon distribution center work floor. Photo from 7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle by Jacob Weindling on PasteMagazine.com.

I often recommend books on this blog, and I am certainly an avid consumer of books. I’m working my way towards some better choices, and I thought I’d share the process with you.

Every consumer has a different menu of choices for consumption. The choices available to an able-bodied suburban consumer who owns a car are different from the choices available to a consumer living in an area with limited options for transportation and severe time or energy constraints. I want to emphasize that I am NOT making a judgment on choices forced by poverty, disability, or other menu-shrinking constraints. Rather, the same method follows: evaluate your choices and pick the best for you, whatever it is.

Jewish tradition bids us to take care not to injure others, directly or indirectly. When we do business with a company, we validate their choices about labor practices, sourcing their products, impact on the environment, etc. Their choices become our choices. Therefore it is worthwhile to think through our priorities for consumption.

Years ago, I boycotted Amazon.com because I saw it as a killer of locally owned bookstores. Gradually, as the bookstores succumbed anyway, and as my disabilities expanded, I altered my behavior and began using Amazon’s extremely convenient services, including book sales. The ability to have things delivered to my home as well as the convenience of the Kindle for reading in bed drove my decisions.

I winced whenever I read about Amazon’s labor practices, poor working conditions, and other questionable policies. Still I did not see better options for me, so I kept on buying from Amazon. Even here on the blog, I linked the names of books I recommended to their Amazon pages.

However, I made an error in my ethical calculations. I framed the choice to do business with Amazon as a binary choice: buy nothing from them vs. buy automatically from them. That is an easy mistake to make, since our brains tend to frame questions in the binary. There is also a sneaky convenience in saying, “I have to buy X from them, I might as well buy Y as well.” In fact, there are more options than those two.

Instead of “all” or “nothing,” I now re-frame the Amazon decision: I will buy from that company if and only if it is the least-harmful option available to me for genuinely necessary consumption. That’s going to take some extra time and effort, but I see it as a more ethical choice.

The part of that decision that will be visible here on the blog is that I’m going to start linking book titles to other choices than Amazon. In the most recent such post, Book List: Jewish Spirituality, I’ve begun my new practice. When an author has a web page with a link for buying the book, I’ll link to that, because no matter what it links to (usually Amazon) the author will get more money for their work. When there is no such page available, I’m going to link to an independent bookseller, and I’ll mix those up among several I know. On the recent list, I linked to Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon with a good website and excellent service. Readers can navigate to the bookseller of their choice or to a local library.

Finally, as with all such questions, I’m open to the hope that Jeff Bezos (owner of Amazon) will see his way towards treating his employees with decency. Consumer pressure makes companies improve bad policies all the time: ask Nike, for instance, which has had an ongoing conversation with consumers and activists since the 1990’s.

Some principles to ponder:

Money is power, even in small quantities. We influence companies when we choose to do business with them, or not to do business, or to do business as little as possible.

Most menus have more than two items. I thought of Amazon as a yes/no decision, when in fact it was a yes/no/sometimes choice. If the only way a person can afford something they need is to buy it Walmart, Jewish tradition teaches that it is not my business to judge them, because I will be much too busy working out my own ethical problems.

Buying “Used” is an option, too. If we are concerned about the planet and sustainability, sometimes buying used goods is the most ethically sound option. I recommend this option with enthusiasm, although it has a downside: the author gets no pay for a used book sale. Again, the choices are ours and none of them are 100% “pure.”

Children in Cages: Things We Can Do Today

Image: Rabbi Suzanne Singer and I working as poll observers in Macon, GA on election day in November, 2016.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer is a colleague with much social action experience who is currently in Homestead, Florida as a witness/protestor at the child detention facilities there. I asked her for suggestions as to what I, a person with disabilities that preclude travel to the camps, might do to help with the horrible injustice taking place on our borders.

Here are some of the ideas she sent to me. You will have to do your own research about specifics, what you support and what you don’t. There is no financial barrier to doing any of these things; the cost will be your time. For tzedakah (donation) suggestions, see Children in Cages: More Ways to Help.

Call your members of Congress (find them here) at 202-224-3121 with specific requests:

  • cancel raids
  • improve detention conditions
  • no funding for ICE/CBP (“Defund Hate”)
  • release of detained children and families
  • demand inspections of detention centers
  • demand hearings on immigrant detention
  • Support Merkley’s Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act (S.397)
  • Support Harris’s Families NOT Facilities Act (S. 388)
  • vote NO on extra funding for deportation

Call local representatives (find them here) with these specific asks:

  • initiate plans to help immigrant communities affected by raids
  • form rapid response teams around immigration raids
  • ask that local law enforcement not collaborate with ICE
  • ask when they will visit local detention centers

Learn, study, educate yourself and others:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34

Lights for Liberty

Are you frustrated, watching stories on the news about the situation of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border?

Today I learned from a source I trust about this coalition of groups working to improve things.

If you are looking for something to DO, check them out:

Lights for Liberty

Whatever your feelings about the politics of the situation, our own government – the DHS Office of the Inspector General – has published a report calling the current housing for these people “dangerous” and “unsafe.” There are concerns about disease in “inhumane conditions.”

We can and must do better.

“Disturb us, Adonai!”

Image: A “do not disturb” door hanger, with “do not” replaced with “PLEASE” (Shutterstock with amendation, all rights reserved.)

Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform siddur, is full of “alternative readings” – prayer and poetry that may be read alongside or even instead of the usual prayers. One caught my eye this week, and I spent the rest of the service sneaking back to reread it and think about it some more:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;

Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,

the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,

the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to use the false Shabbat which gives us

the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us

from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by

half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears…

Mishkan Tefilah, 173

The prayer was precisely what I needed that night: a kick in the pants.

Curious, I went to the back of the book to see who wrote it, and I discovered a wonderful, almost-forgotten character, Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, a Reform rabbi from the early 20th century who left the rabbinate for a law practice in 1930 because he was frustrated with the limits of the pulpit. More about him in a future post!

I’ve held off from copying the entire prayer out of respect for the copyright, but you can find this prayer in any copy of Mishkan Tefilah.

If ever there was a prayer for our times, it is this one.

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.