Sometimes Silence is a Mitzvah

Image:  A woman sits silently, arms folded. (ivanovgood/pixabay)

And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). — Yevamot 65b

In the midst of a discussion of the command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Genesis 1:28) the Talmud goes on a little side trip. The wording is a bit awkward in this translation (from the excellent Sefaria.org website).  I shall rephrase:

Rabbi Ile’a said, according to Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, “It is a mitzvah to rebuke another person when the rebuke will be heeded. It is similarly a mitzvah for a person to refrain from rebuking another when they know their words will not be heeded.” Rabbi Abba agreed: “That one is obliged to refrain from speaking, as Proverbs 9:8 says, ‘Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.'”

This passage reminds me of times when I have engaged in arguments with online trolls – people who enjoy starting quarrels and upsetting people for the fun of it. A fictional example:

TRUEBELIEVER: COFFEESHOPRABBI is a stupid libtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: Please don’t use words that stigmatize people with disabilities.

TRUEBELIEVER: Stupid libtard! Stupid libtard! #StupidLibtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: I’m not calling you names. Why are you calling me names?

TRUEBELIEVER: MAGA! MAGA! MAGA!

As Maureen points out in the comments, the “Block” function on most online systems is the best option at such times. When I’m thinking clearly, I answer the first line – namecalling – with a block. No conversation, no second chances, just silence.

My time is better spent encouraging voters to get to the polls, or calling my representatives. So is yours.

Rabbi Ile’a was right.

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Angry that US Agencies Separate Families? Some Things to Do.

Image: A crying child. (TaniaVdB/Pixabay)

Last week I wrote Human is Human is Human, looking at the fact that my government, to whom I pay taxes, is using those resources to punish immigrant families by separating parents from children at the borders.  While this is not the first appearance of this behavior in American history, it is reprehensible. Several readers had good suggestions for action. I’ve seen several other suggestions online. Here’s a compilation of options for those who want to right this wrong:

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant children. Support them with donations and publicity; they don’t get a lot of attention and they do great work. ( from Slow Lorist)
Support the ACLU in their legal work on this issue.
Contact Your Elected Officials. Write, tweet, email, phone – you know the drill. Be clear, be concise, say how you feel and what you want. Avoid swear words and hyperbole, and don’t make threats. (The link will take you to the League of Women Voters page that can get addresses and other contact info.)
Educate Yourself. Two different issues have been conflated by some concerned individuals. This link will take you to an article in which the Washington Post sorts the issue out a bit. It’s a very important article.  This article from the Political Charge blog has both good information and excellent suggestions for action.
Use Social Media Judiciously. If you are a user of social media, you can help by several strategies.  First – I cannot say this strongly enough! – educate yourself on the issue. Focus what you want to say. Then when you are ready to say it, you can do these things:
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of Congresspersons and Senators who express concern about this issue. Retweet them. “Like” their messages. This accomplishes two things: it brings attention to the issue and it rewards legislators who are doing the right thing. This is one time when we CAN influence someone even if we aren’t in their district. Remember that these are the people who actually have the power to do something.
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of particularly good messages on the subject. One of the beauties of Twitter is that we don’t have to generate content: we can save time by making good content go farther.
– On Twitter: Beware of coarse language, name-calling, etc. It does not add emphasis to what we say. Instead of calling someone a bad name, say, “I’m angry about….” Be direct.
– On Facebook: We can link to good, informative articles if we are sure they are good information. We can refrain from publicizing dubious info.
– In both venues: Boost what’s good. Ignore what’s bad, or reply with a link to better information. Ignore, mute, or block bad actors. Fighting with them excites and rewards them, and attracts attention to them, which isn’t going to help.
– In both venues: Remember that not everything we read can be trusted. The more sensational a story is, the less likely it is to be true. See what the major journalistic outfits (NYT, Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CBS, BBC, NPR) have to say before we spread a story.
These principles apply in other social media venues as well – I mention these because they are the ones I use.
I hope that something here is helpful. Let’s do what we can.
If you are interested in following me or interacting on Twitter, you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi. 

My Twitter Policy

I’m well and truly fed up.

I try to cultivate a broad range of contacts, especially via Twitter. I follow a lot of accounts there, including a lot of folks that have ideas I find difficult – it’s one of the ways I learn and expand my horizons.  To that end, I follow a lot of accounts there from many points of view and I try to cultivate a habit of listening more than reacting.

Lately the name-calling on Twitter has gotten worse. It’s happening from all sides of the political compass. It’s as if it’s become too much trouble to explain what is wrong with an idea, it’s just easier to call the person expressing that idea a nasty name.

So here’s the deal: post or RT something with name-calling in it, and I will unfollow that account. I don’t care if I love or hate the politics, I’m going to unfollow that account. Continuing to follow is rewarding the behavior, and I’m not doing it anymore.

Life’s too short. The world is full of important things to discuss, and we should discuss them, not waste our breath screaming epithets at one another.

 

In a Time of Anger and Hurt

Image: A fist punches through a glass panel. (WenPhotos/Pixabay)

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him. – Pirkei Avot 4:23

On the face of it, this saying makes no sense. Why shouldn’t we appease someone who is angry? Why not comfort a person when he is bereaved?

The clue to Rabbi Shimon’s meaning is hidden in the second clause. In Jewish tradition we do not attempt to comfort a mourner until after the burial of the dead. The stage of bereavement before burial is called aninut. During that time, mourners are relieved of all Jewish responsibility except the responsibility of providing for a proper funeral and burial. We do not speak to them unless absolutely necessary and we do not bother them with comfort. This is not a cruel practice, but a kind one: we understand them to be in terrible pain and to be carrying a great burden (the funeral.) Anything we might say would only be a distraction.

So the teaching here is: don’t try to comfort people until they are in a position to take it in.

Then we can look at the first part and make more sense of it:

Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.

Rabbi Shimon is advising us that when people are very angry, they can’t listen to reason, any more than a person who has just lost a loved one can be comforted. Appeasing an angry person won’t work, and arguing with them definitely won’t help matters. In both the case of the mourner and the angry person, the only thing that will help is time.

As time passes, the mourner will bury the dead, and will gradually become ready for comfort and human connection. The angry person, too, may have a chance to cool off and have a genuine discussion (unless, of course, they choose to work themselves into greater and greater anger.)

Over the last months, as the discussion on racism and America has heated up on social media, many good people have been very upset. African Americans have very literally had to mourn their dead, and they are legitimately angry about the way too many of them have been treated. Some white Americans have felt attacked by things that African Americans and other whites have said. Some whites have been taught to fear African Americans, too, and that feeds the evil of racism. Attempts at communication have gone awry. Angry words have flown.

So when I happened to read Rabbi Shimon’s words today, I was glad to be reminded of Jewish teachings about grief and anger. Shimon is saying that we do not get anywhere when we tell people how they “should” feel. When emotions are high, it’s a time to listen, not to argue. If listening is impossible, then it’s a time to step back.

Now some readers may be thinking, but rabbi, didn’t you recently write that whites need to challenge one another on racist talk? I did write that, and I’m not backing down from it. Rebuke can be a mitzvah when it is properly done. There are better and worse ways to go about it, all informed by Jewish tradition:

It is important to treat every person with dignity. The rabbis tell us that publicly embarrassing a person is like shedding their blood. Take a person aside to say privately, “Are you aware of how your words sounded? The words “x,y,z” sounded racist – surely you didn’t mean it that way!” Calling a person racist is just going to enflame the conversation, but pointing out words or behaviors gives them something they can change. Maybe they need help hearing themselves. If a quiet rebuke does not produce a genuine apology, then perhaps confrontation is necessary.

Name calling never helps. We get farther if we talk about racist behavior and language, rather than racist people. Calling people names never persuaded someone to change. Pointing out behavior is different than calling names. People can do something about their behavior.

Leave politics out of it. So many insults have been hurled between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that we’re all walking wounded. When someone says to me in a spiteful tone, “That’s just like you liberals,” I feel that nothing I have to say will get a hearing from them. I am sure, from what conservative friends tell me, that the converse is also true. For our own sakes, we need to lay off one another, no matter what the folks at Fox News and MS-NBC do. Let’s drop the insults and name-calling: have you ever known it to add to a fruitful discussion?

Give each person the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s another quotation from Pirkei Avot. When it is time to rebuke someone in private, assume that they meant well. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but how can anyone know for sure?

Finally, when we are beside ourselves with strong feelings, it’s time to take a step back. It is only natural sometimes to feel angry or hurt, especially if we feel that we’re doing our best and we are not understood or appreciated. There is no shame in saying, “I am too angry/upset/tired to have a conversation right now.”

None of us are perfect. Torah calls us to love the stranger and who is stranger than the person with whom we disagree?  Let us embrace this difficult task together, and work towards a day when

…everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. – Micah 4:4

Tweet #Torah to the Top With Us!

For the past couple of years, a group of us have celebrated Shavuot by “Tweeting #Torah to the Top.”  We’re on Twitter (you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi) and in the hours before Shavuot, we tweet  divrei Torah [words of Torah] to try to get to the top of the “trending” [most Tweeted] list.  Every year, I’ve had fun, I’ve met some terrific Jews, and enjoyed a symbolic celebration of this least-celebrated festival.

If you are wondering how to do it, see what my esteemed colleague Rabbi Mark Hurwitz has to say:

——————–
HurwitzI have been exploring how to use Twitter and Facebook as tools for Jewish community organizing. We know that these social media were central to the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in Egypt. How might we use them to raise consciousness among the Jewish people around the world?

Beginning in 2009 Reconstructionist rabbi Shai Gluskin organized an attempt to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot, using Twitter. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):

Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 the whole day.

Each year, those who participated enjoyed a great day of learning, sharing, and meeting. Jews (and others) all over the world, from various walks of life and “flavors” of Jewish life, tweeted what they thought were valuable and important thoughts of Torah. Nonetheless, we have never been able to get “#Torah” to “trend”. Is it because, however broadly defined, “#Torah” is simply not of interest to the vast majority of Jewish tweeters?

What can we do to make #Torah go viral? Are there tools that those of us committed to this effort are missing? I open the question up to this forum for discussion and invite you all to join our project.

This year (2013:5773) our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tweet-Torah-to-the-Top/440987195986359

If you’d like to participate, please indicate so on the event’s Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/354726977977663/

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You don’t have to be a rabbi.

You don’t have to belong to anything (other than have a Twitter account.)

If you’ve never tweeted, well, here’s a chance to try it.

C’mon! We’ll have fun!