Questioning the Boundaries of Communication

March 2018 Newsletter Article

As Jews, what is the relevancy of our spiritual and ethical tradition? How often do we turn to Torah and other Jewish texts for guidance as we wrestle with the challenges of our lives? One of the more difficult issues that many of us are grappling with today has to do with civil discourse and communication. How can we have open lines of communication with those who have very different opinions than our own? Can we engage in dialogue that actually shifts our own thinking or the views of another? Can we offer critique in a manner that is respectful? Do we need to go a step further and offer rebuke in the face of behavior and views that we believe are destructive and dangerous and if so, can we do this while staying connected to those we rebuke? These questions seem particularly relevant for the world we live in today and Judaism speaks to these very questions. These questions are not new to our generation; they emerged in the earliest days of our ancestors and I would venture to say, have been around as long as humanity has lived in community. In the text of the Torah these very questions were addressed and they were expanded upon throughout Jewish texts and throughout every generation.

Speaking personally, I find myself questioning the boundaries of communication on a daily basis and wonder what my responsibilities are as a Jew in the face of actions and behavior that trouble me. I recently had a very intense conversation with a salesperson at the Verizon store who at every level had diametrically different opinions than I did. He was intensely anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and against any kind of openness towards transgender individuals. Additionally, he was a strong proponent of the ability to carry concealed weapons in any location and was opposed to ANY type of gun control.

Can you imagine the conversation as I was trying to learn about my new Google Pixel 2? Imagine the debate; should I switch from being a long-term Apple phone user to the unexplored life of being an android phone owner?!!!! As he was transferring my data from the Apple to the Google, I found myself trying to have a civil discourse with him. Instead of just writing him off, I thought, here is my opportunity to perhaps help him through the questions of limits…. step by step. Could he see that a person who had been arrested for domestic violence, perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun? Hmmmmm…. He could maybe see that. Could he see that a person who has a serious mental health issue, shouldn’t be allowed to buy an assault weapon? Hmmmmm…..I could see him wrestle with the slippery slope of these questions. He wanted to agree with me, but if he did, it would undermine the fierceness of his libertarian position. What an evening that was!

If you have found yourself wrestling with similar questions and would like to explore what Judaism has to teach us on the subject, I invite you to participate in an adult education evening at Congregation Shalom. We are going to be participating in a distant learning experience as a part of the HUC-JIR’s College Commons Bully Pulpit Podcast – Torah with a Point of View. Our first session will be on Tuesday, March 27 at 7:00 pm. We will listen to and discuss a podcast called “Critique and Rebuke” with Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, the President Scholar of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion and National Director of Recruitment and Admissions at the college. Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi will explore some of the personal and ethical issues surrounding conversations and friendships and relationships with people who have radically different viewpoints than us. The podcast is based on a blog she wrote for The Times of Israel in which she asked “Can I stay friends with a racist?” The podcast expands on this discussion. I hope you might consider participating in this exciting new kind of educational program in our community. I will be sending out additional information in March with the link to the podcast, the transcript of the conversation and more. Even if you are not able to join us for the evening conversation in March, you will be able to hear and learn from Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi.

In the meanwhile, I wish you all a Happy Purim.