By Rabbi Ron Muroff, Chisuk Emuna Congregation
Not long after last Yom Kippur, we faced a bitterly contested election, which was followed by angry protests and false allegations regarding its results, culminating in the brutal assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
The Spring was marked by a sharp increase in attacks against Asian Americans and other minorities. Antisemitic violence escalated during and after the battles between Hamas and Israel. In the summer, there were fights over voting rights and abortion laws.
Throughout the year, there have been clashes about COVID - vaccinations, masks, and more. 5781 was a tough year for our nation.
America is fraying. There must be a better way.
Two thousand years ago, the Rabbis offered guidance that is still relevant today.
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will endure;
But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.
Which is the argument that is for the sake of Heaven? ... Hillel and Shammai. And which is the argument that is not for the sake of Heaven? ... Korah and all his congregation.
The ancient rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, argued a lot. Yet throughout, they were more interested in “getting it right than being right”. They were humble - able to learn from others - and wise - able to live with ambiguity. Despite their many disputes, Hillel and Shammai never made it personal, never saw each other as “other.” And as a result - despite significant differences in their understanding and practice of Jewish law - the students of Hillel and Shammai married into each other’s families.
In contrast, the rebellion of Korach and his allies against Moses and Aaron is motivated by a pursuit of power and prestige. The Torah documents how after several attempts to resolve the dispute peacefully, Moses calls upon G-d to perform a miracle to determine the legitimate leader. At once, Korach and his band are swallowed up by the ground.
It is tempting to wish for the disappearance of our opponents. Yet, even in the Bible, the people still complain to Moses after his opponents are killed in the earthquake! The dispute is not ended by force. It only ends once Moses and Aaron and their rivals learn to see the humanity of each other.
We can learn how to engage in conflict better if we make a commitment to rise above automatic responses. We can be like Hillel and Shammai and confront each other with humility and genuine curiosity, compassion, and a deep sense of our interconnectedness. And we don’t need to do this alone.
This month, Kulanu - a joint venture of our Greater Harrisburg Jewish communal organizations and synagogues - is presenting a two-part series to train participants with tools and practices to engage in civil discourse across intergenerational and political divides.
Please join me in registering for these webinars on Monday evenings, October 18th and October 25th at jewishharrisburg.org/kulanu. If you cannot make these webinars, recordings of the facilitator's presentations - though not the breakout groups where we will practice these communication skills - will be available afterwards. Let’s learn together how to engage more constructively in difficult conversations and avoid the tendency to walk away from each other.
Our polarization prevents us from confronting effectively the challenges we face as a country and world. Our mutual suspicion divides families and communities. Yet as the late Rabbi David Hartman correctly observed, “The secret of America – its strength and power – lies in its celebration of diversity [and] its giving up of a monolithic vision for all people.”
Let us work to strengthen our community and nation by getting to know the humanity of our opponents. Our future depends on it. The anger, violence, and dysfunction will not stop until we talk. Let us begin this month to learn how to talk and even more how to listen.