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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Post-Election Drasha: On Debate and Civility

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Post-Election Drasha: On Debate and Civility


So sorry for my silence these last few weeks, but I just woke up from being Shikkur from all of my Donald Trump celebrations. Parties. Kiddushes. Siyyumei Shas. Binge watching The Apprentice. Thanksgiving table political arguments. Burning crosses on the lawns of the local liberals. You know, healthy outlets.

Every day I go to my Shul and look down from my Shtender, and I see many of my congregants celebrating along with me. But, to be honest, I look down across the Shul, and I see others of my congregants who are visibly disappointed. They are clearly recognizable because of the yellow stars we make them wear.

(Rabboisai -- Those were called jokes. Dark humor. Too much for some, but satisfyingly morbid for others. But I learned from the best Roishei Yeshivah in the world, such as Reb Herschel Schachter, Reb Shneier Kutler, and Pope Francis - Always start a serious Dvar Toirah with a joke. Then tell the Minuvals in the Kehilla why they are all going to hell.)

There are so many aspects to this election, so many paradoxes, and such personal feelings intertwined, that only a true Toirah scholar with deep understanding of TANACH, SHAS, Kabbalah, and the tax code can begin to understand them. But that's what you pay me for. (By the way, I am still waiting for my check, you Mechutziff!)

Donald J. Trump is a paradox. He has a history of womanizing, to the point of accusations of misogyny and worse. In his campaign he courted the alt right - the Neo Nazi and KKK types in this country. This flirtation may have been the most disturbing part of the President Elect's campaign - his tacit acceptance of the forces of hate in this country that are at heart racist and xenophobic has at least for now unleashed disturbing incidents of racism. These are the guys who openly express anti-Semitism, racism against blacks, racism against Latinos, racism against Muslims, and racism against minorities in general. These are the guys who sound like your crazy uncle when he drinks too much on Purim night. 

But neither I nor any of my congregants voted for that man for those reasons. Every leader has his Meshuganahs. President Obama had his affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And George W. Bush had Dick Cheney.

No. We voted for him because his was a call for change at a time when the much-spoken-about "economic divide" was being discussed. He is not from Washington. He is a business man with a very mixed record but with strong name recognition. And the world has indeed changed. Many people never recovered their financial status from the Great Recession. And many people are angry at their own tax rates, while at the same time seeing the uber rich, including Trump, being enabled by law to pay somewhere between zero and 15% in taxes in both Republican and Democratic administrations, while most of us are paying 35%-40%. (Not me, of course. The government pays me to deliver vital social services to the community. Last week I received a check for buying computers for all of the Talmidim in my Yeshiva... a Yeshiva in which computers and the Internet are strictly banned. Reboinoisheloilum bless America!)

Maybe some Jews voted for Trump because of some perceived preference for Israel, but every American administration has its positive and negative episodes with the Israeli government, Democrats and Republicans, and people who do not realize that historical fact are in for a rude awakening. 

But perhaps the reason that many people voted for Trump is that the Frum community has largely become a conservative society, and simply does not like to vote Democratic. And, just perhaps, some people were opposed to Hillary Clinton, not because she is a woman, but because she is as crooked as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the Goilem carrying the MAHARAL on his back through the streets of Prague, since the Goilum was the MAHARAL's version of Uber.


Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was herself a paradox. She positioned herself as a purveyor of progressive thought, yet made off the record speeches to Wall Street firms for more than $200,000 each. As Secretary of State, she hosted an e-mail server in her home that inevitably would be on either the sending or receiving end of confidential data. And when subpoenaed to provide copies of her e-mails, she snapped into action... By deleting 30,000 e-mails. Plus, there are clear, proven instances where donations to the Clinton Foundation resulted in favorable treatment and preferential access to the State Department, as well as 20% discounts in the cafeteria.

So, the United States is confronted with an odd reality - The unexpected election of Donald J. Trump over Hillary Rodham Clinton. For some, this is a cause for celebration. For others, it is a reason for disappointment and disillusionment. But luckily we are Klal Yisroel. We do not take a short term view of one election or one year or one term. We view the world in terms of eternity - and if not eternity, we view the world in terms of eras of persecution. 

To what is this election comparable in the rich history of Klal Yisroel, and what lessons does that history offer?

In Sefer Shmuel, we read about the struggle between the Kingdom of the House of Shaul and the Kingdom of the House of David. If one reads the text closely and is not distracted by Midrashic whitewash, one can clearly see a struggle for internal leadership, including a series of unholy alliances. The text even tells us that at one point David and his crew acts as mercenaries in the employ of the Plishtim, the Phillistines. (If you do not believe me, take five minutes and look it up in the text, assuming that you know how to navigate Biblical text without having Rabbi Artscroll lead you by the Schvatntz and sanitize the rich, actual text of the Torah.)

In the text, we read of the struggles between the two warring houses, a standing king and an insurrectionist. Ultimately, Shaul and his son Yoinoson are killed in a battle with the Plishtim, and the text goes out of its way to tell us of an incident happening in parallel that suggests that David and his troops were never ever EVER anywhere near that battle. Ever. Methinks the Toirah Doth Protest Too Much. And after Shaul is killed, his family and many of his loyalists are struck down. David, of course, goes on to found a monarchical dynasty, as well as a chain of coffee and doughnut shops throughout the whole of the Land of Israel, including Judea, Samaria, and Brooklyn.

Here we see that power was transferred, but through violent upheaval.

When we look at the story of the Hasmonean rebellion against the Seleucids and their Judean allies, AKA the real story of Chanukah (and not the fairy tale version with magical oil and shitty little plastic dreidels made in China), once again we see the transfer of power driven by violent upheaval, as well as the long term dangers of eating fried foods.

Internecine violence that characterized power struggles and leadership shifts within Klal Yisroel reach their peak in the destruction of Bayis Sheini. Here, there is a multi-party civil war between rebels and non-rebels, zealots and more practical rebels, Pharisees and Sadducees. Yes, there were Romans, but as recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, they stood outside the walls of Jerusalem as the Judean factions killed each other and either poisoned or set fire to each other’s food stores. Josephus also tells us that Judean merchants outside the walls made a killing selling hot dogs, pretzels and soda to the waiting Roman soldiers, and Judean prostitutes were so busy, they set up a trade network to manage demand called Juber. And they instituted Surge Pricing, which, according to the Gemarrah, raised the price of Metzitzah BiPeh from an average cost of 10 Shekels during regular demand to as much as 100 Shekels at peak times.

With the destruction of the Second Temple, and later, after the bloody, failed Bar Kochba Rebellion, there was a push to expunge violence as a means of political expression within Klal Yisroel. Internecine violence and rebellion had left tens or even hundreds of thousands dead, many Jews carried away into enslavement, loss of any semblance of sovereignty, loss of access to Jerusalem, and of course loss of the Temple. The Roman occupiers also stopped accepting coupons and no longer honored discounts for students and the elderly. The Mamzeirim. 

And so, CHAZAL implemented a fundamental philosophy of non-violence in transitions of power - by emphasizing the dangers of Sin'as Chinum, best translated as "Random Hatred". So we are told throughout the Gemarra that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sin'as Chinum, and that Rabbi Akiva's students died en masse due to a plague caused by Sin'as Chinum, when in reality they likely died in the Bar Kochba struggle.

Instead, CHAZAL focused their energies on debate, sometimes civil, sometimes less so. Rav  debated Shmuel. Abaya debated Rava. Ravina debated Rab Ashi. RAMBAN debated RAMBAM. RASHI was debated by all of his grandchildren and their peers among the Ba'alei Toisfoisssss. And not a single drop of blood was shed. Except when the RAMBAN was in Nidah. 

Even the divisive Shabtai Tzvi incident did not result in bloodshed, but harsh words. And the terribly divisive split between Chassidim and Misnagdim did not result in more than very rare fisticuffs, although each side called the civil authorities on the other for various pretexts. (Apparently rabbis at the time had no problem calling the hostile gentile authorities on each other at the time, as opposed to today when they refuse to call the police when someone in the community is sexually abused by another Jew, because apparently rabbis are better trained at taking testimony on sex abuse, forensics, criminal law, handling of DNA evidence, and psychology. What Schmucks... errr... Tzaddikim!)

So what do we learn from all of this, and how does it relate to our current reality?

There are two concepts at play - Sin'as Chinum - "Random Hatred" and "Ga'avah" - "Self-Assured Arrogance". And most of us are guilty of the two.

When we examine the life of the most significant leader of Klal Yisroel, Moishe Rabbeinu, CHAZAL point to Moishe's "Anivus" - his "Personal Modesty". When asked by the Reboinoisheloilum to speak to Pharoah on behalf of Klal Yisroel, he responds that he cannot, no one will listen to his voice. Hakadoshboruchhu reassures him, and also assigns his brother, Aron HaKoihain, the Minuval, to support him.

But we celebrate Moishe Rabbeinu's Anivus, and are told at the end of Devarim "Lo Kum BeYisroel K'Moishe Oid" - None like Moishe have ever risen since. Not even in the era of Viagra. 

When we look at the current political season, all we can see is arrogance and smugness from both sides of the equation. And as we read at the Reishah of this Drasha, the candidates in question - both of them - are deeply flawed. Most of us held our noses as we voted, whether we voted for Clinton or Trump. In Trump's case, some women may have also held their other hand over their... ummm... Ervas, just in case...

And the issues that divide the sides are real. And the flaws on each side are real. And the concerns raised over the President Elect are real. But ours is a culture of debate. And these debates are legitimate, and we should not shy away from them, but discuss our different ideas and philosophies. We can disagree. And perhaps sometimes we might even agree. 

So the question is: What is the line when debate turns into Sin'as Chinum? And what causes someone to engage in Sin'as Chinum.

Imagine Reuven and Shimoin getting into an argument on a particular topic. Reuven is certain of his position. Shimoin is certain of his position. And it is a binary debate - only one person can be right. So how is it possible that each is completely certain in his position, knowing full well that he has a 50% chance of being wrong? That is the role of Ga'Avah. 

Now imagine Levi and Yehuda arguing over a philosophical topic - a topic with nuance, a topic in which there are many angles and many shades of grey. But both Levi and Yehuda are certain of their positions, and do not for even a minute doubt their positions. That too is Ga'Avah. 

So as we debate candidates, politics, and policies, it is certainly valid, even encouraged, for each of us to have our own ideas and beliefs. But if we cannot, for even a moment, try to understand what is in the mind of the people that we are debating, try to understand their thinking and reasoning, cannot express even a semblance of empathy, then that is Ga'avah. (Think "basket of deplorables", my Hillary supporting friends.)

And if in the course of a debate of ideas we are dismissive of the position of another, and express that dismissiveness, Chass V'Shalom, in personal terms, then that crosses the line from healthy debate to Sin'as Chinum. (This is referred to in Aramaic as being "Trumpy".)

So there is a line, perhaps a fine line, between acceptable forms of Machloikess, debate, and deterioration into Ga'Avah and Sin'as Chinum.

I am reminded of a famous debate between the Baal Shem Toiv and the Vilna Goyn. As tension between Chassidim and Misnagdim built up, the leading advocates of each movement came together in Poizen, Poland to debate their theological differences. The Gruh spoke of the importance of learning Toirah as the only legitimate method to connect to the Aimishteh. The BESHT argued back that the masses could barely read, and that Hisboisedus, meditative unity with the Divine, was the best way for Klal Yisroel to connect to the Reboinoisheloilum.

The Goyn spoke of the central importance of rabbis in setting Halacha and determining the day to day Halachic questions that arise in a traditional Jewish society. The Baal Shem Toiv argued that rabbis had a more important role - to be central, organizing figures around and through whom adherents can better engage with Hakadoshboruchhu on a day to day basis. And so on.

However, as the debate raged on, the initial civil tone deteriorated into personal insults. At one point, the GRUH shouted out, "You, Yisroel, with your Payis and your fur hat, look like an Aimishteh-damned monkey!"

To which the Baal Shem Toiv responded, "Well at least I do not have a silly white beard like you that makes you look like a billy goat!"

The audience was roaring with both protest and laughter. In the back of the hall a few punches were thrown.

Suddenly, a Bas Kol, a heavenly voice, boomed from above. "DO NOT DISRESPECT EACH OTHER! THAT IS SIN'AS CHINUM AND WILL ONLY LEAD TO BAD THINGS!!"

The GRUH looked up at the sky and said, "Hey, the Gemara says 'Toirah Loi BaShamayim Hee' ('Determinations regarding the Torah are no longer in the heavenly domain'), so leave us the hell alone, you bully!"

The BESHT chimed in, pointing his finger at the sky, "Yeah, big shot!!! What do you think you are going to do about it? Wipe out all of European Jewry?"


Rabboisai, we live in divisive times. There are real issues and concerns on all sides. There are dangers. There are also opportunities. And these issues and concerns should of course be discussed. But rather than succumb to anger and frustration in our discourse, it is critical that we maintain a modicum of civility, of unity. We must always remember the Toirah's injunction of "Ve'Ahavta LeReacha KaMoicha", you should love your neighbor as you love yourself. And we must always keep in mind the Mishnah in Avois that tells us, "Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said, ‘The world stands on three pillars: On justice, on truth, and on peace’".

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

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