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Abraham, Civil Discourse and Us

11/18/2016 09:24:10 AM


I have been asked this week by a number of people about the uptick in reports of hate crimes and acts of  bigotry.

First, it is important to acknowledge that President elect Trump has told his supporters to stop the attacks.  He said: "I am so saddened to hear that, and I say, 'Stop it. If it -- if it helps, I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it."

Perhaps he could have said and done more. Perhaps he will.

What about us? What can we do?

Here are a few thoughts. It comes down to family, by family, community by community, doing the hard work of creating a society and an environment that is safe and kind.

As I said last Shabbat, we know why God favored Avraham

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.

For I have known him, to the end that he will command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.

Rabbi Benny Lau offers the following analysis of this verse.

“This innovative idea redirects the thrust of the religious act from the context of (exclusively) segregating oneself and elevating oneself spiritually (Bein Adam LeMakom), to social matters and concern for one’s fellow man (Bein Adam LeChaveiro). The criteria that establish the degree of religiosity of an individual is the degree to which he pays attention to the needs of the living around him, and not only the type of relationship that he manages to establish between himself and the Divine.”

In his book, From Optimism to Hope, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: “To defend a country, you need an army. To defend humanity, you need education.”

God chose Avraham because He knew he would, “command (educate) his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice.”

If we wish to follow in the ways of the Lord, we must make sure that everyone is treated with righteousness and justice. It begins with education around our dining room table, in our schools, synagogues,other houses of worship, the playground and around the water cooler. We must look beyond our own personal religious growth and beyond our own community’s needs.

Furthermore, in order to calm the anxieties of vulnerable populations and begin to heal the wounds of our fractious and fractured nation we must be ready to engage in the political and civil discourse of our day in a respectful manner.

Avraham also taught us that we have an obligation to speak up and act in the face of injustice. Avraham engaged God in a lengthy debate and negotiations when he felt that God was not active righteously.

Avraham asked: Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"! (Genesis 18:25)

No matter the position of power or we must take our lead from Avraham.

This is also a good time to review the laws of Lashon Hara so we can be reminded of the power of speech and that words can really lead to damage.

This election cycle and post election reaction has been a particularly nasty.  Negative campaigns, scandalous allegations, hateful and hate-filled language has torn at the very fabric of our society.  From a Jewish perspective, there are three partners to, and thus three transgressors involved in Lashon Harah – hurtful speech, destructive expression, rumor mongering, and vulgarity – they are: the speaker, the listener, and society as a whole.  We can all use a dose of teshuvah: repentance for the grievous transgressions of destructive speech, so we can restore a sense of civic duty, communal responsibility, and shared national destiny.  

Rabbi Daniel Feldman, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, has a wonderful, accessible, and learned book on Lashon Hara in contemporary society called False Facts and True Rumors. You can find a short adaptation of it here, or purchase the book at online at Amazon.

Our tradition calls on us to be especially sensitive to vulnerable populations. Our history of suffering at the hands of others because of our difference, does not exempt us from caring about different populations under duress. On the contrary, it obligates us to an even greater calling.

"You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 22:20)

Regarding specifics related to the Jewish community, Nathan Diament has written a helpful piece regarding issues of particular Jewish interest and trump presidency.

Besides studying the laws of Lashon Hara, standing up to hate and engaging in communal advocacy, you can also choose to support organizations committed to protecting the vulnerable.

Gabi and I have set up monthly recurring donations to organizations committed to protecting people’s the rights and dignity.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

We all have a responsibility to act with righteousness, justice, engagement and sensitivity. A new journey has begun for us and we must walk it boldly.

Rabbi Gelman

Mon, May 25 2020 2 Sivan 5780