Derekh Eretz: Fools, Politics, and Me
Sermon Given on Yom Kippur 5779 (2018)
by Rabbi Steven I. Rein
While visiting New York this summer, I quickly remembered why these two cities are so different. I’m not talking about skylines, museums, finance, or government. I’m also not talking about kosher restaurants or living in a shoebox. It’s the arguments! You see, in New York people argue about which cupcake shop has the best cupcakes, why certain pizzerias are worth waiting in line for two hours, which subway route will get you to your destination three minutes faster, and why your neighborhood is superior to the one four blocks away. I was in a CVS once in New York and was confronted by someone who wanted me to adopt a puppy. When I politely declined because dogs make my eyes itch the woman started arguing with me. “How dare you,” she said. “How dare you blame your allergies on these puppies. It’s not their fault you’re allergic…it’s your fault.” “Ma’am, I don’t want a puppy…” “Of course you don’t…these animals deserve a better home than yours.” To this day I can’t believe that argument actually happened. In Washington the arguments are very different. Here, everyone chooses their team – the red team or the blue team. That determines which rally you go to, which demonstration you protest against, which dozen campaign signs go up on your front lawn, and how you convince yourself that your positions on everything are morally and ethically superior. Surely off the record we all mingle and get along…right? And then I learned that within the House of Representatives there is a Republican coatroom and a Democrat coatroom. God forbid political opponents put on a pea coat next to each other!
For the most part, debates in New York are all about bragging rights. Here…well…if you don’t adopt my point of view, you will single handedly bring our nation to the brink of collapse. Think about the last time you had an intense debate about politics. Was it last week over the phone? Yesterday on social media? At dinner last night? During the Torah service? Raise your hand if you think you were right. Raise your hand if you think the other person is a fool.
Fascinating. When we recited: “al het shechatanu lefanecha b’tipshut peh – we have sinned against you through foolish talk,” did you have someone in mind? Who are these fools? You likely work with people who you think are fools. You are definitely related to someone who you know is a fool. The problem is: how do we respond to the fools in our life? How do we respond when there is so much at stake – identity, boundaries, and impact on real people? Taking to heart the principles of derekh eretz that I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, I want suggest that there are three important variables to consider when engaging a fool. The first is the nature of the issue. How essential is the issue for you? What kind of threat does it pose? Are we talking cupcakes or are we talking refugees. The second variable is character – both your character and the fool’s character. Do I really want to engage with the stranger trying to sell me puppies? The final variable is relationship. Do you have a pre-existing relationship? Do you want a relationship? Do you need a relationship? This is the heated debate with the people I love about the source of gun violence or the role of government in helping those less fortunate. How do
these variables impact the way we speak to a fool? Through a series of rabbinic stories I hope we can begin to answer these questions.
There is generally ambivalence about getting into a conversation with someone you disagree with – especially people who are stubborn and don't listen. Is this productive or is this a waste of time? The ambivalence we feel today was expressed millennia ago in the book of Proverbs. “Answer not a fool according to their folly lest you also be like them” (Prov. 26:4). And then, in the very next verse, “Answer a fool according to their folly lest they be wise in their own eyes” (Prov. 26:5). So which is it? Do we answer the fool or not? Our Sages teach: “Answer the fool when the fool makes claims about Torah (sacred matters if you will). Don’t answer the fool when the fool is speaking about mundane matters” (Shabbat 30b). The first lesson we learn is that the key variable is the issue at hand.
Our sages give some examples. A man came before Rabbi Judah the Prince and said to him: “Your wife is my wife and your children are my children” (i.e. your wife committed
adultery with me and your children are illegitimate). The Rabbi said to him: “Would you like a glass of wine?” The man drank and exploded. Another man came before Rabbi Hiyya and said to him: “Your mother is my wife, and you are my son.” The Rabbi said to him: “Would you like a glass of wine?” The man drank and he exploded. This is the rabbis’ way of saying: I'm not going to dignify that with a response. Lest you think the rabbis were handing out Molotov cocktails, this is rabbinic speak for: I am going to pray to God that you just go away.
Another example. The great sage Rabban Gamliel was once sitting and interpreting scripture. “In the future,” he said, “women will give birth every day” (for most women I know,
this sounds like a nightmare). This is alluded to in the verse: “The woman with child is also in labor (Jer. 3:8),” meaning, she will be both pregnant and giving birth at the same time. A certain student scoffed and said: Isn’t it written: “There is nothing new under the sun. What are you talking about?” Rabban Gamliel took him outside to see his chicken that lays eggs every day. What’s happening here? One possibility is that Rabban Gamliel was being metaphorical and this student didn’t understand. Instead of saying “you’re a fool,” he said “okay, I’ll help you with a simple example.” What’s the difference between these two stories? Why in one case do you give someone a drink and pray they disappear and in the other case you engage?
Our sages began by telling us that it’s all about the issue. As the story continues, it appears that the issue at stake is not what’s most important; rather it is the identity of the fool.
What type of interlocutor are we talking about? If we are talking about a wicked person trying to cause you harm, the answer is: here, have a drink and let’s see what happens. You are arguing in favor of racism? You are arguing that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist? I'm not engaging in these conversations. The discussion is not valid and engaging is dangerous. Only if the person is ignorant do we engage and talk with them. Anybody else troubled with this? When the stakes are high, that is not the time to say, “here take a drink and let's see what happens,” or “I don’t hear you…[finger in ears]” That’s the way fights between my children often start. When the stakes are high, that’s exactly when you need to have a conversation – that’s when your voice needs to be heard. There is, however, a problem. How do you know the difference between someone who is malicious and someone who is ignorant? Or, to be less judgmental, someone who is differently exposed – they grew up in a different part of the country, in a different culture. How do you know the difference?
Another rabbinic story (Shabbat 30b-31a). A person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. There was an incident involving two people who wagered with each other and said: anyone who can aggravate Hillel to the point that he reprimands him will get 400 zuz. (You can buy a lot of goats with that!) One of them said: I'm in, I’ll aggravate him. He went to Hillel’s house on Friday afternoon, knowing Hillel would be getting ready for Shabbat. He banged on his door until Hillel put on his robe and went out to greet him. “Can I help you?”
“I have a question,” the man said, “why are the heads of Babylonians oval?” Hillel replies: “Great question, the reason is they don't have clever midwives.”
The man waited a short while and then returned. Again he banged on Hillel’s door. Hillel put on his robe and opened the door. “Can I help you?” “I have another question,” the man said, “why are the eyes of the Palmyreans watery?” “Great question,” Hillel said, “it’s because they live in the desert and the sand gets into their eyes.” Ten minutes later the man returns and bangs on Hillel’s door. Again Hillel puts on his robe to greet him. “I have another question,” the man said, “why do Africans have broad feet?” (Are you exasperated with this guy yet?) The man said to Hillel: “I have many more questions, but I am afraid you will get angry.” Hillel put his robe ack on, sat down next to the man, and encouraged him to ask all the questions that he would like. The man said: “are you the famous Hillel.” “Yes,” Hillel said. “If it is you then may there not be many like you in Israel.” “My son, why do you say this?” With frustration the man responded: “because I lost 400 zuz because of you.” Hillel put his hand on the man’s shoulder, “you can lose another 400 zuz, but I will not lose my temper.”
What would you have done in this situation? Locked your door? Pushed the man off your stoop? Called the police? Hillel’s response is fascinating. He had no relationship with the guy and his intentions were pretty nefarious. I don't think the stakes were high, but he’s pretty disrespectful. And do you know what story comes next? The story with Hillel and the convert, actually three converts. Each time Hillel engages the convert and builds trust while Shammai kicks him out. At the very end of the story, the part that we never read, we see the three converts gathered together in one place. Together they said: “Shammai’s anger and impatience tried to keep us from our Jewish journey; Hillel’s patience and humility brought us under the wings of God.”
What happens when your response to every person who disagrees with you on a given issue is: “I think your policy is detestable.” It’s so easy to talk with your friends about “them,”
“those crazy fill in the blanks.” How do you know who's wicked and who's ignorant? How do you know? How about Derek Black? He was the kid who was raised as a neo-Nazi, went to college and was ostracized. Everybody turned against him except an Orthodox Jewish student who invited him for Shabbos meals. Eventually Derek broke away from his upbringing. Of course this is an unusual example, but if everyone fits into the category of ‘wicked,’ ‘can't be taught,’ ‘fool,’ then there's probably something wrong with your character not theirs.
I want to place two more considerations on the table. The first is impact. What is the impact of not engaging, of pushing someone away? You don’t believe in egalitarian synagogues? I want nothing to do with you. You think teachers should be armed? Don’t talk to me anymore. You want our country to embrace socialism? Go live somewhere else. I can keep going. How many people have been excluded from your life because of divergent views? What happens when we push others away?
Time for a censored story (Sotah 47a). I love censored stories. The fact that it was censored makes me want to read it. Our sages tell the story about the student of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahya. According to the uncensored version of the Talmud, the student was Jesus. Now for the story. Our Sages taught: you should always push away with your weaker hand and draw near with your stronger hand. This is not like Rabbi Yehoshua, who pushed the Nazarene away with both hands. One day Rabbi Yehoshua came to a certain inn. He stood before the innkeeper and remarked: “How beautiful is this inn.” Immediately one of his students, Jesus, said to him: “Rabbi, the eyes of the innkeeper’s wife are narrow.” The Rabbi replied: “Wicked one, is this what you are engaged in, gazing at women?” He brought out 400 shofars and excommunicated him with pomp and circumstance. Every day Jesus would come before the rabbi, but he would not accept his wish to return. A few weeks later, Rabbi Yehoshua was reciting the Shema when Jesus entered the room. He intended to accept him on this occasion, so he signaled with his hand to wait [hand gesture]. Jesus thought he was rejecting him again so he set up a brick and worshipped it as an idol. Rabbi Yehoshua then said: “return from your sins.” Jesus replied: “this is the tradition that I learned from you, anyone who sins and causes others to sin is not given the
opportunity to repent.”
What happened in this story? Ignore the details about how Jesus supposedly separated from the rabbinic establishment. This isn’t a historical account. I want you to think about what happens when you consistently say to someone: I'm not listening to you [fingers in ears]…get out of here. I actually want to think about this in terms of the 2016 elections, because I think that’s exactly what half of America did to the other half. That’s why everyone was surprised by the results. Half of America said [fingers in ears]: “I'm not listening to your concerns…I'm not listening to your concerns,” and the other half said [waving]: “we have concerns…we have concerns.” Suddenly everyone started reading Hillbilly Elegy. We do this all the time! As the British philosopher John Stuart Mill once said: “Though the silenced opinion may be in error, it may and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth. It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
I’ll give you another example, and this is going to be harder. A colleague of mine is the campus rabbi at Columbia University. He recently had a student who joined Jewish Voices for Peace. In a nutshell, JVP is a radical anti-Israel activist group that advocates for a complete economic, cultural and academic boycott of the State of Israel. As such, Jewish Voices for Peace is not a recognized group at Hillel. Passover was coming and the rabbi asked the student if he would come to his Seder. The student was speechless. The Rabbi said: “look, we disagree on some significant issues, and I still won’t allow your group here, but please come to our Seder.” This was not about whether this student would or would not change his beliefs and ideas. This is about both welcoming everyone around the table and realizing the damage that can be done when you push the other away. The student, by the way, ended up going to the Seder. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we open our arms and pretend everything is just fine. But, we need to learn how to push with one hand and draw in with the other. Our actions have an impact.
Now for the second consideration, and this gets us in trouble all the time. We always presume that I know I'm right, and I know you're wrong, and all you need is a little love so you
can see the light. What if that’s not the reality? What if the reality is: I have my position, you have your position, and neither of us are moving. There is a rabbinic story about this as well – this is the last story (Vayikra Rabbah 4:5). A certain non-Jew asked Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah: “Doesn’t your Torah teach that you are supposed to follow the majority? We are the majority. Why don’t you join us in idolatry?” What answer would you give? My answer is: our Torah prohibits idolatry, end of conversation. That’s not the answer given in the story. The Rabbi said to him: “Do you have children?” “Uch…you have reminded me of my great pain.” “Why?” asked the Rabbi. “When they are sitting at my table, this one prays to this god, this one prays to that god, and they don't stop until they bang their heads against each other fighting over whose god is better.” The rabbi responds: “So, do you join them?” “No way,” the man said. To which the rabbi smiled: “you’re not willing to squabble over which God is better and neither am I.” The man hurried off and left.
The rabbi’s students now chime in: “Rabbi, you rebuffed him with nonsense. What is your real answer? The rabbi cleared his throat and said: “Regarding Esau, six descendants are mentioned and they are referred to as many people. Regarding Jacob, seventy people are mentioned, and they are referred to as one person. Since Esau worshiped many gods, his family is regarded as many people; since Jacob worshiped one God, his family is referred to as one person.” What is this ridiculous answer? The reason we don't worship idolatry is because literally that is the only completely black and white rule in the entire Torah. What is the rabbi’s answer?
We need to contend with the man’s question. We don’t worship idols because our Torah established a higher unity of purpose. The rabbi’s message to his students is: don’t think that because they're the majority and we're the minority that that's the whole story, but I need to be able to answer that guy's question, not just for him but for myself and for all of us. What does it mean to have an argument with someone where neither one of you is trying to change the other’s positions, because you can't…because you won't. Instead, you are willing to concede that the other side has valid questions. Their questions sharpen the way that you think. Don't just ignore them because of who they are, because of what's at stake, or because you think you don't want a relationship.
I am encouraging all of you to push yourselves. There will be times when engagement is going to be futile. However, that is not the only mode. We need to keep in mind these three essential dimensions: the nature of the issue; character, both theirs and ours; and our relationship. We need to ask ourselves: am I seeing everyone who is against me as malicious, or were they exposed to a different position than mine? Am I assuming that every conversation has to convince someone to adopt my opinion, or should it be that when I engage, I actually want to think about the roots of my own opinion and whether they're just, whether they're right, and how I may need to rethink certain points? If you are only wise in your own eyes – you are no better than the fool.
We need to appreciate that people come from different places while being perfectly comfortable where we are. Honestly, we are lousy at this. That is why our rhetoric is so ugly.
Engaging with someone who is literally questioning your existence is going to turn your stomach. It is scary as hell because someone is trying to undermine who you are, what you stand for, what you thought was good, and what you know is good. How do I actually understand that people have different exposures without compromising what I think is right and good? That's the essence of being able to have conflict without having to live through a Civil War, but it seems that is where we are right now.
Our challenge on this Yom Kippur is not simple. A derekh eretz of being nice just doesn’t cut it anymore. We need to think very carefully about the serious issues of the day and
how we react, respond, and engage. Enough painting the other person as wicked, backwards, uneducated, naïve. Enough engaging with rhetoric because that's the only way you think they're going to listen. We have to understand that number one: the puzzle is complex; and number two: the assumptions that we make, both about people and consequences, in those snap moments are not always right or productive. Even when you don't start with a relationship, sometimes you can create one. Sometimes the goal is not to change someone's opinion, and sometimes the goal is to change someone's opinion. Sit with this for a moment. Sit with the actual challenge and imagine how if you were the fool, how you would want to be treated. If you were the fool, how would you want to be understood?
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’imutz halev – we have sinned against You through hardening our hearts – by closing down conversations. We need to open our minds and our
hearts. We need to remove the callous tissue from within and engage in real honest dialogue with those around us. It won’t be easy. It will likely be uncomfortable. But, it is what this day requires. You can pound your chest all day long, but pay attention to the words on the page. They are not about God. They are all about how we see, relate, speak, understand, and love each other. Don’t let the pounding ring hollow. Let us begin here…starting today…changing the way we see each other in the year ahead.