Friday, July 6, 2012

Balaq 5772 - Talking Donkeys and Cursing Rabbis: The Importance of Being Civil

Shabbat shalom. It’s good to be home. (I was in Israel for eight days.)

Woody Allen once quipped that the Jewish history of persecution armed our people with the ability to talk their way out of a tight spot. I like to see Jewish history as somewhat more positive: the rabbinic tradition of learning and commentary, arguing and revisiting and re-commenting has, if nothing else, endowed us with an appreciation for the power of words and speech.

Parashat Balaq could be either the world's oldest known satire, or the silliest piece of cheap fiction ever written. A talking donkey? Try selling THAT in Hollywood. Here's the elevator pitch:

A goyish prophet is hired to curse the Jews. While on his way, his donkey keeps seeing an angel, so he beats him, until the donkey talks back. That's right! Then the prophet opens his mouth and tries to curse, but blessings come out instead. Whaddaya think?”

But in all, this parashah may be the greatest commentary ever on the importance of words. In broad strokes:
  1. Bil'am's donkey is given an opportunity rarely afforded to animals: to express what he or she is feeling. This is a miracle that we humans all enjoy daily, and we should never forget the value of such a commonplace miracle.
  1. When Bil'am arrives to perform his task of cursing the Israelites, he opens his mouth, and words of hatred become words of love and admiration. Don't you wish that this happened more often?
A few weeks back, a video surfaced on YouTube that “went viral.” Last I checked, there were over 8 million views. It featured a 68-year-old grandmother, Karen Huff Klein, who works as a bus monitor for a school district in upstate New York. 

Ms. Klein is shown sitting on her bus, and for ten excruciating minutes is seen being verbally abused by seventh-grade boys. They taunt her with horrible, disgusting words, calling her fat, stupid, poor, smelly, and other mean insults coupled with the most colorful four-letter expletives imaginable, causing her to cry. The fact that these boys know and choose to use such words is disappointing; the fact that they are engaged in what amounts to torture is shocking.

Yes, the proliferation of cameras today has enabled us to see many things that may have always taken place. For sure I was teased when I rode the schoolbus, as I am sure that many of us were, although perhaps not with language as pungent as what may be heard in this video. But I have never seen such unrelenting torture. The good news is that people responded to the video by raising over $650,000 dollars so Ms. Klein can retire and never have to ride the bus again with such savages.

But here is a question we must ask ourselves: what have we done to create this? Yes, that's right. You and me and everybody else in this nation. How are we at fault?

If this incident had happened (has veshalom / God forbid) in Great Neck rather than the town of Greece, New York, would we acknowledge personal responsibility? That's not my kid, we would say. My child is not cruel. My child would never use language like this. That was somebody else's kid.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in his own commentary on this incident, suggests that we are all to blame.
Those boys are us, or at least too many of us: America at its ugliest. It is that part of society that sees the weak and vulnerable as worthy of derision and animus. This kind of behavior is not isolated to children and school buses and suburban communities. It stretches to the upper reaches of society our politics and our pulpits and our public squares.”
Think about it for a moment: we live in a society obsessed with youth, beauty, and success. We spend inordinate amounts of money on products that claim to make us look younger or more attractive, on dieting, on cosmetic surgery, on status symbols that suggest success or power or virility. It is only logical that the messages that we send to our children are that the opposite of these things are bad, that those of us who are old, not attractive, or not successful deserve scorn.

Some of us do this explicitly, and some implicitly. (And believe me, I have spent enough time around children in this community to know that we are not immune to the kinds of teasing to which Ms. Klein was subjected on that bus.) How many of us have found ourselves making any kind of generalizations, positive or negative about any group? Those of a different ethnicity, or color, or sexuality, or religion?

We hear politicians attack each other personally rather than argue relevant issues.  We hear religious leaders denigrate other groups. I know Rabbi Stecker spoke last week about how one of Israel’s Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter to all ofhis colleagues in the Israeli rabbinate (who are all Orthodox, because non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate as rabbis). In this letter, he called for attendance at a rabbinic protest rally in Jerusalem against the Israeli Supreme Court's recent decision that the Israeli government should pay 15 non-Orthodox rabbis for work in their communities, just like it pays Orthodox rabbis. In this letter, he let loose an invective in rabbinic Hebrew that gravely insulted me and every other non-Orthodox rabbi in the world: he called us "uprooters of Torah" who had "visited disaster upon the Diaspora” and “terroristswho trample on our holy traditions.

His words are saddening at best, dangerous at worst. Part of the story here is that the Israeli Rabbinate feels that it is losing its hegemony over the spiritual lives of Israelis, and indeed as it has moved rightward and become more Haredi, it has managed to alienate not only secular Israel (which is nearly half of the country) and those who belong to Reform or Conservative congregations, but also much of Diaspora Jewry and swathes of Modern Orthodoxy as well. So the Rabbinate is lashing out, attempting to draw on whatever power it still holds.

What kind of spiritual leader can say such things about another? And what sort of message does that send to all of his followers? That it is OK to bash non-Orthodox Judaism.  That we are not just impostors, but actively working to destroy Judaism as they see it, and therefore we are dangerous and worthy only of derision.

One of my rabbinic colleagues and current president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, recently wrote in the Jewish Week, sees this statement as not merely insulting, but potentially dangerous:
Did Rabbi Amar fail to learn anything from Yigal Amir's murder of Yitzchak Rabin?  Does he not know that the repeated references in extremist religious circles in Israel to the law of rodef [one who is chasing after you to kill you, about whom the ancient rabbis gave us permission to violently defend ourselves], essentially characterizing Rabin's willingness to sacrifice portions of the land of Israel as presenting an imminent danger to Israel's citizens, constituted in Amir's demented mind enough of a rationale to justify murdering him?”
Ladies and gentlemen, in Israel and here, civil discourse is broken. It's not civil. And these messages reverberate in the ears of our children. Every time that we denigrate another, every time we open our mouths even to curse the guy who just cut you off on the road, or to say something nasty about somebody else, in their presence or otherwise, the barriers to lashon hara, the evil tongue, get just a little lower. And we all lose.

And it's not just what we say. It's also what we don't say. Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted this week on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, despite the fact that bits evidence against him had appeared from time to time over the last few decades. Those around him were willing to excuse him because he was Jerry – well loved and trustworthy, right?

In discussing this trial, the NPR morning program The Takeaway featured Harvard business ethicist Max Bazerman, author of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do About It, says that in polls, most people say that they would intervene if they heard somebody say something that denigrates others. But studies have shown that very few of us actually do so. How many of us in this room have heard friends and family members make racist remarks and let them pass? Even worse, how many of us have allowed our children to hear such things without correcting their impressions?

Ladies and gentlemen, the first step to fixing society is in fixing ourselves. Consider carefully what you say; if it isn't something that you'd like to see in print with your name attached to it, or in a viral video on YouTube, then don't say it, no matter who you're talking to. And when you hear somebody say something or see somebody do something that you know is wrong, don't let it go by.

God won't always be there to turn curses into blessings, or to prevent gangs of seventh-grade boys from teasing senior citizens or each other. Only you and I can make sure that our every single utterance is laced with holiness.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 7, 2012.)

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