Shabbat Nechamu

By Rabbi Graubart | Congregation Beth El

The Jewish Theological Seminary, where I became a rabbi, never required or even offered courses in nuclear physics - which is probably a good thing, since I almost certainly would have flunked them.  I might have done better if the rabbinic curriculum required expertise in political science or international economics or international relations, but alas we stuck mostly to Jewish spiritual texts, Jewish history, and pastoral training.  Yet, even while on vacation, I was often asked - in my role as rabbi - to evaluate the recent Iran deal, or even to advocate for one side or the other. Of course, some of my rabbinic studies offer what I think of as useful guidance on human behavior, so I might have something to say about relevant topics like trust and faith and fear and the justifications for self-defense.  But, really, most rabbis remain scandalously ignorant about centrifuges and sanctions and inspection regimes.  We might have opinions as private citizens (I do, in fact).  But I'm not sure how we speak as working rabbis in our intricate Jewish community on a complex topic which divides the whole country and apparently our own community.

But I have learned something about that community and our famous factionalism, even as we strive for consensus.  And it seems to me that the American Jewish inter-communal tension has never been worse in my career.  It's not just that we don't agree about the Iran deal, or that we use the most vicious language in characterizing those with whom we disagree: militarist, traitor, nazi, self-hater. But now we often negate the other side entirely, denying that it even exists, that it counts at all as a Jewish opinion. The fact is, there are many legitimate ways of evaluating the deal.  And it's possible both to support and oppose the deal out of a deep love and commitment to Israel.  The fact that the previous two sentences have become controversial is, to me, deeply sad and troubling.

This Shabbat we begin the "season of comfort" that follows Tisha B'av, and leads us to the High Holidays.  We comfort each other on the loss of our Temple, and more broadly the loss of Jewish sovereignty - the bloody nightmare of exile that began in the year 70 and stretched for nearly 2000 years.  I've always found it endlessly intriguing that the rabbis (those folks we did study in rabbinical study) blamed the destruction of the Temple not on the Romans or Babylonians but on inter-communal feuding, what they referred to as sinat chinam, or "causeless hatred."  Like many interesting phrases sinah chinam has become a cliché and lost some of its power.  But I think it's important this year especially to linger over the words, understand the precise nature of our rabbis' fears.  First of all, the phrase only makes sense in the context of an already argumentative, pluralistic culture, a national sensibility which thrives on debate and argument (very much like modern day Israel).  It's a warning not to let our natural propensity to argue get out of hand.  The word sinah - "hatred" - in this context means that I no longer simply disagree with your opinion, I find it deeply obnoxious and threatening.  I hate it.  The word chinam - "causeless" - means I've stopped listening to you.  Your previous arguments are so offensive to me that it no longer matters what you say, or how you reason.  I don't just hate your opinions, I hate you, regardless of your opinions, which, in any case, I don't listen to any more.

It would not be inaccurate to say that the rabbis of the Talmudic tradition placed avoidance of sinat chinam at the top of our communal priorities.  Not so we should develop a consensus on every issue, but precisely so we could disagree, and still remain a unified community.   For them, sinat chinam was the great threat, graver than any external danger.  Frankly, I don't entirely agree.  Hitler was a greater threat. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a dangerous anti-Semitic regime is a greater threat.  But sinat chinam certainly erodes our ability to combat these existential threats.  We can't ignore it.  And I see more of it every day.

But one last thought - in the spirit of the week, a comforting thought.  I've worked in several Jewish communities in my long career.  San Diego is one of the friendliest Jewish places I've ever experienced, and one of the least prone to sinat chinam.  It's to our credit, and we should proud - we know how to disagree with each other.  And Beth El in particular - a community of Jews from all over the world, with a colorful variety of customs and ideologies - stands today as a living repudiation of sinat chinam.  We argue, but we listen, and learn, and grow. We shouldn't take it for granted.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Philip Graubart


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