From the Desk of Rabbi
In April, 2016, New York Times columnist, Arthur Brooks, wrote, "Liberals should be liberals and conservatives should be conservatives. But our duty is to be respectful, fair and friendly to all, even those with whom we have great differences.” The title of the article was "Bipartisanship isn’t for wimps, after all.” Brooks was right. We’ll always debate issues we hold dearly; but, Judaism has taught us to debate for the sake of heaven. How do we know if we’re arguing for the sake of heaven? In the 17th century, a rabbi taught, "This is how you know: if the [debaters] love each other completely in heart and soul, then that is a sign that their argument is for the sake of heaven. But if they are enemies, and they bear hatred for each other — that is not for the sake of heaven, and Evil will live inside them.”
Criticism is a healthy part of debate; when it’s constructively expressed it enables us to hear each other. Contempt leaves no room for debate; it’s a reliable signal of impending doom. It’s as true about marriage and relationships as it is about the fabric of our nation. The question is, "What kind of disagreements are we going to have with each other?” Will they flow from mutual respect or will they emerge from unmitigated aversion.
History proves that arguing our differences with unmitigated aversion leads to objectifying and demonizing our foes. The results have led to social marginalization at best and ethnic cleansing at worst. Arguing and debating with mutual respect, even if it isn’t with love in our hearts and souls, has always proven to be the nobler way.
Barbara Tuchman wrote, "[Truth, justice, and temperance] may in truth be in every man’s power, [but] they have less chance in our system than money and ruthless ambition to prevail at the ballot box. The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz. Perhaps better men flourish in better times and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams was right, and government is ‘little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow.” (Tuchman Barbara W. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Ballantine Books, 1984. Epilogue p.387.)
We’ll all have to decide which times we’re entering, brilliance and endeavor or decline and shadow. Whichever one we choose is a matter of opinion; but, how we act is not. Our faith and culture demand that we challenge our adversaries only through means of civil justice granted us by the Constitution and laws of the land. Violence and demonization are not answers. Our hope is that everybody will adhere to the highest values of their respective faiths and cultures in order to achieve the greatest good for our country. In 1984, Barbara Tuchman wrote about the follies of civilizations and nations of the past, including our own but only in hindsight. She couldn’t have foreseen the unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves, today. Nevertheless, she warned us about them.
Let all lovers of America debate our future with hearts and souls turned in affection to each other for the sake of Heaven; and, may all our efforts be worthy of God’s blessing on our great land.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
November 11, 2016
Veteran’s Day is a day to honor every American who served in the armed forces to defend our country. It’s a day to give thanks to those who honor the American dream inscribed in the Constitution, and emblazoned on memorials and public buildings across our great land. It’s a time to remember our hope symbolized by the Liberty Bell and its famous inscription from Torah (Leviticus 25:10) "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants.” On Friday, November 11th, at 6:30pm at Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, we will honor our veterans with a blessing and the singing of "God Bless America”.
The hallmarks of our nation have upheld us through war, political corruption, and civil unrest. We have reached high to overcome inequality and to achieve rights for women and minorities. We have placed trust into the hands of those who were newcomers to us but who shared our outlook for America. But, never have we faced a president-elect who blatantly and freely spoke of nearly every demographic in pejorative and racist terms. For or against him, his branded message precedes him. The effects have been swift and immediate. Swastikas have appeared on storefronts and southern synagogues were threatened with a letter that said, in effect, "We’re coming into the synagogues to finish the job” of Dylan Roof, the Charleston church shooter. These are not just words. We know that from history.
What to do? What to say? Congregation Beth Israel has weathered many storms in its 162 year history in Houston. Judaism’s Golden Rules have helped us endure: "Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18), "Do not wrong the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (found 36 times in Torah), and, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others” (Mishnah).
We were separated only at the election booth; but, now we stand together as one people under one God. As Americans and Jews, we find in the values of our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and sacred Jewish teachings the aspirations of our nation. Our obligations to our country and each other remain the same: to uphold the Constitution; to provide for the common good; and, to live by a sacred standard, which for us is inherent in our Torah, a symbol of the covenant you and I make with Adonai, our God.
May we join in prayer now and always with these words:
May we choose life and good, that our children may inherit from us the blessings of dignity and freedom, prosperity and peace.
we have the vision to see that each of us, in some measure, can help to realize
God bless you and your family. God bless America.
Rabbi David Lyon
From the Desk of Rabbi
David Brooks is a brilliant and insightful writer for the New York Times. You send me links to his articles to read, especially when he touches a Jewish subject. This week, he touched a Jewish subject with a reference to Martin Buber, a 20th century Jewish theologian. But, please don’t send me a link to his article this week. He got it only half right; even my recent 10th grade Confirmation students could tell you so.
In short, Martin Buber, by way of his famous description of relationships as being either I-it or I-Thou, taught us that "All real living is meeting.” It’s also translated from the German to mean, "All real living is encounter.” Okay, we get that I-it is a subjective and utilitarian relationship like the one we typically have between us and a waiter or the UPS driver. And, we understand that an I-Thou relationship is the one in which we go deeper to "encounter” another without any judgment, criticism or utility. However, Brooks failed to finish his article (maybe due to space restrictions) and highlight the greater goal of the I-Thou encounter. It wasn’t only to grow as persons, it was also to find in the I-Thou that which is always present while we are sometimes absent, namely, the Eternal Thou. Yes, God.
Every I-Thou relationship is fated to be an I-it relationship. Once we exit the I-Thou encounter we can discover that we’ve grown by virtue of sharing one’s self, without ever losing any part of one’s self. We move in and out of it with a goal to encounter and meet each other as often as we can. The motivation to encounter again is to experience the Eternal Thou that is present to us only when we move beyond the utilitarian nature of relationships. In addition to these human relationships, Buber submitted that we can expect the same between us and nature or between us and an animal.
I’m a fan of David Brooks, but using Buber as a means of addressing polarization of Americans was not for me an I-Thou experience. Even if it had been, I’d still question whether or not the Americans I might meet would have said they encountered the same God that I, and many Americans like me, might search for or know. If we aren’t able to seek and know One God, a universal God who loves all God’s creations and in Whose image we are all created, then the possibility of healing a fractured nation will have to begin somewhere else and by some other means. If America will ever be greater than it is, it must include people like you and me and so many other diverse human beings. But, as long as there are those who think otherwise, and would be happier without us, then I don’t think we’ll have to worry about building walls to keep people out of America.
Brooks was right that Martin Buber sought to reconcile his parents’ divorce with faith in an unconditionally loving God he found in "meeting” others. If Americans can ever be reconciled to each other, then let it be reflected in words, deeds, and encounters that increasingly bring honor to God.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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