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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


Last week, Shmuley Boteach wrote a very long article titled “Who Owns the Truth?” I fully agree with most of what he said. What follows is my edited rendition of his article:

There is something rotten in America. We all feel it in our bones. There is a deep sense of unease. A disturbing sense of anxiety. A gnawing feeling that something is desperately wrong. But we can’t quite put our finger on it. We think it’s the deep partisanship that has gripped our nation and the abominable hatred between left and right.                                     

But these are merely symptoms of a much more serious disease.

First, we Americans bore witness to the death of decency, as public political life became about both parties bludgeoning each other with embarrassing insults and degrading put-downs.

But what has died in America is truth itself. Not, as some writers have argued, because President Donald Trump believes in “alternative facts” or because the Democrats hate him so much that they will never give him his due. No, the death of truth has come about because we have forgotten that no one party or individual ever owns the truth.

Truth is not monolithic but complex. It is not singular but multifaceted. It is not masculine or feminine, but it is created through the synergy of both. Truth is comprised of right and left joining together and enriching one another to create a higher, more colorful whole.

China has no truth because it is controlled by one party who makes it up. Russia has no truth because it is determined by the whims of a dictator’s daily distortions. But America has truth because it has two parties representing differing views which — even when they disagree — coalesce into the vibrant harmony of democracy. I am shocked that we have reached the stage where we wish the other party would simply disappear.

Jews have known this verity - that no one party or person has the absolute truth and that truth is comprised of different pieces that cohere...

...We have never sought to impose our views upon the rest of the world, save one: The belief that God created every human equally in His image and, therefore, every human’s input and viewpoint matters. Jews hate totalitarianism because it imposes one viewpoint on all mankind. Find a dictator — from the extreme right, like Hitler, or the extreme left, like Stalin — and you will see that they identified the Jews as their foremost enemies.

We Jews know, as Maimonides said 900 years ago, that while we categorically reject Jesus as the Messiah, we accept that his followers have brought the knowledge of God and the Bible to people around the world; and that while we reject the prophecy of Muhammad we embrace Islam’s emphasis on the one true God. We do not seek to have Christians or Muslims become Jewish but rather to practice their own faiths peacefully and harmoniously.

Perhaps the greatest proof of modern American soullessness is the right’s and left’s insistence that they alone have the truth and their wish that the other side would be swallowed by the earth like Korach. That there is nothing to be gained by political opposition. That conservatives are brain-dead, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals and that liberals are smug, arrogant, out-of-touch elitists.

Underlying the conflict in America is something much more profound and of far greater consequence than political partisanship. America is facing a crisis of barren intellectual complexity and a void of spiritual depth.

In our partisanship, we fail to see the humanity in one another. In our self-absorption, we fail to see the blessing of otherness. And in our hatred for views that differ from our own, we are becoming intellectually impoverished and emotionally warped. Our anger and our need to demonize one another betrays a stunning lack of vision. We can no longer see God’s countenance in a Republican or the spark of God in a Democrat. What we see instead is a demon.

Is this the America that Democrats and Republicans wish to inhabit? Will we be uplifted by the blessings of the world’s greatest economy or corrupted with a feeling that 50 percent of America is superfluous?

I will not take sides on the Brett Kavanaugh battle, not only because he has been confirmed and the matter decided, but because it would immediately put me into a box where I would lose half my readership when my essential message of American unity is critical to both right and left. Republicans see a good man wrongfully accused without evidence. Democrats see someone accused of sexual assault who displayed behavior unbecoming a federal judge elevated to the nation’s highest court.

But one side’s need to demonize the other is an affront to decency and ethics. To understand just how far we’ve taken our political differences, one need only scan the titles of the op-eds being written in America’s most prestigious news publications. Editorials covering the affair seemed to show little interest in offering a cool-headed, holistic take on the topic, opting instead to breathe fire into the minds of their readers. The New York Times ran columns calling Kavanaugh’s confirmation “A Complete National Disgrace,” along with another asserting that “The Jocks Will Inherit the Earth.” Another column was given the all-too telling headline: “Liberals, This Is War.” The commentator who wrote that piece summed up Kavanaugh’s confirmation with the simple, if not a bit hyperbolic, instruction to readers to “rend your garments.”

When Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, my friend of 25 years and now my senator from New Jersey, called Kavanaugh evil and said that it did not much matter whether he was innocent or guilty, he was not trampling on due process or the presumption of innocence alone. Rather, he was trespassing on his own stellar resume as a Stanford — and Yale-educated Rhodes scholar and on the Torah we’ve studied together and love.

For surely it is a man’s innocence or guilt that will determine his righteousness before God and fellow man.

Conversely, those Republicans who could not hear the aggrieved dignity and sense of violated humanity in Christine Blasey Ford’s soul-searing and heart-wrenching testimony have allowed partisanship to stifle their souls.

And how do the two co-exist? How could Kavanaugh and Ford both be telling the truth when one had to be wrong? How can we embrace competing narratives that contradict? How can antagonistic stories cohere?

Sometimes we frail and mortal human beings must admit, we just don’t know. Unlike God, we are not all-knowing. Unlike our Creator, we are not all-seeing. We just don’t know. And at such times we must fall back on the rules, law, and customs — some God-given, others mandated by the framers of our Constitution — that govern our democracy and move forward. And, for the love of God, stop abusing and hating each other..."

So, how do we do that? There is a brilliant metaphor of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, in his Chassidic masterpiece, “Tanya:"

"There, he uses a metaphor of the two wings of a bird. It’s not enough for the bird to have two wings. For if the wings were on the same side of its body, it would just flop around endlessly and never fly. The emphasis is not on the number of wings, but on their placement. They have to be positioned on opposite sides and against each other. There has to be antithetical propulsion. In other words, you can’t be right-wing without a left-wing, nor left-wing without the right-wing. Two sides pushing against each other is what gives the bird flight.

America today is guilty of believing in tolerance — that you have to endure someone else’s opinion because it is their human right to express it. And what’s happening is, because we believe in tolerance, we now are becoming intolerant since we believe the other side is damaging democracy. If we believe in the other side only for the sake of democracy, then when we believe the other side threatens democracy, we will seek to silence it. That’s why we see these large gatherings trying to silence members of Congress, or right-wing bloggers calling liberals “devils.” We must go beyond tolerance to actually understand that truth is comprised of different parts that cohere, even when they conflict.

We must go beyond tolerance to actually understand that truth is comprised of different parts, that I cannot hold my position or be complete in my viewpoint unless there is someone who pushes up against the bulwark of my understanding and challenges me.

Isn’t this the idea of marriage? In parshas Bereishis, God creates Eve to serve as Adam’s “helpmate who is against him.” It is a fascinating phrase. Eve is not meant to be Adam’s doppelganger. She is not meant to be subservient. Being so is said to be cursed. Rather, she is his equal who sometimes works together with him and sometimes opposes him — even when doing so is always as his helpmate.

Which is more correct, being a man or being a woman? It’s a stupid question, isn’t it, predicated on the fraudulent belief that one is complete without the other.

And this does not apply only to marriage but to the entirety of the masculine and feminine energies in our world, competing dualities that ultimately cohere. They are essential for one another, one balances the other, softens the other. A man does not tolerate a woman, nor a woman a man. Rather, they look forward to joining together with each other to create a greater whole, all in the belief that each side has its virtues and through togetherness they are enriched...

...In the realm of politics, liberals’ demonization of conservatives and vice versa comes from the fake belief that one is superfluous, even damaging, to democracy. Conservatives might be right that when it comes to immigration, in an age of terrorism we need to be a bit more circumspect, due to potential infiltration by terrorists, as we saw tragically in San Bernardino and across the European continent. But if they didn’t have the voice of liberals saying that America must always be open to asylum-seekers and refugees, is it not possible that America might cease to be the “land of the free and the home of brave”?

Conversely, if Democrats were to practice the policies that were embraced by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel — a complete open-door policy that lets anybody in — it might lead to the backlash against immigration that is shoring up the extreme right in Europe. Both voices are necessary to have balance... 

..For an appreciation of the other side to happen, you need each side to appreciate not only that the other must be tolerant, but that truth comes not in one form, but broken into parts. Truth is not a singularity but is rather multifaceted and complex. Democrats are convinced that they have the whole truth and that there’s nothing to learn from Republicans. Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. Each condemns and demonizes the other, holding on to their ultimate copyright to truth...

...In a similar vein, we’re seeing the balkanization of media, where CNN, MSNBC and Fox News viewers wouldn’t dare to cross sides, each believing that the other lacks even a modicum of truth. Sure, they’ll tolerate one another being on the air. There won’t be calls for a ban. But, how often will someone of one viewpoint watch a rival station for any other reason than to be fired up with anger, even hate?

In Parshas Noach God says that every species lends itself to a more complete whole. God doesn’t just choose the larger, more robust animals in Noah’s time. He says that they must all come along in the ark, for each one of them is, in its own way, essential. The same is true of why Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people. The midrash relates that he was a shepherd who took his flock out to pasture. A small sheep went missing. Moses would not return without finding the little critter. Not because he believed in the individual sheep, but because the flock would have been imperfect without it.

The Bible says that every man and woman is a tree in the field. It’s a telling metaphor. A tree is rooted in its own soil but grows out and helps oxygenate the air. It represents the individual who is passionate about their culture and identity, but is not limited by it, participating instead in a wider multi-ethnic society. Together, these healthy individuals comprise a colorful orchard, each contributing its own shade. The orchard is a garden of all different plants, flowers, shrubs and trees. Each plant draws upon its own root but comprises an essential part of a larger garden...

...To be sure, not everything fits into the garden and not everything would be accepted in Noah’s Ark. If there is a predator that wants to devour, then you fence it out of the garden. You leave it off the ship. It has no positive contribution to make. If one seeks to discriminate against or silence another, they should be kept out...

...I don’t expect the political differences between us Americans to disappear overnight. I am realistic about the depth of the chasm. I do wish, however, that we wake up to how bad it has gotten and begin discussing remedies...

...This is our country. It is the greatest country. We must act now to heal our beloved home and finally draw its warring factions together as one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.