Should JStreet be allowed to join the Conference of Presidents, American Judaism’s official, recognized umbrella organization? The answer is yes, but relax, this isn’t about JStreet (an organization I don’t support), or even about Judaism’s inherently pluralistic nature, or how we talk about each other, though I’ll get to that. It’s about revelation, which is to say it’s about truth – how we recognize and define truth in classic Jewish sources. And the challenges and responsibilities that flow from this definition.
Our earliest sages recognized the pluralistic nature of revelation. Rabbi Ishmael, a first century scholar, taught that God’s voice at Sinai was “like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces. . .every single word that emanated from the Holy One was split into seventy meanings.” In Pirkei Avot, Torah from Sinai literally bifurcates, dividing as it travels along the chain of tradition into two distinct schools – the followers of Hillel and Shammai. A later Talmudic passage clarifies that even though Hillel and Shammai disagreed about virtually every element of the original revelation, “both these and these are the words of the living God.” Hillel may light one candle the first night of Hanukkah while Shammai lights eight, but somehow God commanded both practices, simultaneously. Both opinions – differing opinions, contradictory opinions – are fully authentic. I can’t imagine a better active definition of pluralism.
But it’s not just about Hanukkah candles. On the same page that announces “these and these are the words of the living God,” the Talmud notes that Hillel and Shammai disagreed about the essential value of human life. Hillel claimed that it was a good thing that God created humans, but Shammai believed it was a mistake. It’s one thing to live in community with someone who lights Hanukkah candles differently than I. There’s an easy solution: buy two different menorahs and light them side by side. But the Talmud’s challenge here is exponentially deeper, more difficult, but also much more rewarding. Can I live in community with fellow Jews who disagree with me about a fundamental issue of human experience? Can I celebrate life, share a sacred destiny, learn with fellow Jews with whom I disagree about life’s most important questions? The Talmud says yes – insists that the answer is yes.
There’s something incredibly beautiful about this vision of a Jewish community where differing opinions, philosophies, policies, and conceptions are respectfully shared – lighting up the intellectual atmosphere like Hanukkah candles in the winter sky. But in reality, clashing opinions often just lead to more arguments, or worse. Which explains, at least to me, Judaism’s exaggerated and severe teachings about harmful language. All authoritative Jewish sources regard lashon hara, variously translated as “slander,” “gossip,” “tale bearing,” or, most literally “wicked language,” as worse than murder, worse than idolatry. I’ve only recently thought to connect our hyperbolic attitudes toward lashon hara with our challenge to develop a pluralistic public space. A pluralistic culture, by definition, is an argumentative culture. And arguments can get out of hand. We may use words we come to regret, words that inflame, that wound, that destroy – “wicked language.”
I recently read an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post that compared members of JStreet to the Judenrat, the mostly corrupt and wicked local Jewish organizations that cooperated with the Nazis in sending Jews to their deaths. Maybe I’m oversensitive to the comparison because my great aunt who I was very fond of was beaten up by thugs from the Judenrat and left to die (she survived and lived into her eighties). But if we can’t avoid Nazi imagery in talking about each other, it’s hard to see how we’ll survive as one people. The Judenrat accusation is only the most outrageous slander I’ve read in the past month about JStreet. I also regularly encounter terms like “enemy” or “brown shirts” or “treason.” All this for an organization with some different ideas on how American Jews should respond to the conflict (ideas I disagree with), but only a slightly different idea of how the conflict should end
Again, the issue isn’t if or when JStreet joins the mainstream. The issue is can we maintain a mainstream? Can the center hold? Is the Talmud’s remarkable vision – a vision that’s guided us for 2000 years – viable, or is it naïve nonsense? Can our pluralistic notion of revelation, which we celebrate next week on Shavuot, survive the 21st century? The Talmud assures us that despite their many disagreements, the followers of Hillel and Shammai celebrated and socialized together, and even married each other. How did they pull that off? They watched their language.