A plea for civility and modesty

We are now in the middle of our holiday season. Armed by the hope and fear of Rosh Hashanah and the climax of Neilah on Yom Kippur, we should be able to look forward to the warm autumnal glow of Sukkot and the frenzied joy of Simchat Torah, knowing that winter is coming but safe in our communities and families.

But the insane political season is going on around us. It’s starting to feel as if we’re living in our sukkot full time, all day and all night all month, as incoming missiles hiss and spit nearby, barely missing us as we huddle. It’s been that bad.

It does seem to be upending convention. None of the rules of civility seem to apply any more. If you are a star, we are told, everything is available to you, and no one ever will say no — it’s a sort of weaponized version of Tevye’s lament, “If you’re rich, they think you really know.”

The rules of speed and of news cycle also seem to have blown up. News cycles last about 30 seconds, it seems; that’s all very exciting, but what’s an old-fashioned editorialist to do?

First, maybe, to take advantage of shifting conventions. We acknowledge, as we never used to, that the short weeks that we work during this month of Tishrei — otherwise known this year as October, the run-up to the elections — make it difficult not only to turn around stories, but also to write editorials that have not been left behind by more and more and more outrages, more extraordinary stories, more — well, let’s be blunt — and more insanity.

So I will acknowledge that I wrote this editorial on Tuesday morning, going into Yom Kippur. Somehow, not much changed in the 30 or so hours that I was offline, but I couldn’t have counted on that.

The political landscape that once seemed to be made of granite clearly is built on sand.

One inescapable lesson of this dismal season is the importance of civility. That’s a lesson we learn when we look at the world without civility. It’s an ugly place.

Another lesson is the importance of modesty. It’s a Jewish value, of course; it’s often thought of in the material sense, as the value of not flaunting physical attributes, but it’s much more than that.

It means not saying that you are the biggest, the richest, the smartest, the best. There is, of course, a practical reason for refraining from such statements — they are usually easily disprovable, often mortifyingly so. Successful braggarts can find themselves in over their heads, having to deal with situations for which they are entirely unqualified. But there is a deeper reason, too. Bragging — displaying a lack of humility — dispensing with modesty — is corrosive. It eats away at community. It demolishes humor, which relies on a certain amount of healthy self-deprecation, replacing it, at best, with heavy-handed sarcasm. (Or, to be honest, the attempt to disguise an insult as a joke.)

Please, please, as this autumn catches fire, as the leaves turn gold and as tempers smolder, let us work very hard to keep the world from exploding. Please.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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