A Thanksgiving Wish – Respect and Civility

A friend recently sent me a link to a 2017 video by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. That video contains many lessons for these divided and divisive times. It is a must watch.

The video is entitled “Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish Peoplehood.” Like much of Rabbi Sacks’ work, it is a succinct and wonderful description of those things that are the most important – and especially eloquent at this moment in history, three years later. His seven principles – and they apply to much more than “maintaining Jewish Peoplehood” – include:

(1) keep talking to each other, the opposite of the writer earlier mentioned; (2) listen to each other: we’ve heard quite a lot about the need to “listen” in recent times – and very properly so – but it cannot be only a one way communication; (3) understand those with whom you disagree – as an attorney, this is essential in my roles as litigator and transaction attorney – one cannot persuade if one does not understand the other side’s position; (4) never seek the defeat of others – give dignity; (5) if you seek respect, give respect; (6) you don’t have to agree with me, but you do have to demonstrate that you care.

For some time, and certainly during the just-ended campaign, the concepts of respect and civility have simply been left behind. Appalled by the perceived behavior of one particular politician, too many on the other side of the spectrum have actually engaged in precisely the same behavior. Name calling has become the norm. One person I know has gone far beyond calling those with whom he disagrees “deplorables,” but refers to all Republicans as “Republi-traitors.” Those who live in this echo chamber bubble refer to those who dare to disagree with them as racists and other names. When called on their lack of tolerance, the retort is a version of “I’m rubber – you’re glue.” One particularly despicable cartoon posted on the internet referred to the “paradox of tolerance” – and expressly called out all with whom the cartoonist (and those who agreed with the cartoonist’s viewpoint) disagreed as Nazis.

Essayist Joseph Epstein published an article about this last month – “The Tyranny of Tolerance”). As he explained, people who hold opinions different from their peers:

are judged by those who pride themselves on their tolerance as beyond the pale, stupid, harmful if not dangerous, and utterly – thank you Mrs. Clinton – deplorable. They are condemned as misogynist, racist, without empathy, unimaginative, ispo facto intolerant, and hence not to be tolerated. They need to be put down, shamed, cast out; all that they represent needs to be squashed, crushed, canceled. . . . Few are willing to risk that.

This effects personal relationships – families and friends dividing. One article is titled “No, I won’t disagree with you about this President. You’re just wrong.” According to this writer – and agreed to by many that I know – a person who disagreed was “telling me about your disregard for the lives of people of color, about your opinion of women, about your attitude toward Science [note the capital “S”], about the faith that you so loudly profess, and about your elemental disrespect for bedrock truth.”

And – this is the crux of the issue – he goes on:

I’m telling you this so that when the chair is empty this Thanksgiving, or the calls don’t come, or you meet with radio silence . . . I want you to know why: it’s because I have learned how morally incompatible we are. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or even love you, but it means proximity to you isn’t going to be healthy.

(emphasis added).

Except that is EXACTLY what it means – this person does NOT respect or love the person to whom he is writing. If he did, he could never say these things.

While these are comments about modern progressivism, there are clearly similar issues in “red” America – people on the right who have separated themselves from family and friends – in harsh terms – because of these kinds of disagreements. But in my circles, most of the people saying these kinds of things, demanding to be “unfriended” on Facebook by those who disagree, are on the progressive side of the spectrum. Moreover, from my observation, these kind of attitudes continue to become more mainstream on the left, while more fringe on the right. But both sides have the problem.

The truth is that the world is not black and white, but rather is gray more often than not. There are indeed, to be sure, some bedrock principles. No one should ever have to worry about driving or running while Black. Before the death of George Floyd, I had often heard about the “talk” that Black parents must have with their children – and that should never, ever have to happen – and since then, I’ve heard so many stories from so many professional colleagues of color of indignities that they’ve had to suffer in their personal and professional lives. The wrongness of these things is inviolate – and we MUST change them.

But overall, most things are not so simple and there is no “bedrock truth.” The hubris of certainty – the sureness that we – and only we (and those in our echo chamber) know all the answers, and that those who have a different perspective are not only wrong, but evil – that  hubris is the true evil. The truth is nuanced. “Compromise” is not a four-letter word. Nor is “civility.”

Mr. Pavlovitz is fundamentally wrong – and we must resist his call: we can and must love and respect those with whom we disagree, however strongly. Are there redlines? Of course – but they should be exceptions, not the rule – as they seem to be too often.

Recall the famous aphorism of Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” is telling. It is essential.

As we approach our smaller and often virtual Thanksgiving family gatherings, let us give the benefit of the doubt about the good faith of others. Let us be wise enough to know that we are all fallible, and be skeptical of those who claim to possess the “bedrock truth” from either side of the political spectrum. And, most important, to use a prayer from our Siddur that I have quoted often:

“Avinu Malkenu, bless my family with peace. Teach us to appreciate the treasure of our lives. Help us to find contentment in one another. Save us from dissension and jealousy; shield us from pettiness and rivalry. May selfish pride not divide us; may pride in one another unite us. Help us to renew our love for one another continually. In the light of your Torah grant us, your people Israel and all your children everywhere, health and fulfillment, harmony, peace, and joy. Amen.”

About the Author
David H. Levitt practices intellectual property and commercial litigation law in Chicago, and is a pro-Israel activist.
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