Civil Discourse: Reclaiming the Higher Ground

Even the most casual observer of the Jewish community over recent years will have noticed that we Jews seem to have a problem talking nicely to each other. Because this problem usually manifests itself publicly around thorny and contentious issues, it’s easy to read it as the inevitable result of the passions generated by the issues themselves, and not necessarily the people involved.

Well… maybe. If you’ve studied enough Talmud, you’ll surely know that our ancient sages did not always speak nicely to each other, though they preached it as a value. They were extremely solicitous of their personal honor and dignity, and they had a thoroughly contemporary concern with the issue of intellectual property. If you misappropriated someone else’s teaching and quoted it as your own, you would surely be called out on it.

As we move into the few remaining and very intense weeks of campaigning here in America, I am beginning to wonder whether or not this is a “Jewish problem,” or a “religious problem,” or maybe even an “American problem.” We are not the only ones who’ve got this disease.

As I observe it, more and more religious leaders are taking overtly public

positions on the presidential race. In the Jewish community, though there are many issues that concern us, it is Israel’s security and the Iranian threat that seems to be the great divider. But there are also deep divisions within the Christian community between the so-called “religious right” and more mainstream Christians on the traditional wedge issues of abortion rights, family values and so on. Just as recently as last Sunday, a number of Christian ministers decided to publicly challenge the Internal Revenue Service by delivering overtly political sermons in support of a particular candidate- a direct violation of the tax code regarding the church’s tax-exempt status. And there are surely rabbis who have, in ways both subtle and less subtle, made clear to their followers their feelings on who is the candidate of choice for America in this election — not to mention Israel’s upcoming election campaign.

With the candidates here in America hurling increasingly vitriolic accusations and insults against each other as the presidential race tightens, I am increasingly of the opinion that rather than representing some uniquely religious phenomenon, we of the various faith communities are simply mirroring the culture in which we live. We mirror it, and on so doing, we reinforce its own worst tendencies. We are hostile because the culture around us is hostile, and we are so acculturated that we behave and talk- in religious contexts- like the models that we see all around us.

When I look at the community of radical Islam, it is clear where the incitement of the masses comes from. It comes from the imams, who far too regularly use their Friday sermons to whip the masses into a frenzy. It is the religious leaders who have hijacked Islam, from madrassa to minaret, and utilized their outsized influence to breed hatred of Israel and the west.

I am certainly not looking to draw any kind of moral equivalence between the hijacking of Islam by its radical clerics and the fact that Jewish and Christian religious leaders are becoming more overtly political in increasingly strident tones. They are them, and we are us, and we are not them.

But we are us… and that should be enough of an issue to concern us. We have little difficulty looking at the Muslim community and identifying certain teachers of Islam as a source of hatred. Are we that honest when we look in the mirror and see ourselves? Have we — perhaps unconsciously — allowed our religious tradition to be used as, if not a source of hatred, then at least a source of division, that objectifies those with whom we differ and sees them as “less than” in the eyes of God and man?

All religious leadership needs to be held accountable for that which is taught in its name, whether by imam, priest, minister or rabbi. In a culture such as our own, where the pervasive and often corrosive influence of big-money advertising is overwhelming, and the often-shrieking commentators of the twenty-four hour cable news networks assault our ears and brains, perhaps the very best role for religion is to be quite the opposite. If it is indeed true, as we sing in the synagogue, that d’racheha darchei no’am, v’chol netivoteha shalom– its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace — perhaps the most valuable role of religion in the marketplace of ideas is to provide balance and perspective, to talk people off the metaphorical ledge instead of pushing them over it.

Is it possible that that’s what Isaiah was thinking of when he challenged us to be or lagoyim– a light unto the nations?

At the very least, I would like to think that religion should be aiding in the cause of reclaiming the preeminent importance of civil discourse in our country, not contributing to its demise. It’s something to keep in mind in the difficult weeks ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.