Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Discussing Difficult Issues: Is It Really Worth it?

I had two wonderful “virtual conversations” hosted by our shul in the past few weeks with two talented individuals about two completely unrelated topics, but I found that there was one particular topic that came up in both conversations and I found myself agreeing with one of my colleagues and not the other one.

On the night of Yom Haatzmaut, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rav David Stav.  As a community Rav and as the head of Tzohar, Rav Stav’s mission has been to bridge the gap between the religious and secular Jews in Israel.  We discussed his biggest surprises over the past twenty years in the religious life of the State of Israel, his view of the current Jewish secular relationship in Israel, the greatest challenges and opportunities for the religious Zionist community over the next ten years and even a heartwarming COVID story from the State of Israel.

This past Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt.  She is a writer living in New York City and she was an editor at the Forward and a reporter for Haaretz and her thoughtful essays and articles have appeared in numerous well-known publications.  She also does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  We discussed whether a halachically observant Jew can practice journalism in a way that doesn’t violate lashon hara, how we can ascertain the truth in today’s world of fake news, and what are the best practices for civil discourse about important but sensitive issues.

These were two completely different conversations, but there was one common issue in both of them.  Do we address difficult issues or should we try to avoid dealing with these issues because it will cause us more harm than good.  I asked Rav Stav what he thought about Rabbis weighing in on the current political gridlock in Israel from a theological viewpoint.  Should Rabbis weigh in about (1) whether it is appropriate to make political alliances with religious parties, secular parties and Arab parties that may have radically different perspectives than our own, (2) whether we should vote for the person or the policies and (3) other factors to consider as to who should lead our Jewish state.

I thought that perhaps religious thought leaders could have a robust discussion about the possibilities and challenges that have emanated from the current political gridlock in Israel.  His response was that Rabbis cause problems for themselves when Rabbis get involved with politics.  I expressed my concern that if the only religious figures that are expressing political views are extremist views then religious leaders will only be associated with extremism.  I expressed hope that religious thought leaders would be able to provide guidance or perspective on some of these issues based on our religious tradition.  I believe that these leaders could identify which of their analyses are based on religious values and which of their analyses are based on political or military considerations which are beyond the scope of Rabbinic expertise.  His response was that in practice it usually doesn’t work.  People know that when extremist Rabbis offer political opinions that they are extremist and don’t reflect mainstream Rabbis views.  He speaks to many people privately about political issues, but he thinks that it’s better for Rabbis to stay away from publicly weighing in on political matters.

Ms. Chizhik-Goldschmidt so beautifully expressed the tension inherent in journalism, that we must stand between the two Biblical passages of “lo teilech rachil b’amecha,” of not gossiping, and “lo taamod al dam rai’acha,” of not standing by the blood of friend.  Journalists have a responsibility to share with the public issues of public concern in a manner that does not violate the prohibition of lashon hara.  The Chafetz Chaim explains that, among other things, any negative speech that is being spread for a constructive purpose must be researched thoroughly so that the facts are true, there is no exaggeration and the intent is not to simply to attack someone and sell papers.  Unfortunately, most newspapers and magazines do not adhere to these guidelines, but these are the standards that every journalist should live by.  Avital firmly believes that we need to have difficult conversations about sensitive topics and learn how to discuss them thoughtfully and sensitively, whether we are discussing the religious community’s response to COVID restrictions or growing antisemitism in New York City.

I think that the question in both of these cases, whether it’s about Israeli politics, American politics, antisemitism or COVID in the orthodox community, is whether we want to take the easy way out, perhaps for good reason, because we just don’t know how to talk to each other and the backlash will just be too severe. This isn’t just a 21st century problem.  Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon expressed surprise if there was anyone in his generation who would actually accept rebuke from someone else and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah expressed surprise if there was anyone in his generation would know how to rebuke someone properly without embarrassing that person.  Effective communication has always been a challenge for us, and yet, we are so much better, I think, if we can learn how to communicate effectively and thoughtfully on the most delicate issues and not cede these conversations to the extremists.

Rav Yitzchak Ara’ama, author of Akedat Yitzchak, explains that “shalom,” or peace, is not the absence of conflict, but it is the harmonious working together of distinct and individual parts.  The harmony is not achieved by eliminating differences, but by coordinating the different aspects of each of us together, our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and failures, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  We can only achieve this shalom by agreeing to have these difficult conversations and by learning how to have them in an effective matter.  It means that we approach them with humility, cognizant of the fact that we may be wrong and the purpose of the conversation is not to win but to listen and learn.  It means that we approach them with sensitivity, in recognizing that there is a real person behind the opposing view and that we should not make an opponent feel inferior because of his position.

We pride ourselves that our Oceanside community doesn’t have a separate minyan or group for every demographic, be it religious observance or age, but we are one community with many different opinions that interacts and engages with each other.  We want everyone to benefit from everyone else’s perspective and I truly hope that we will merit the blessing of “shalom,” of harmonious existence that can serve as a model for the rest of society.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.