Division, destruction, desecration: on the violence in Washington

The Talmud teaches that division eventually leads to destruction and desecration. The Temple was destroyed, the Talmud says, because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and division among the Jewish people. This led to the destruction of the Temple and to its desecration. The Talmud says Titus, who came to destroy the Temple, also defiled and desecrated it; he brought a harlot into the holy of holies, spread out a Torah on the floor and there had his way with her.

We live in a time when Americans are deeply divided and we saw this past week how it led to violence and destruction, and ultimately to desecration. Our democracy is unprecedented in the history of the world, it is I daresay holy, and so the building that houses that democracy is holy space. To see it broken, to see those who did not belong in its seats sitting casually, brought us a sense of destruction and defilement.

Machloket, argument, in Judaism is okay. It’s what we thrive on. But the Talmud says there is a difference between machloket for the sake of Heaven and machloket that is not for the sake of heaven. What is the example? The argument for the sake of heaven is the argument between Shammai and Hillel. The argument not for the sake of heaven is that between Korach and Moshe. What’s the difference? (Indeed, in many ways Korach was probably right, he was arguing for democratic leadership – that Moshe shouldn’t just make himself the leader.) I think the answer isn’t so much in the content of the arguments but in their method. For Hillel and Shammai, it was not personal, it was about ideas and they retained their love and unity. The Talmud says that even though they disagreed on matters of Jewish law pertaining to marriage, they were still willing to marry into each other’s families. But for Korach, it was personal. He was upset because Moses, his cousin, was the leader and he was not chosen to be the leader. It was not just about ideas; he was trying to dethrone Moses.

The Talmud tells us that Hillel would mention the words of Beit Shammai before his own. When we can understand the other side, when we can understand the argument of those who are in opposition-only then should we argue for our side. When our arguments can stay on the level of ideas and not become about personal violence, not become about personal hatred, then those are arguments for the sake of heaven, and those kinds of arguments do not lead to destruction and defilement. We must learn this lesson from Judaism: that how we argue is not a small matter, in fact, it is everything.

We are Kesher Israel, the synagogue that is closest to those holy places of democracy. It is our job to set a Jewish example for our country and our world. It is we who have the potential, and I think the obligation, to model unity, to model what it means to disagree with each other, perhaps vehemently – about politics, about religion, about society – and yet for it to be an argument for the sake of heaven, for it to be an argument which does not devolve into violence, desecration and hatred, but rather inherent in our arguments with each other there is deep respect.

About the Author
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW, MA, LCSW, is the Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. He is a founder of the blog Morethodoxy.org, the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2008), and a periodic contributor to Conversations: The Journal of Jewish Ideas and Ideals and The Washington Jewish Week. He holds a Certificate in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
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