How Jews Should Argue

Before I left for my Israeli vacation, I began following the brouhaha over the suggestion by a yeshiva high school that its students send a thank-you letter to the president for his decision concerning Jerusalem and a similar suggestion by a local rabbi to his congregants from his pulpit. And I was able to keep up with the discussion of that issue on the Eastern side of the Atlantic/Mediterranean. (Who knew that the entire print Jewish Standard was available online? Well, I should have, but I didn’t. And now I do.)

As with many things Jewish, I have an opinion about these decisions — I think they were mistakes. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m the proud father of four alumnae of the yeshiva in question, who’s forever grateful to it for the wonderful education my children received. And I’m an admirer of its principal, whom I’ve known since his brit — which I attended — and whose father has been a close friend for, literally (and I mean that literally), 65 years. As for the rabbi, I deeply respect his erudition and honesty, have been his congregant and student for about 30 years, and pray that our friendship will continue for many more years. But on this particular issue I disagree with them, confident that this disagreement will not in any way negatively impact on our relationships.

But the purpose of this column isn’t to discuss the substance of this issue, because there’s really nothing I could say that would be new or add anything to all the (real and virtual) ink that’s already been spilled. And therefore I wouldn’t be saying anything but for the fact that the Standard’s January 26 issue contained an article about this kerfuffle, and the discussion continued in three letters-to-the-editor in the next week’s issue. (And three more in the current one. Page 40.) The third made its arguments — with which I disagree — in a calm and thoughtful manner. Jews have been disagreeing for millennia, and if we are to continue to do so in the future, this is how we should do it. Calmly and thoughtfully.

The first, however, while making some cogent arguments (again, ones with which I disagree), unfortunately sunk to the level of referring to “the whining of liberal sore losers,” making a snide remark about a columnist’s “supposed Talmudic knowledge,” and putting quotation marks around the word rabbi when referring to a Reform rabbi. The letter writer referred to Elie Wiesel as his former professor. Yet I don’t recall that soft-spoken and eloquent professor ever having to debase others to make the arguments that he made so persuasively.

The second letter was the worst. Part of it responded to the following comment from Rabbi Ozer Glickman: “I concur that the U.S. recognition of Israel as the declared capital of Israel is long overdue. I believe, however, that the timing of the letter-writing campaign was unfortunate. It coincided with the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. during an episode in which the president was reported to have used racist speech. Soliciting students to write letters when many American citizens are troubled by apparent racism betrays a certain tone-deafness that sometimes afflicts the Orthodox community. It says that we don’t care what someone says or does as long as they look out for our interests. That is a terrible message.”

The letter writer, after quoting the snippet about timing, wrote: “Seriously! When would be the correct timing? . . . . Shame on Ozer Glickman. Shame on self-hating Jews.”

Shame? Self-hating Jews?? SELF-HATING JEWS?!?! You express disagreement with someone or something and you become a self-hating Jew? First of all, what does that even mean? Literally, I guess it’s a Jew who hates himself. But since that’s not what it seems to mean in this context, I’ll assume it’s simply a sloppy way of referring to a Jew who hates things Jewish.

So Rabbi Glickman — a RIETS rosh yeshiva, parent of five alumni of the high school whose decision he questioned, grandparent of a current student, former vice president of the school’s board, a person who devotes some of his very limited personal time when he’s not in the beit midrash or boardroom to teaching Torah to adults in our community (for no compensation, just out of love of teaching and Torah), and who is invited to lecture to Jewish groups around the country and as a scholar in residence in many Orthodox shuls in America and beyond (and I can go on and on) — is really, underneath it all, a self-hating Jew. Why? Not because he disagrees with the president’s declaration — which he doesn’t — but simply because he thought the timing was wrong. How easy it is to become self-hating nowadays, though it’s not exactly clear what you hate — Torah, mitzvot, observance, Zionism, Israel, Jerusalem? But it doesn’t seem to matter; say something a letter writer disagrees with no matter how minor, and self-hating Jew you are.

I admit I’m not completely unbiased. R. Glickman was one of my first virtual friends on Facebook, who became an actual friend as we chatted over drinks at Lazy Bean a couple of years back, which led to many other interactions, including my becoming one of his students at his local shiurim. And as he knows well, and as we have discussed many times, we agree on much and disagree on probably more — serious Jewish issues, political issues, social issues, economic issues. But always with substance, almost always with each of us really trying to listen to the opposing arguments, and perhaps, most important, always with respect for the other.

(After writing this column but before submitting it, I read R. Glickman’s article in last week’s Standard. In it, he says some of the things I’m saying here, though more articulately. Nonetheless, it’s important to me that my voice be joined with his on this issue.)

That’s the way Jews should argue; not with ad hominem attacks or snide, nasty, and too often silly comments, but thoughtfully and respectfully. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have to be dispassionate; indeed, I was deeply moved when a friend once told me that she admired my passion for ideas and issues. But passion is not the same as attack and insult. Passion is how you express what you feel, what you believe in, what touches your soul and your spirit. It is not how you attack or insult others.

And it is because of this degradation of argument — a weakness shared by both the right and the left (where I more often find myself) — that I have mainly stopped talking politics. Such talk, I have found too often recently, results in closed ears, little mutual understanding, bad feelings, and harmed relationships.

But not always. I have a friend, as good a conservative as I am a liberal, with whom I know I can discuss such issues and still sit down with him and his wife at his Shabbat table or mine and continue the discussion in friendship and without rancor. Not as whining sore losers, or fascists, or racists, or self-hating Jews; just two friends who want only the best for the Jewish People, the State of Israel, and America, but often disagree — sometimes strongly, often passionately — about the best path to get there.

That’s how Jews should argue.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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