Gershon Hepner
Gershon Hepner

The Genesis of Civility    

Hardly anybody willingly cedes privilege, the desire to promote upward mobility producing in possessors of it an uncivil itch that cancels the cool culture of civility.

In Genesis we see this questioned quality in Sarah and in Rebekkah. Heschel thinks the quality of fairness leading to civility was fairer far than cleverness. I’d add: than equality. This quality is claimed by those who feel they are “progressive,” and ne plus ultra in their social list. Whereas the quality of kindness cannot be excessive,
seekers of equality with equity can never coexist.

Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks wrote in a devar torah for Lekh Lekha published on the web on 10/27/21 (“The Kindness of Strangers”):

In 1966 an eleven-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family to a white neighbourhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here . . .”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realise, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.

The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called chessed – “the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.” Civility, he adds, “itself may be seen as part of chessed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.” To this day, he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.”

Before ending his devar torah with a powerful quotation from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” Rabbi Sacks quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “When I was young I admired cleverness. Now that I am old I find I admire kindness more.” There is deep wisdom in those words. It is what led Eliezer to choose Rebecca to become Isaac’s wife and thus the first Jewish bride. Kindness brings redemption to the world and, as in the case of Stephen Carter, it can change lives.

In “Is There a Future for American Jews?” Sapir, 9/2/21, Bret Stephens writes:

Success in America is coming to be seen as a function not of individual merit but of a deeply rigged system that calls itself a meritocracy but is actually a self-serving plutocracy. And just who, according to this view, has rigged this system? Precisely the people who have most benefited from it and now have the “privilege” of standing atop it. By any empirical metric, in nearly every major institution, a disproportionate percentage of the meritocracy is Jewish. And the goal of nearly every social justice movement in the United States today is to tear that system down.

The great battering ram in this effort is “equity” — the “E” in that now-ubiquitous initialism D.E.I. In ordinary English, equity means fair play. In modern practice, it means a continuous process of legal or managerial interventions to achieve equality of outcomes based on considerations such as color or gender. Excellence might still matter in our institutions, but only after demands for this kind of equity have first been met.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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