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Why Were Comments Disabled on My Last Article?

November 5, 2020 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

We can disagree vehemently and vote differently, but we cannot turn differences into divisiveness, or dialogue into bullying, vitriol, and demeaning language.

Last week, I wrote about why I believe rabbis should not tell people how to vote. While I feel strongly about why I think the candidate I voted for would bring about the results and policies I value most, I tried hard to communicate my thoughts in a way that wouldn’t indicate which candidate that I was pulling the lever for.

Nevertheless, the response came fast and was furious. Indeed, disabled comments (and probably will for this article as well) because they were so vicious from both sides. I am always grateful to receive feedback on my writing and was gratified so many chose to reach out to share their thoughts.

I must admit I was surprised by a theme that emerged. Many wrote that they agree in principle that rabbis shouldn’t mix religion and politics and shouldn’t endorse candidates or parties. Nevertheless, they continued, this election is different, it is exceptional, and it is irresponsible for a rabbi not to be forceful in communicating whom to vote for.

But that is as far as the common theme went, because the emails were then split between those who said this time is different because it is a moral obligation to not vote for Donald Trump while others said this time is different because it is a moral duty to vote for him. Amazingly, half who reached out challenged how I can dare be voting for Trump while the other half were outraged that I would be voting against him. Shockingly, there were people who brazen enough to say they could no longer listen to my Torah classes if I was voting for the “other” candidate, without even knowing which way I voted for at all!

Whoever wins this election, I fear that we have all lost. We have lost our sense of civility, of the ability to disagree agreeably and to allow others to come to conclusions different from our own. This is not who we are, who we are meant to be. To be clear, this is hardly solely a Jewish issue but a reflection of the polarization and division in the world today.

The problem, though, is we are not meant to be a reflection of the culture in which we live; we are intended to be a model and inspiration for that culture. The Netziv writes that the book of Genesis is called Sefer HaYashar, the Book of the Straight, because Abraham and his descendants were “yesharim,” they were straight, honest, had integrity and treated all people properly:

The greatness of the Patriarchs in addition to the fact that they were righteous, pious and lovers of God as much as possible, is that they were straight and honest. Namely, they interacted with the nations of the world, even repulsive, disgusting idolaters, with love and an effort to improve their lives since they too are part of God’s creation.

Our forefathers lived before the Torah was given. We learn about their lives in depth because we are charged with emulating their interpersonal behavior. Derech eretz kadma la’Torah – proper conduct, common courtesy, living with civility, all come before the Torah and are prerequisites to Torah. Abraham was called “Ivri” because he was me’eiver, on the other side of every issue from the rest of the world. He disagreed vehemently and passionately with his contemporaries but nevertheless he did so with civility and graciousness.

We can disagree vehemently, see things in polar opposite ways, behave differently, vote differently, pray differently, and root for different sports teams. What we cannot do is turn differences into divisiveness, or respectful debate and dialogue into bullying, vitriol, and demeaning language. We cannot call names or speak dismissively of others.

Yes, there will be times that we must take strong positions, or make decisions that will have real consequences and implications, but we must do so with respect, dignity, and civility. Not only is it inappropriate, incorrect and unacceptable to speak harshly, it is also ineffective. Nobody ever changed an opinion or observance because they were yelled at, called a name, or dismissed.

The more gentle, refined and respectful our communication, the likelier our position will be heard and perhaps even embraced. It is not a coincidence that the same Abraham who was on the other side of every debate, also succeeded in winning over thousands of followers. His methodology of respectful debate and the power of persuasion proved incredibly effective.

Let’s continue to disagree, but agreeably. Let’s continue vigorous debate, but respectfully, not divisively. Let’s truly be the progeny of Abraham and treat every human being with dignity and honor and thereby, please God, ourselves be worthy of being called yesharim, straight ones.

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