Mattot Masei – Tolerating Dissent The level of discord has become so heated in our community and our country, it threatens our ability to allow […]
Mattot Masei – Tolerating Dissent
The level of discord has become so heated in our community and our country, it threatens our ability to allow for disagreement. If you express and opinion that is contrary to the other’s perceptions of what your opinion should be – you are vilified, threatened, persecuted and cancelled. There are so many examples of this every day – a polarized world with no room for nuance and different opinions.
This past week, a New York Times editor and journalist Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times. I admire her as a writer and thinker. She wrote an extraordinary piece after the shootings in Pittsburgh and her book on How to Fight Anti-Semitism thoughtfully analyzes the history, prevalence and responses necessary to this growing evil. While her political opinions often differ from mine, she makes me think more deeply and challenges my conclusions.
But things have become so polarized, and differing opinions have been nullified, she felt she had no option, but to resign. Please do read the resignation letter she submitted. A piece of what she had to endure is the current gathering in like-minded silos that brook no dissent. She writes that stories are “told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions….intellectual curiosity – let alone risk-taking – is now a liability at the Times.”
Her letter describes her character being assaulted openly on Slack channels, axe emojis posted next to her name and insistence that she be rooted out of the paper. Her colleagues were often inhospitable to her work on antisemitism. She writes: “I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.” When journalism and other leaders – including rabbis – live in fear of upsetting someone who might then make their lives miserable, we are worse off as a society. Jodi Rudoren, the editor of the Forward writes: “A New York Times without Bari Weiss’s voice…. is thinner, duller less original and just plain less valuable for all of us who depend on it.”
This is pervading our world! That Dr. Fauci – whose integrity and devotion to facts and our well-being – is being attacked by those inside the administration is similarly alarming. In his words, it is “bizarre.” What purpose does undermining a man of great credibility and conscience, who is relying on science, serve? And the answer sadly is that even science and integrity cannot stand in the way of a particular political motivation that brooks no dissent. How tragic – especially when listening to him means saving lives and ignoring him means losing lives.
Can we reorient ourselves to listening to points of view with which we disagree? Can each of us stay connected to those with whom we disagree? This is a call I have been speaking about for years and which I believe is even more important today.
This week’s Torah portion has an interesting scene depicting an existential disagreement. (Numbers 32 – p. 949). We are on the brink of entering the Promised Land, and suddenly the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manesseh ask to stay on the other side of the Jordan. Their reasoning is that they have so much cattle and the land on the other side of the Jordan is a better place for cattle grazing. Think about that moment – I imagine Moses must have felt absolutely betrayed – forty years focused on one goal -settling in the Promised Land. Then they abandon the vision of settling the land together for economic well being?! In verse 6 we see that Moses indeed gets angry: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? And then he brings up another point, “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land the Lord has given them?” Moses understand the potential ripple affect – not only by abandoning a sacred vision, but influencing others who may lose their resolve. He mentions the spies and the impact their actions had on the people. He is so angry, in verse 14 he calls them a group of “sinful men” who have provoked “God’s wrath.” What anger!
If you stop the story right here and ask, “What do you think will happen?” it is hard to think of a positive outcome. It could have been civil war.
But Moses will not sever relationship. While he may oppose their opinions and question their motives, he remains connected. The tribes also stay connected to him and state their case. Moses listens as they clarify that they will remain part of the people – serving on the front lines of the conquest and remaining until the land is fully conquered. They reaffirm their connection to community. Moses agrees under these conditions, yet if you read carefully, you see that he is not fully satisfied with their explanation. When they say they desire to build “folds for their flocks and towns for their children” – in his response Moses reverses the order and tells them to build “towns for their children and folds for their flocks.” He reminds them that their priority should be their children and not their economic well-being!
And as he responds repeats the word “the Lord” six times in the space of four verses (vv. 20 -23). He reminds them that they owe loyalty to God above all else and hints that their loyalty is only to their own well-being. Yet despite his doubts, he allows them to settle on the other side of the Jordan.
What we learn from this encounter is the power of accepting difference and uniqueness – even when we fundamentally disagree. While warning them to see a larger picture and consequences of their decisions, Moses accepts that the petition of the two and a half tribes flows from their uniqueness and their difference – they indeed wanted a place more suitable for cattle raising and understood their ongoing responsibility to broader community. Rabbi Avital Hochstein writes: “Between the lines of the petition of the two and a half tribes emerges the claim that is wrong to demand uniformity, and to understand equality as the erasure of individuality.”
It is this resolution: listening, allowing for different opinion, finding common ground that is being lost in our current world. Affirming a breadth of points of view does mean we do not fight for the truths we embrace. It does not mean that when we encounter those with whom we disagree on fundamental issues we are not vehement in expressing and seeking to realize our vision of what should be. There are times and people whose opinions are so hurtful we cannot tolerate them being expressed – but that should be the exception and not the rule. The rule should be to seek to stay engaged with one another and not cancel out an opinion with whom we disagree.
One of the painful ironies of Bari Weiss’ resignation is that she fought valiantly to esteem different points of view and bring them together. In a sermon in 2018, I shared a story Bari Weiss wrote about seeking out a person with who she passionately disagreed with ideologically, and getting to know them. She reached out to Eve Peyer, a woman far to her left and sought to make a connection. The article was about how the women who had turned each other into despised caricatures found connection. They began by talking about relationships, love and how they grew up. They talked about what it felt like to be bullied simply for a particular political viewpoint and allowed themselves to be vulnerable. They shared stories of Jewish upbringings, being women writers and how social media has the tendency to flatten people and does not lend itself to thoughtfulness or nuance – instead rewarding bombast and aggression. They began to live what they believed – that cultivating relationships with ideologically diverse groups helps you better understand your own convictions. They connected over feeling exhausted by the hyper-politicized world we live in and over baking bread.
When we know someone as a person, we are able to hold together amidst disagreement and even hurt. In a week where we are reading of some African American athletes and entertainers saying outrageously hurtful things about Jews and Judaism, I am encouraged by the fact that Jewish leaders created an opportunity to talk, share pain, ask them to rethink positions. It resulted in public apologies and moving away from hurtful stances. I do not know if their shifting positions are sincere, but I do know that it is only through relationship and connection that we can heal and help one another understand our pain and point of view. I believe that those who stay in relationship and continue to learn and speak out, should be embraced by our community.
Hold onto and be inspired by these stories. Let them guide us to reach out rather than respond with invective. This has happened repeatedly and gives room for hope. Hold on to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles who met with Nick Cannon twice this week after Cannon’s outrageous antisemitic statements. Cannon has apologized and will continue to meet with Rabbi Cooper. Rabbi Cooper said, “My goal in any of these meetings, more than anything else, is to try to replace the stereotype with a human being…My main message is: I’m ready to respect you if you’re ready to respect me.”
There is a different way than the cancel culture that is so pervasive – it is connection, empathy, respect, reaching out and relationship. We need more connection and less invective – in our media, in our politics, in our communities and in our personal lives. Let’s work to bring this about. Shabbat Shalom.