Congregation B'nai Israel

2710 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604 | (203) 336-1858 | |

  • Find us on Facebook

Civility in Contentious Times

Civility in Contentious Times                      Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779/2018
Rabbi James Prosnit
Over the course of the past year I have had conversations with a number of you as to the role of the synagogue and the pulpit in these contentious times. Some of you have wished we would be more outspoken in critique of the current policies of the administration and others have felt that any reference should be off limits. The Temple must be a voice of social justice or I come to the Temple to escape the headlines and yearn for some respite from the politics of the day, or I think politics and religion should not mix, especially if you’re going to talk about a subject on which I disagree. 

For generations rabbis at B’nai Israel have been accorded “freedom of the pulpit,” the time-honored tradition that clergy may speak their mind and conscience without jeopardizing their tenure. Thankfully, the lay leaders and the vast majority of congregants have recognized that the role of the preacher, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously said, is not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. But like all privileges, freedom of the pulpit is one that even rabbis secure in their positions must exercise responsibly and respectfully. And while I’ve never censored myself for fear of unemployment, there are places I haven’t gone.

I’ve tried never to be partisan. But as I’ve suggested to some, my rabbinic role requires me to be political – particularly when the Jewish values on an issue are so clear in my mind. When it comes to care of God’s earth and this planet – Judaism has things to say. When it comes to societal inequalities, as I spoke last night, our tradition reminds us that with privilege comes responsibility. And when it comes to something like immigration and refugee status and separating families, not only our texts, but our history and our experience as Jews has a lot to teach those in power.

And while any of those issues would provide good sermon fodder, my concern this morning, is not a particular issue but the prevailing climate of incivility that exists in too many places today. The present mindset is to purposefully and blatantly exploit divisions by what we tweet, and by the names used to call out or belittle someone with whom we disagree.

An effective political strategy, maybe — but not without its consequences.

But before I get called out for partisanship and while it would be tempting to lay the blame on the twitter feed of the president, I actually think the issue goes far deeper than the occupant of the White House.

As I began preparations for these remarks I was mindful that this would be the last opportunity I’d have to explore from this pulpit the biblical story that is the center piece of our service. For almost thirty years now, the text known as the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac has been the springboard for my reflections.

And while over the years in most all of my sermons and communications I have tried to be consistent and not speak out of both sides of my mouth; that has not been the case when it comes to the text at hand. At certain points I have held Abraham up as a model of civility and faith, while at other times have expressed great discomfort at his actions; suggesting his willingness to sacrifice his son was the ultimate example of faith gone wrong. His frightening fanaticism, just the type gives religion a bad name.

But I’ve also been inspired by his search for God, land and sacred instruction that has been the foundation of the Jewish people’s identity and survival. His nobility and willingness to smash idols should inspire us.  

In fact it is because of Abraham’s righteousness and hospitality that the midrash suggests God selected him to receive the Divine call. In Abraham we see that religious faith can teach both passion and civility. 

Perhaps it is at Mount Moriah, the site of our story this morning where that becomes most clear to him. Do not stretch out your hand against the lad do not do anything to him the angel cries out. Abraham this new religion you are beginning is life affirming, it requires that you see the face of God, not only in the heavens, not only in the mirror, but in the face of your son. And even beyond that, to see God’s face in the face of your neighbor and yes, even in the face of the stranger. This radical new faith required that he and that we, his descendants, not encounter our fellow citizens with suspicion or hostility; we must encounter them with the realization that created in the Divine image, they are as fully remarkable as we. The stranger we meet on the street or the opponent we hear in a debate is as entitled to our respect – as the people we love most in the world.

That may not be the way of our human nature –but it is the way of God.

There have always been divisions. And some of them have been deep and seemingly insurmountable. Like some of you, my political antennae were raised exactly fifty years ago when civil unrest due to a divisive war and racial segregation reigned strong. But our best leaders were the ones who sought to bridge those chasms. 

That night in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was to speak in Indianapolis before a largely Black audience. He broke the news to the crowd, scrapped his prepared text and quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus saying, “let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago:  to tame the savageness of man and to make gentler the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”[1]

How sad, how few builders of bridges are in view today.  

All this is perhaps why in the past few weeks we’ve come to both lionize John McCain and honor a Queen. It seems a long time since RESPECT topped the charts. And certainly in McCain’s case an American hero on many levels, he deserved all of the eloquent and moving tributes. But many extolled as they did due to the uniqueness of his voice these days. One of the oft stated reasons why he became a senator beloved from both sides of the aisle was authenticity and his ability to see the humanity in the other. He started every debate from the premise that Democrats love this country as much as Republicans. How basic, but how sad, that perspective fueled his reputation as a maverick.

My go to person when it comes to issues on ethics and politics is sitting in the congregation today. Our congregant Joel Rosenthal is the head of the Carnegie Institute for Ethics in International Affairs – and he wrote recently in a critique of the current state of affairs, “For more than two centuries, America has been held together by a sense that ethics matter. These familiar principles include ordered liberty, equality under law, respect for all, and common decency. Even in the most trying times, these self-evident truths have endured to guide the natural struggle for power.” [2]

But as Joel suggests and I think most of us would agree, those self-evident truths are less visible today. Pundits blame it on cable news, siloed news feeds and gerrymandered districts with no consequences for the most shrill and extreme voices. And those voices play so well into our fears. For some it’s the fear of the other, the immigrant who might take our jobs or change the voting pattern of our community. For others it is the fear of encroachments on our democracy that has led to intolerance and the categorical dismissal of views not shared. In either case we live in echo chambers of our making and have learned to rationalize our incivility by saying how the other side is worse. It’s just as problematic for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for someone’s wedding as it to refuse to serve a political opponent a meal at one’s restaurant.

But we might also agree that it’s not just in the sphere of politics. Bonds of civility fray in many areas, from Little League fields where the parents can be more problematic than kids to lacrosse games between neighboring schools. As we saw last spring in our own community cheering for one’s team can quickly slip into expressions that reveal some deeply rooted prejudices. Ubiquitous cursing barely raises eyebrows and slips in to even the most casual of conversations.   Someone suggested that the way we travel also leads to incivility. Whether it’s alone in our cars or struggling to get on a crowded plane we see others as competitors and obstacles. 

When I was just starting out as a rabbi I remember watching a limousine driver being berated by a mourner at a funeral for missing a turn or something like that. I tried to commiserate with the driver, suggesting that the man was dealing with his father’s death and it must have been a difficult time for him. The driver said to me, “Rabbi, let me teach you a lesson. Nice people are nice even when life is difficult; nasty people are nasty most of the time. That’s a nasty guy!”

It was a good lesson, but these days I wonder if maybe things have changed. I feel my inner aggressiveness emerge in I 95 traffic or when scoping out overhead bins for carry-on bags or when standing behind someone who doesn’t know how to work the self-checkout kiosk at the super market. What were once civil norms are not necessarily so civil today. Is it the enhanced pace of our lives, the 24/7 availability expected of us, or is it some aspect of our affluence that gives us a sense of greater entitlement and makes us much less patient. 

I wonder, will it always be okay to walk past someone without a smile or a hello because we both have ear buds in? Will it always be acceptable to have our cell phone readily visible when sitting with friends or at a meeting so we will not miss a text or news flash no matter how insignificant? Will we ever be able to swim against the rapidly rising tide of incivility?

Several years ago Yale law professor Stephen Carter wrote a book on civility when he suggested that civility had three parts:  generosity, even when it is costly; trust, even when there is a risk; and sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.[3]

It’s worth pausing on those for a few moments and considering not the political climate, but our behavior in that context. Let me repeat — generosity, even when it is costly; trust, even when there is a risk; and sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know. How do we grade ourselves I wonder?

Carter tells a story which I’ve told before in another context.

He, an African American, recounts his family’s move to a lily white neighborhood in Washington DC in 1966. A racially charged time to be sure, he recalls himself as a young boy sitting on the front step of his grand new house in the grand new lonely white neighborhood watching the moving truck unload the furniture, certain that his parents have made a terrible mistake by the move. He’s mindful of all he had heard of how white people treated black people, and writes, “All at once, a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street turned and smiles with obvious delight and waved and called out in a booming voice I would come to love, “welcome!” She bustled into her house only to emerge minutes later with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met – and a black family at that – with nothing to gain for herself except perhaps the knowledge that she had done the right thing. She was generous when nobody forced her to be, she was trusting when there was no reason to. He concludes by suggesting of such risks is true civility constructed. Her name he remembers years and year later, Sara Kestenbaum, who with one small act made a special contribution to civility by providing cream cheese and jelly sandwiches to strangers.[4]

How easy to welcome a neighbor, rake a congregant’s leaves when his wife is dying or offer to host out of town guests at a Bat Mitzvah. We can also curse less, drive with a bit more care, limit the number of carry-on bags and not respond snarkely when we see a Facebook posting with which we disagree. 

These Days of Awe provide a good opportunity for us each to make our own lists of actions that both enhance and diminish a civil society. What Abraham came to learn and to teach, Judaism came to call derekh eretz, literally the way of the world, but an expression that has come to mean a common decency that binds us together as human beings and enables us to see the Divine in all of God’s creations.

There are small acts of sacrifice, trust and risk that are within our power. They signal our willingness to discipline our desires and rise above individualism for the sake of the group. If we resist giving in to the cacophony of our time, we can shape the moral discourse that we inhabit by insisting on a rhetoric of courtesy, and the blessing of compromise. These are values worth defending. We are all stakeholders in the outcome, we will reap what we sow, and it may even be through those own efforts that we determine whether we get the leaders we deserve.

During our Elul preparations we studied a teaching of Maimonides on the subject of Teshuvah, repentance. He suggested that at all times every person should consider him or herself as perfectly balanced between good and bad; and also that the world itself is perfectly balanced between good and evil. The next action, therefore, that you perform no matter how trivial can tilt you and the whole world toward the side of good and life or to the side of evil and death. [5]

I find that a powerful teaching – one very much in keeping with the meaning of these days. What I do next – matters and can tip the balance of the world. Viewed that way I must choose for the good.

In a year where incivility has reigned, how good it is to be here this morning – may we spread that feeling to the other lives we touch as we pray for a good and satisfying New Year that is both sacred and civil.

[1] Matthews, Chris, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, Simon & Schuster, 2017 p. 326

[2] Rosenthal, Joel,

[3] Carter, Stephen, ”Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy”, Basic Books, 1998

[4] Ibid p. 60 ff

[5] Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Repentance 3:4