The Unetaneh Tokef prayer in Mahzor Lev Shalem (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer in Mahzor Lev Shalem (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

May the Days of Awe help us embrace what’s important

There has been an ugly, insidious and demonstrable rise in white nationalism, here and around the world, with its associated, and inevitable, rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, from the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh last October to the massacre in a New Zealand mosque in March and the shooting in a Chabad shul in Poway in April.

These violent attacks — these horrific mass murders — are a consequence of hateful, vitriolic language that is emanating from virtually every sector.

The right calls the left “radical socialists” and “anarchists,” while the left calls the right “racists” and “fascists.” Secularists and atheists denounce those of us who believe in God or religion as magical thinkers or dimwits; believers call skeptics misguided, ignorant, arrogant and dogmatic.

The Jewish community in America is also complicit in this incivility and divisiveness.

There are Reform Jews who think that anyone who keeps kosher, observes Shabbat or prays three times a day is an unenlightened fanatic; there are traditional Jews who think that any type of Judaism other than Orthodoxy is inauthentic and illegitimate.

There are Jews who are concerned by, and critical of, the policies of the current Israeli government; many in the “pro-Israel” camp think of these people as disloyal, self-hating Jews or naive assimilationists.

The demonization goes both ways: Many on the left see uncritical Israel supporters, frequently associated with AIPAC, as reactionaries and apologists, little more than mouthpieces for the Netanyahu government.

So how do we debate and disagree with one another in ways that are civil, respectful, rational and productive? Believe it or not, the Talmud provides an answer.

Written over 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, it brings together different voices from different countries and cultures across several centuries — rabbinic voices that engage in dialogue and debate with each other, at times even in passionate disagreement.

Yet these opponents don’t treat one another as enemies or resort to name-calling or personal attacks, as we often see today on Facebook or social media. They don’t “unfriend” each other; they don’t denigrate, dismiss or delete their rivals in an early morning tweet storm. Instead, they act as respectful sparring partners, politely and creatively arguing about ideas, challenging one another’s positions and arguments, looking for weaknesses or inconsistencies.

Their goal is not to “win,” but to find truth, meaning, purpose and community.

Significantly, the arguments highlighted in the Talmud do not always have clear resolutions. A fifth-century rabbi in Baghdad might argue vehemently over a point of law with a second-century rabbi from Yavneh, and then the verbal conflict might end abruptly with a change in topic with no winner on either side.

The two schools of thought that figure most prominently in the Talmud are Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, rabbinic scholars who almost always disagreed with one another. The Talmud describes a tense, three-year debate between these two houses over an esoteric matter. Suddenly, a voice descends from heaven and says: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

But how could both of their positions be true at the same time? How could opposite viewpoints coexist on the same page, and in the same sacred book? The Talmud, and the rabbis who wrote it, seem to have a very high tolerance for ambiguity.

Many centuries after the Talmud was composed, Judaism continued to tolerate, even embrace, ambiguity and conflict. The Days of Awe offer another glimpse into how our faith deals with intellectual and spiritual tension.

On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Ashkenazi Jewish liturgy contains a signature prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, that captures the paradoxical nature of freedom. In the middle of the prayer, we are told that God determines everything in our lives, including the destinies that each one of us will experience: “ … who will be calm and who tormented; who will live in poverty and who in prosperity; who will be humbled and who exalted.”

And yet, in the very next line of the same prayer, we recite a contradictory lesson: “But repentance, prayer and righteousness can annul the severe decree.”

So which one is true?

Are the outcomes of our lives determined by God, or can our free will alter them? During the most introspective and thoughtful period of the Jewish year, Judaism offers us a message about freedom, and human existence, that is anything but clear — and it seems just fine with that.

The genius of Judaism is that, for millennia, it has not only tolerated, but embraced, the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of our experiences, our ideas and our lives. Judaism is a religion of dialogue and debate, not dogma and doctrine. Its strength lies in its capacity to accept more than one truth at the same time, to shun black-and-white answers to life’s questions, and to engender nuance, conflict and perplexity.

Conflict, when handled in a thoughtful, healthy and sensitive way, is a good thing. Tension and disagreement can lead to positive, transformational outcomes, such as creativity, growth and balance. From a social standpoint, they are the keys to building a diverse and dynamic community, an open tent that is inclusive and welcoming, a place where minority opinions are not denigrated, disrespected or trampled on.

In my view, the history of the Jewish community supports this idea. When Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, he brought together hundreds of different Jews who each had very different ideas of Zionism — secularists mingled with the religious, socialists with free market capitalists, Jewish nationalists with universalists.

There was a cacophony of debate, sometimes heated, but the end result was the birth of the modern Zionist movement, and by 1948 the State of Israel had been created.

Whether it is writing the holy text of the Talmud, building the State of Israel, or creating a vibrant Jewish life in the diaspora, we need each other — we need the dialogue, the debate, even the disagreement. Forging a dynamic and meaningful Jewish future is a communal effort, and no one person or group can do it alone. Conflict is an inevitable part of this process — it is not something we should avoid or fear.

In 5780, this new Jewish year, let us reject today’s climate of polarization, and instead reclaim and renew the Jewish values of nuance, ambiguity and respectful disagreement. When we do, we will honor the b’rit, the sacred covenant established between God and our ancestors, and we will help to push the world a little closer toward the messianic goal of tikkun olam.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."