Monday, January 25th, 2021

Of Politeness and the Drawing of Lines

December 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Jewish Culture, New Posts

by Gidon Rothstein

 Although this is not a venue for making political comments about issues of our day, the recent Chanukah holiday set me on a trajectory of thought that led me to questions I think are productive for all of us to ask, and I therefore wish to share them with you.

To begin with a moment of the Chanukah story: Matityahu is in Modiin, and a representative of the Seleucid (thank you, Ari, for reminding me of that term in commenting on my last post) empire came to insist that the Jews worship their pagan god or gods.  One hapless Jew comes forward to do so, and Matityahu, apparently in a rage, kills him and the Seleucid, shouts “מי לה’ אלי, who is for God, to me?,” flees to the hills, and the rest is history.

Here are my first, historical, questions.  What led Matityahu to choose that moment as the one to spark the rebellion? Was it the first time he was personally confronted with Hellenizing Jews? It is hard to imagine, as the historical record suggests that there were many, perhaps even a majority of Jews, who had Hellenized to some degree or other.  His historical precedent was Moshe Rabbenu, but he had been faced with the Golden Calf when he took his radical action.  Could it be that Matityahu’s line was seeing Jews participate in idol worship, as had been Moshe Rabbenu’s?

I do not know the answer to that question, but it leads me to others, in our own lives.  What would be the circumstances that would lead us to break the bounds of politeness in the name of some more important ideal? This is obviously a sliding-scale question, as there are different bounds of politeness called for in different situations, with, concomitantly, different levels of attachment to those.

As I ask the question, it should be obvious that whatever recommendations we come up with will have to take into account that people on the other side of the issue will ask themselves the same question, so that any time we decide that our feelings require us to break the bounds of social mores to protest something, we are fraying the bonds of society in general.

That means, then, that if I decide that some social ill is so evil that it must be combated vigorously, and those who see the other side called out as wrongdoers, I need to be aware that they will do the same should they get the chance.  Nevertheless, in some cases, I might feel I need to take that risk.  In the US, the issue of civil rights for blacks and other minorities was one such example—proponents of those civil rights felt that the issue was so important they had to ram it down the throats of those who opposed it.  I believe most people today assume they were right for so doing, but it is not nearly as clear that that was the right way to handle different issues that have arisen since.

To stick with a Jewish context, though, suppose that a Jew, today, was actually worshiping an idol; would that be a cause for you to break the bonds of civility? (I don’t even contemplate violence, since that is, at the very least, an issue of דינא דמלכותא, of following the laws of the land)  Suppose they did it in your shul—would you feel comfortable saying “Hey, you can’t do that here?” and see to it they were escorted out?

Another version of the question: What could people say, at your Shabbat table or from the pulpit of your shul, that would force you to stop them and ask them to speak about something else?  Years ago, I was in South Africa, and a very nice fellow, my age, referred to a black with a term that was extraordinarily derogatory.  I was almost literally stunned, as I had not imagined people still thought and spoke in such ways.  I asked what he had said, to make sure I had heard him right, and he repeated it.  I asked him, with some heat in my voice, not to say that around me again.  The most important part of the incident to me was his shock that I should feel so strongly about it, since that was simply what he and everyone he knew did.

And there’s the conundrum: it will almost always be true that when someone else acts in an unacceptable way—whether by being too conservative or too liberal— that person will see his or her actions as perfectly appropriate, as will many of the people around.  Others will agree that the action or words are not right, but not worth making a fuss about.  My point is that there must be some point where a fuss is necessary, and sometimes that fuss should be significant. Do we know which is which?

To leave you with a few examples: What kinds of anti-Jewish laws would a Western country have to pass before you, personally, felt you could no longer live there, but had to flee? (I am not saying it has or will happened, but it is a question worth asking) A British court recently ruled against a local Jewish school for having excluded a child who was not halachically Jewish. Is that enough, that a court declares, as a matter of British law, that following halachic procedures to determine who is Jewish is an example of racism? France has prohibited head coverings in certain venues, regardless of religious necessity. Is that enough, that Jews are not allowed to publicly show their religion?  What would it take in the US?

Moving from society to a shul or Jewish setting: What Jewishly wrong acts would you witness and feel the need to oppose, verbally or by force?  If people are talking in shul, common practice shows that we do not think that is enough; what if they were reading pornography or atheists’ defense of atheism during services? What if the shul hosted a speaker presenting a point of view completely at odds with that shul’s declared religious allegiances? Would it be enough to speak to the rabbi, behind the scenes, or would it be worth a public fuss? When?

I remember a Dry Bones from 1975, when the UN passed its infamous “Zionism Is Racism” resolution.  The speaker in the strip is an American Zionist, who mentions the resolution in a fury over the UN’s perfidy, and says something to the effect of, “Everybody, up, out of your seats!” Someone in the audience responds, “Why, we’re moving to Israel?” and the speaker says, “Well, no, I thought we’d wave some Israeli flags and march in the streets.”

In a more tragic context, there is the famous poem attributed to Father Martin Neimoller about his and others’ failure to protest the Nazis early enough.  In the version he preferred (at least according to Wikipedia), he said,

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—

            because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

            because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

            because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—

            and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I can hope and pray that we are never again faced with a danger that great to still recognize that the questions arise much earlier. They start with attitudes expressed at a friendly dinner, they move to public conduct that is not opposed or objected to, and then they become part of the ordinary version of that society.  In my lifetime, I have seen the assumptions of society at large, and trickling down into Orthodox Jewry, change, in ways that are unequivocally problematic from a Jewish perspective, and those who protest are dismissed.  When and how do we stand in favor of standards that are not meant to be open to social ebbs and flows, but that are determined by a tradition that speaks, in certain areas, unequivocally and forcefully?

I do not pretend these are easy questions, or the answers obvious.  I assert only that the questions are necessary, and that unless we prepare ourselves with our own answers, we will end up failing to protest when we ought to, and thus be complicit with some wrong or other, a wrong we might have had a share in stopping, had we only known when to speak up.

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