From The Rabbi’s Study

In the early days of July we will be marking the beginning of the month of Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar – a time we must dedicate to the building of understanding and solidarity among us, to bridging our divides, and to the promotion of civil and constructive discourse. In a world characterized by increasing polarization and extremism, we must be able to internalize, fully understand, and explain that the greatest threat to our collective well-being is not “the other side,” however misguided or wrong we believe its adherents may be, but the phenomena of polarization, increasing factionalism, and the de-legitimization that separates friends, relatives, and neighbors. But, you may ask, why is Tammuz the moment for us to focus our energies on bridging divides, building understanding, and strengthening our community? Surely, the work of community building requires prioritization year-round. Yet, Tammuz is a month of painful memories for the Jewish people. During the month of Tammuz the Romans lay siege to the city of Jerusalem, a siege that would lead to the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple that had served the Judeans for centuries. The rabbis have taught us that the true, underlying causes of the destruction of Jerusalem and Judaism’s holiest site were intolerance, factionalism, enmity, and gratuitous hatred among the inhabitants of Judea. The early Jews (or proto-Jews) of Judea constituted a beleaguered minority struggling in the face of rising roman power and cultural influence. The rabbis’ critique of them was that they failed to maintain a sense of community and solidarity. Communal relations among them frayed to a point of infighting and violence. The month of Tammuz offers us an opportunity to learn from the lessons of the past, identify the signs of discord, and redouble our efforts to build community, engage in debate and exchange, and advance towards greater understanding among us.

The rabbis’ indictment of their ancestors is uncompromising. In the Talmud they write: “But the second Temple, built on the ruins of King Solomon’s first, [while it stood] they [the people of Israel] engaged in Torah, the commandments, and loving-kindness! So why was it destroyed? It was destroyed [because of infighting caused] by gratuitous hatred” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 9) – to teach us that such hatred counters the most lofty and laudable acts and leads to destruction and death even among those who seek to follow their highest values and ideals. Throughout the past centuries, a succession of rabbis sought to understand and identify this gratuitous hatred, and warn us of its consequences. Our teachers have spoken of a hatred born of a sense of righteousness or zealousness that leads to suspicion and indignation in the face of varying practices and ideas, rejection, increasing polarization, and, in some cases, even the spilling of blood. Thus, the rabbis warn, the greatest obstacle and threat that we face is gratuitous hatred – a hatred seeded in our inability to relate to each other when we disagree, in identifying in our own kin the existential threats of betrayal and treachery.

While our situation does not resemble that of the Judeans in the first century of the Common Era, the rabbis’ warning to us deserves to be heard. We all know that what starts as a disagreement among us can turn to a lack of willingness to countenance another view; that it can evolve into de-legitimization and distance among the members of any community. Thus, as we aspire to build upon our warm and welcoming community, we are called to grow in our ability to hear, discuss, and build understanding and appreciation for each other.

In the coming months, we will witness the new-born Israel undergo an unprecedented second, likely contentious, rancorous, national election cycle within a six-month period. Especially at this time, we shall endeavor to engage in respectful, kind, and empathetic conversation about our relationship with Israel. Let us do so mindful of the storied Zionist heritage of our Temple. Let us discuss Israel with affection, commitment, and concern for its safety and the well-being of its citizens, and recognition of the complex set of threats and challenges that it faces. Let us try to engage in respectful, open, and empathetic conversations anchored in a diversity of views about Israel, recognizing that honest exchange can be challenging, and at some points painful. Let us do so bearing in mind that among members of our community are supporters of AIPAC, others of J-Street, and others yet of neither, and that we need to speak with, and to each other’s hearts and minds. May our discussions be founded in the love of Zion and the ideals it represents, and may they reinforce the bonds of friendship and solidarity among us. Let us emerge increasingly hopeful and confident in our abilities to express tolerance, compassion, and appreciation for diverse views, and may we all model substantive, serious, and generative discourse for our own sake, and for the sake of our children, neighbors, and members of our greater community.

– Rabbi Jonathan Cohen