Being Right (Rosh HaShanah 2019)

Posted on September 29, 2019

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

There is a long, long tradition of rabbis being 100%, absolutely right. Just ask my husband.  – Seth, I’m sure you agree?

Take the example of Rabbi Eliezer.[1]  One day in the study house, this learned sage was answering a relatively minor Jewish legalistic question about clay ovens—and no one else there was agreeing with him.  It doesn’t really matter what he was arguing, since we don’t even have that kind of oven anymore.  What does matter is how very, very right Rabbi Eliezer was.  Eliezer was an outstanding legal scholar, and he knew that in his argument, he was 100% right and that God was on his side.

Frustrated that no one was agreeing with him, Eliezer says, “If the halakha (the divine law) agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it.”  He points at a carob tree, and—lo and behold:  the rabbi was right—the carob tree uproots itself and is flings itself 150 feet away.  However, the other people in the study house are also rabbis; they are also sure that they are 100% right, so they refuse to agree with him.

Rabbi Eliezer says, “If the halakha agrees with me, let this water channel prove it.”  He points at the water channel, and it starts flowing in the opposite direction(!).  The other rabbis don’t give in.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer says, “If the halakha agrees with me, let Heaven prove it.”  And, a voice comes forth from Heaven and says, “What’s everyone’s problem with Rabbi Eliezer?  He is 100%, absolutely right.”  …and the other rabbis say, “Sure, God, but back at Mount Sinai, You gave the Torah to us, so now we get to interpret it and decide what’s right ourselves—not You.”

And, God says, “You know?  You’re also right.”[2]

 

This story is wonderful because it’s so true to life:  I mean, hey, all the rabbis are right!

But, here’s the problem:  the Talmud goes on to say that the other rabbis were so determined to show that they were the ones who were 100%, absolutely right that they end up ostracizing Eliezer, expelling him from the study house, keeping him from his students, overturning all his past halakhic rulings, and essentially telling him to never come back.  His trauma over this turn of events leads to other traumas, ultimately even to someone’s death.

It turns out that even though Eliezer was 100%, absolutely right, and even had Heaven on his side, it did not protect him from trauma.  And just because the other rabbis were clever and also right, it didn’t stop them from causing harm to Eliezer or even to themselves.

 

So, what’s the good of being right?

 

My colleagues here (Rabbi Danny and Cantor Hollis) and I have been in conversation with each other, and with many of you, for months about what it means to be Jews in this world at this time.  What it means to be clergy in this world at this time.  What it means to be human at this time.  Often the question is about whose approach is right.

We are living in an era of tumult.  You could say that it’s always an era of tumult, but we’re living in a particular one right now, and the stakes feel very, very high.

We hear from some of you:  “This is the place where I come to find out what Judaism says so that I stay grounded in the values that are motivating me to fight the good fight out in the world.”  You’re right.  That’s what we should be here to be.

We hear from others of you:  “I rely on this place for respite from the crazy world outside.  I need this to be my sanctuary.  Let this be the one place I can just be myself and not be judged or have to think in any partisan way.”  You’re also right.  That’s what we should be here to be.

 

So, who’s right?

 

I was 23 years old and living in Israel for the first time and I had an interesting moment on a cab ride in Jerusalem.  The driver was telling me his opinions about the current political situation (which is how cab rides work in Jerusalem)—and he was telling me what he thought of “the other side.”

I totally disagreed with everything this man said, but I decided that I wasn’t in the mood to argue, so I just kept listening and saying “um-hmm” all the way from Yoel Salomon to my home in Giv’at Mordechai.

And, it slowly seeped into my head that everything he was saying made sense—he was being totally logical in the argument he was building from his starting assumptions.  Oh, I still entirely disagreed with him, but I saw in that moment that, if I were to start with his same underlying assumptions about what makes people tick, I would probably end up agreeing with his conclusions too.  He was a good guy, so far as I know, trying to make ends meet for his family by driving that cab, and, based on his assumptions about how the world works, he’d figured out logically what was getting in the way, and he was arguing for how to fix that.

 

He was totally wrong.  But, he wasn’t not-right.

 

The problem with being 100%, absolutely right is that it doesn’t actually mean that those who disagree with you are 100%, absolutely wrong.  Living, as we do, not in a world of black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, superhero comics, but in a world of nuance, back stories, and multiple ways to view any narrative:  it’s awfully complicated.  I would venture to say that no one in this world is all right or all wrong; all good or all bad.  We are—shockingly, even rabbis—all totally human.

 

What if it isn’t really about being right?

 

My teacher—and Rabbi Danny’s—Rabbi Richard Levy, of beloved memory, told the story of his neighbor coming to him and asking him to cut down an ash tree whose roots were spreading under the neighbor’s driveway.  This tree was absolutely “magnificent,” Rabbi Levy wrote.

It’s graceful branches [bore] delicate green leaves that in the summer would catch the sun and diffuse its rays across our yard.  In autumn the leaves turned gold, brilliant against the deep blue sky, accented by the red blossoms of our climbing bougainvillea.  The tree shed its beauty on our neighbor’s yard as well, its colors as generous to him as to us.  I used to pray outside some days, and looking at the summer or autumn leaves on the ash tree helped me feel quite powerfully the presence of God, who had created the green and the gold and the blue and the red—and me, and the ones I loved.[3]

When the neighbor demanded that the tree be felled, Rabbi Levy was furious.  How could this neighbor have so little regard for the value of nature, the value of beauty, the value of God’s creation?  And then, Rabbi Levy wrote, he realized that his neighbor was basing his request in values as well:  the value of protecting his home and property that he had worked so hard to build and maintain, the value of the covenant between neighbors who must respect each other’s boundaries.  The time may be distant, said Rabbi Levy, alav ha-shalom, when neighbors “can agree on whether the true redemptive value of a house is in its tree or its driveway”—but the challenge is to find a way to live next to each other in peace, in the knowledge that both parties are grounded in values and real needs and desires.

 

It’s not a case in which only one is absolutely right.

 

We have a tendency in our current political climate to start hearing the opinion of someone with whom we disagree and to say, “Well, they’re wrong,” or, worse, “Well, they’re evil.”  But, most people are not evil.  Most people are trying to get through their day.  Most of us are just as confused as each other about how to get through the next hour of the 21st century, with the emails and the carpools and aging parents and work pressures and health insurance paperwork and the fact that its warmer than it usually is at the end of September and the fact that, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t checked lately whether I have the right privacy controls up on Facebook or if I left the oven on at home.

So, if we’re all doing the best we can and we’re all coming to different conclusions about what values we should be trying to live by, when we might also have some different starting assumptions about what makes people tick and how the world works, how sure should any of us be that we’re the ones who are right?

I am not meaning to say that there’s no such thing as being wrong or of doing wrong.  I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t stand up for what we believe in or that there’s no such thing as evil.  Goodness knows—God knows—I think that we have a moral duty to work to make this world a better, more fair, and more just place, and I think that Judaism calls on us in some very specific ways to do that.  However, as the author Amos Oz, zichrono livracha, wrote in his brilliant, tiny book How to Cure a Fanatic,

I am trying to enhance our ability to imagine each other.  On every level, on the most everyday level, to just imagine each other.  Imagine each other when we quarrel, imagine each other when we complain, imagine each other precisely at the moment we feel that we are 100% right.  Even when you are 100% right and the other is 100% wrong, [he writes] it’s still useful to imagine the other.[4]

The reality is, that, when I don’t imagine the world from your point of view—when I don’t try to listen for what lies beneath your words, for the real longings and fears and cares that drive you—even if I’m right, I will do damage to you, and that may do damage to me and those I love in turn.[5]  And that is a very great cost.

 

Despite what is illustrated in the story of Rabbi Eliezer—maybe because of what happened then—our Jewish tradition since that time is generally not to declare any one person or opinion totally right without respecting other opinions and teachings as well.  On a classic Talmud page, multiple opinions on legal matters are usually presented alongside each other.  One might be presented as the prevailing halakhic conclusion, but differing opinions are preserved as having something in them for us all to learn from.  Maybe a particular teaching’s time simply hasn’t come yet.  Or maybe there’s an important set of values buried in an argument that led to a conclusion that didn’t itself win out.

Our Shabbat morning Torah study group here at Shir Tikva has sometimes heard me refer to them as a Talmud page.  Over here sits the historian, and over here sits the psychologist.  Over here sits the one reading the page through the lens of politics, and over here sits the one reading the same passage through the lens of parenting.  Over here sits the one who takes the words as a divine message from God to people, and over here sits the one who takes the words as a message from people struggling to define what’s divine.  Each of us reads the same text through different lenses— through of our own experience, our own areas of expertise and passion—and arrives at different conclusions.

At our best, we hear each other and learn from each other.  We are influenced by each other and challenged by each other.  We hone our own opinions with each other as our foils, and sometimes we even change our minds through hearing each other’s assumptions and reactions.

 

The logic of Torah study is that there doesn’t have to be only one “right.”

 

What do we do with this in a time in our world when real consequences rest on the fact that you and I may looking at the same world—the same text—and coming to different conclusions about the nature of what’s happening and what to do about it.  If I’m right and you’re right but the actions we want to take are contradictory, what do we do?  What’s right?

 

Amos Oz writes that in the face of such an untenable situation, our responsibility even as we go forward—even as decisions are made—is to imagine the reality of the person before us, using the power of imagination that is “open to us all”—

What if I were her, and what if you were him…. [we need to say to ourselves]
With a slight twist of my genes, [he writes] or of my parents’ circumstances, I could be him or her.
I could be a Jewish West Bank settler.
I could be an ultraorthodox extremist.
I could be an [eastern] Jew from a Third World country;
I could be anyone.
I could be one of my enemies.”[6]

What does that do to us?

When we engage in that work of imagination—of empathy—we are able to look for paths forward in acknowledgement of each other’s realities and humanity and pain.  Ways for both of us to remain on the same Talmud page.  Because, even when I’m right—rabbi, and phenomenal spouse that I am—I need to remember that in some ways I am also wrong, or, at least, that there is another right, right before me.  Each of us needs to each fight out in the world for what we believe is morally needed—we, as your clergy up here, may even preach it from this pulpit—but at the end of the day, faced with each other, we need to be able to look at each other and allow ourselves, as Oz says, to “develop a sense of ambivalence, a capacity for abandoning [our] black-and-white views”[7] and sometimes to compromise.

 

This year, the assignment I give each of us, this first night of 5780, is that when we are confronted by the reality of the person who thinks very, very differently than we do, that we ask of ourselves:

“What else could be true for this person in this story?”[8]
“What values, or fears, and or cares are underpinning this person’s remarks?”
“What would I be if I were him or her?  What would I need?”
“When they say that thing to me, what tender part of themselves are they trying to protect?”8

And then, our task, if we choose to accept it, is look for ways to meet those underlying needs.  It may involve compromise but, ultimately, it may protect us both.

This is not easy work.  It’s about—in the teachings of mussar—putting distance between the fuse and the flame.  Most of us can’t do it alone.  We can learn by listening to each other and through hearing each other’s story.  I learn when I hear what makes you tick and how the world works where you come from.

Please, come tell me your story.

Please, when we as your clergy, say something that goes against your idea of “right,” come tell us about your world.  Even when we think we’re 100%, absolutely right, we have a lot to learn, too, about how to be right alongside your “right.”

It’s an open invitation.

May we all find ways to learn from each other’s stories and to protect each other through this way of showing care.

 

In the words of our Hineni prayer, that Cantor Hollis sang from at the beginning of our service tonight—and that is sung tonight all over the world—

Ha-emet v’ha-shalom—ehavu
Let us love the truth and the peace.[9]

 

Let us look for the path that honors the “right”—the truth—that is in us all, and let us protect and make peace with each other even as we go forward with our sense of what is right, into this new year, strongly, with blessings and with love.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Matthew D. Gewirtz, “What it might look like to be a rabbi of the radical middle,” CCAR Journal:  The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2019

Richard Levy, A Vision of Holiness, NY:  URJ Press, 2005

Amos Oz, “How to Cure a Fanatic,” How to Cure a Fanatic, Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2002

Angie Thurston, Andrew ter Kuile, Rev. Sue Phillips, Care of Souls, a report sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, On Being, and Harvard Divinity School

 

[1] Based on Baba Metzia 59b.

[2] Fiddler on the Roof.

[3] Richard Levy, A Vision of Holiness, 32.

[4] Amos Oz, How to Cure a Fanatic, 66.

[5] Healing takes a constant listening for what lies beneath the spoken words so that the real longing can be revealed. When we are able to connect with our emotions, sensations, and physical knowing, then healing becomes more than just a good idea that only lives in our minds. Through embodied practices—looking at the moon, singing along to that favorite gospel hymn—we can truly restore our felt sense of dignity, safety and belonging.” – LaWanda Thompson, President, Sustainable Outcomes (quoted in Care of Souls, 13)

[6] Oz, 68.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Hollis Schachner, in conversation.

[9] Hin’ni prayer, Erev Rosh Hashanah liturgy.