A Heart of Many Rooms

Min hameitzar karati Yah – Anani Bamerchav Yah.
I called to Yah in dire straits; Yah answered me from a spacious place.

It’s hard to imagine more dire straits than those in which Abraham and Isaac found themselves in that moment before the angel intervened. Isaac bound on the altar, Abraham with the knife in hand, the task before him crystal-clear. “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as an offering.” Isaac, as our tradition has it, was a willing sacrifice, his single-minded commitment to the cause of obedience to God’s command a perfect match for his father’s. The fourteenth-century teacher Bachya ben Asher is representative: “At first, Isaac didn’t know that he was to be the sacrifice. But…we learn he was at peace with the matter. The two walked on together, with the same intent. One to slaughter, and the other to be slaughtered.”

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This is a d’var torah about finding a shared purpose and walking together, even down difficult paths. It’s about friendship, and it’s about conflict. But the good kind of conflict. Yes, there’s a good kind of conflict. Let’s start there.

Our tradition calls the good kind of conflict machloket l’shem shamayim, “an argument for the sake of heaven,” and asserts that “any argument for the sake of heaven is ultimately worthwhile.” The same teaching gives us the paradigmatic example of such an argument: the dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.

Elsewhere,  we learn about the dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. These were two competing views of Jewish law, of domestic and foreign policy, of life, really. Two groups of people, each coalescing around a way of seeing the world, who argued…and argued…and argued. The Talmud tells it this way:

For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed. These said that the law was according to us, and those said the law is in accordance with us.

Three long years of debate. And no sign of it ending. Thank heavens — quite literally — for astounding miracles. The text continues…. 

A heavenly voice emerged saying: “Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the law is in accordance with the school of Hillel.”

And there you have it. A voice emerges from the heavens, declares the two sides tied….and then gives one side the trophy. Why is this the case? Our question is also the question the Talmud asks, as the story continues…

Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why was the law established in accordance with the House of Hillel? Because they were polite and forbearing and would teach both their own views  and the views of the House of Shammai. Moreover, they would place the views of the House of Shammai before their own. (Talmud, Eruvin 13b)

I love this story for what it teaches about humility and public discourse. As someone who likes finding common ground with people, it makes me feel good to know that our Tradition holds up the example of Hillel and his school for praise.

Our Tradition (Tos. Sotah 7:12) also holds up for praise the person who recognizes complexity and cherishes it: “Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.”

Rabbi David Hartman unpacks these words beautifully:

In other words, become a person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul. Become a religious person who can live with ambiguity who can feel religious conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty.

And that’s actually where it begins, I think. In recognizing that the people on the other side of an argument might well be our friends. In Hebrew, we call them our chaverim. It’s a great word, chaver, the Hebrew word for “friend.” It comes from the root meaning “to be joined or connected together.” To be a friend, in other words, is to feel bound to another.

Consider that the same three letters that spell chaver — chet, beit, and resh — also spell rachav, which means “openness.” That open end of the shofar where the air moves freely, where the great Torah happens. The merchav, the wide open space of which we spoke last night. We can embrace that openness…or…or not. The choice is ours, which is why the same letters that spell chaver and rachav also spell bachar, to choose. We can choose chaverut, friendship. Or, we can choose to jumble up those letters once more time, and in doing so reach for the cherev — the sword. 

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Speaking of swords…let’s return to Abraham and Isaac. We left them in dire straits, Isaac bound to the altar, Abraham bound and determined to demonstrate his obedience. But then, something happens. We’re told that an angel intervenes, calling to Abraham, twice: “Avraham, Avraham.” (An aside: when the text is chanted, see if you hear urgency in the angel’s voice – Avraham Avraham!! – or a quiet insistence – Avraham. Avraham.) Abraham answers, “Hineyni,” here I am. And the story turns. Abraham is told not to harm Isaac in the least. And then, this:

וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה — Abraham lifted up his eyes, and he saw. Look! A ram caught in the thicket by his horns.

The answer comes, as it were, from the wide-open space. Abraham broadens his field of vision. He employs imagination. He sees possibility. Perhaps the ram was there all along; Abraham just needed to “look at it right.”

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Last year, I begged off on speaking about Israel. We didn’t know each other very well yet, and Israel is such an emotionally-loaded topic. A year has passed…and I still don’t want to speak about Israel, per se. But I do want to speak about how we speak about Israel. I want to make the case for a merchav-based conversation about Israel and Palestine. I believe that a synagogue ought to be a heart of many rooms, and that our synagogue is well-positioned, perhaps uniquely positioned, to model a way forward.

Because let’s be frank. There’s been too much cherev, and not nearly enough chaver in our American Jewish community’s discourse about Israel and Palestine. Too much metzar, not nearly enough merchav. We draw ever more narrow lines, with organizations that not long ago were thought of as mainstream being read out of the people by those who disagree with them. When a rabbi’s association with J Street, or T’ruah or Breaking the Silence, or AIPAC or JNF, is considered evidence of his or her extremism, we have a problem. And when that evidence is marshaled in the service of threatening a rabbi’s career, we have a crisis.

I believe that Judea Reform Congregation has the capacity to rise above that level of discourse. I believe that our membership brings a degree of knowledge, of passion, and of sophistication that makes us the sort of place where ideas can be explored without fear. Our diversity of viewpoints on Israel and Palestine, and the passionate commitments many of hold to those diverse viewpoints, is a strength, not a weakness.

“Ok, Rabbi…but where does BDS fit into this picture?” I am personally unconvinced that the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel moves us closer to a solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I’d be happy to talk about why that’s so…but not now. My goal today is to say in the plainest language I can that, while I am personally unconvinced that BDS is correct, I have friends, including rabbinical colleagues elsewhere and members of Judea Reform who see it differently. They are not antisemites. They are not my enemy.

I hasten to add that the Global BDS movement, like many movements, includes different streams who approach the issue in different ways. And while BDS is not prima facie antisemitic, there is antisemitism among some of its advocates. It is right for us to reject and condemn antisemitism on the Left with the same vigilance as we oppose antisemitism on the Right. But let’s be careful to condemn specific instances of offensive and destructive behavior and discourse (and there are many of them), but not paint with a brush so broad that we wind up condemning people who love Israel and want her to live up to her ideals, or even people whose vision of a fully-realized Judaism doesn’t include a Jewish State, but who advocate for that vision without resorting to hatred or calling for violence.

Let us, in short, commit to civility. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, reminds us of the benefits of civility:

Civility allows us to negotiate…disagreements without ceasing to be friends. It signals respect for the other person even in the absence of shared values and beliefs. It means that though we disagree, we are part of the same moral universe. We share a commitment to the common good. We are part of something that embraces us both. We recognize that we may win some arguments and lose others, but – by choosing to live in this particular society – we honour its protocols of conflict resolution (p. 189).

What Sacks prays for his particular society, I pray for this particular synagogue. And in case I wasn’t clear enough, let me say that I do believe that lines can be drawn when racism, antisemitism, or calls for violence become part of the picture – in other words, when we cease to be a part of the same moral universe. But that leaves a whole lot of room for discourse among the people whose lives we share in this community.

And so, let us make for ourselves a heart of many rooms. Let us never be afraid to listen to people with whom we disagree. Let us rise above the politics of personal destruction. Let us widen the tent, rather than go along as others seek to make it ever smaller. Anani bamerchav Yah – in that wide-open space are the answers we’re looking for.

Amen.

2 thoughts on “A Heart of Many Rooms

  1. Nancy Kalow Dektar

    A beautiful and thoughtful path into helping us all value machloket l’shem shamayim in our community. Thank you for envisioning a place for civil discussion, even on difficult subjects.

    Reply
  2. Andrew

    Your self righteous article is truly nonsensical. The BDS movement is composed of racists and anti semites whether or not they are “Rabbis” or on the “left”. The BDS movement seeks the destruction and elimination of Israel to be replaced by yet another Judenrein Arab Islamic state where gay men are executed, women oppressed, minorities persecuted and terror exported. Anti Zionists like the hate mongering racist Brant Rosen wish Jews to return to the diaspora, live in ghettos so that Jews like Rosen along with the racists that compose “Jewish” Voice for Peace and other hate groups can become kapos to work with their muslim overlords. The Jewish experience in the diaspora culminated in the Holocaust. There should be no space for Jewish racists to be accepted into Jewish institutions. The left is the home of hate and racism.

    Reply

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