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Civility: What The Sages Had To Say


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In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Tucson, “civility” is the word on everyone’s lips. This is ironic when one considers that civility is nowhere to be found in anyone’s actions. Each partisan faction is charging the other with hatred and violence.

The rhetoric being bandied about is beyond ridiculous. Our elected officials are saying things that are absurdly similar, except they’re saying them with a straight face. They scream “civility” at the top of their lungs, but each demands it from the other with no signs of action on their own part.

There’s a cliché that says that when one points a finger at another person, he has three fingers pointing back at him. Things get to be clichés by being true. TheTalmud tells us that one should not criticize others for faults one possesses himself. (In modern parlance, “People who live in glass houses “) But all that’s being done is name-calling and finger-pointing.

Why don’t people realize it’s possible to disagree – even on topics of great importance – and still treat one another civilly?

The Talmud is replete with disputes between the disciples of Beit Hillel and those of Beit Shammai. They disagreed on some pretty significant points of law and their differences had many practical ramifications, but the Mishnah tells us that the students of Beit Hillel and those of Beit Shammai did not hesitate to rely upon one another. A member of each school knew a student of the other wouldn’t let him do something he himself considered impermissible, even if the other’s point of view permitted it. They were civil to one another because they recognized that, differences aside, we’re all on the same team.

Another example – perhaps far more extreme – is that of Elisha ben Avuya, a scholar who suffered a traumatic experience and became the heretic known as “Acher” (“the other”). The Talmud tells us how Acher was riding a horse on Shabbat with his former student Rabbi Meir walking beside him. Even though Acher had lost his faith, he informed Rabbi Meir when they reached the Sabbath boundary. Yes, he had lost his faith, but he maintained his civility. Even a heretic can be a mentsch.

It’s okay to disagree. The question is, why are we disagreeing? The Mishnah in Avot (5:20) tells us there’s a difference between sincere disagreements and those with ulterior motivations. The example the Mishnah gives of a sincere disagreement is that between the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai. As we’ve already noted, these two groups got along quite well despite their differences. This is because each faction recognized that they were both in pursuit of the truth.

But what of the disagreements with ulterior motivations? The example the Mishnah brings is Korach, who tried to overthrow Moses and seize leadership of the nation for himself. Rashi on Numbers 16:1 cites the Midrash detailing the pretexts Korach used to try to undermine Moses. Korach had prepared a list of questions such that, whatever Moses would answer, he could twist things to make Moses look bad.

Korach could smile and say, “Can’t we all just get along?” but his disagreement was insincere. Korach wasn’t after the truth; he had an agenda. Nothing short of a coup would satisfy him. Such a person cannot be civil to those with another point of view.

So why are we fighting? Do we want to discover the truth? Do we want what’s best for our nation? For our communities? For our schools and our synagogues? Or do we come in with both barrels blazing, saying, “It’s my way or the highway?” If we are sincere in our disagreements, we’re not threatened by hearing what others have to say. We only oppose civil discourse when it impedes fulfilling our preconceived idea of how things should be. (It’s actually pretty arrogant for one to unilaterally decide on how the universe should be, without considering the input of others. No human is so wise as to have all the answers.)

Civility starts within. If one really cares about an issue, being civil not only doesn’t hurt the cause, it actually helps. Let’s care less about what the other person is doing and worry more about ourselves. Civility can be contagious – it behooves all whose causes are sincere to be carriers. In the end, sincerity and respect will create an environment of civility. For those whose motivations are ulterior, nothing ever will.

Rabbi Steven Burg is managing director of the Orthodox Union.

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About the Author: Rabbi Steven Burg is managing director of the Orthodox Union.


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