The character Larry David plays on TV is one of the most annoying, infuriating people any one of us could ever meet. He is self-centered to the point of absurdity and his need to be right about everything jeopardizes his closest relationships. In the seventh season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, Cheryl. In the season’s last episode, Cheryl’s resistance is finally breaking down. But, in the meantime, Larry has been accused by a friend of putting a glass of water on a wooden table and staining the wood. He is convinced he is innocent and passionately searches for the real criminal.
In the last scene of the season, Cheryl looks at Larry lovingly, and tells him she thinks they really belong together. They are about to embrace.
But Cheryl has a drink in her hand.
She puts it down on the wooden table so she can give Larry a hug. At that moment, Larry’s eyes open wide and a look of horror crosses his face. He looks at Cheryl accusingly and says, “Do you respect wood?”
The moment of tenderness passes, and the season ends.
In the book of Devarim, we read the famous line: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” — justice, justice, you shall pursue. To be a rodef tzedek is to be emotionally churned up about what’s wrong in the world. Yet the rabbis went out of their way to undermine this text. Why “tzedek tzedek,” asked the rabbis? Wouldn’t one tzedek have been enough? They answered: “Echad din, v’echad p’shara.” One tzedek is to teach us we should pursue what’s right. And, the other tzedek teaches us to compromise.
Why did the rabbis do this? After all, compromise is about letting go of some of our desire for justice. But the rabbis understood that our unchecked passion for justice has the potential to do tremendous damage to our relationships.
In Benjamin Balint’s new book, Running Commentary, he says that Commentary Magazine has lost some of its vibrance because it has settled into an ideological position that is too comfortable and predictable. There was a time, says Balint, that you could see warriors of the right and the left slugging it out in the pages of Commentary. Nowadays, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when you read Commentary, and that is a loss to the Jewish community.
I would add to Balint’s observation that this dynamic is true of the Jewish community as a whole: There is a loss of tolerance for diversity in our own community. We are increasingly quick to pre-judge people based on what we think they believe, and we are more prone than ever before to demand that our loyal friends march with us lockstep on a checklist of issues which we determine are the right way and the only way.
We say we love diversity. But do we really deserve that reputation? Can we really disagree with each other on issues close to our heart without name calling? If that’s the case, no Jew should be called an enemy of Israel or a self-hating Jew because they support J Street. And no Jew should be ostracized or looked down upon because he or she belongs to the Republican Party.
The recent debate over whether a mosque should be built in New York near Ground Zero is a good example. Wherever we come down on this issue, I think we can all acknowledge that this issue is complex. You are not an idiot or anti-American if you believe the primary value that needs to be upheld here is that of religious freedom. And, you are not a bigot and a racist if you believe that a mosque should not be built in this particular place at this particular time.
The politics of contempt has become all too pervasive across the spectrum, on the left and on the right. The derisive labeling of the other and the crude lumping together of people we’ve decided are our opponents has stifled real conversation and has put a damper on the truly open exchange of ideas. I’ve heard more than one story of friends and family members who have stopped talking to each other over political differences.
Diversity begins at home, in our own community, in our own congregation, in our own relationships. Benjy Balint’s prescription for Commentary is a great model for community, too. We are far more interesting, dynamic, and ethically sensitive when we have not settled into a predictable way of thinking or acting.
So, I want to encourage all of us to try this technique. Whenever we’re in danger of feeling a little too self-righteous, let’s get in touch with our inner Larry David. The next time an argument threatens to get heated and personal, let’s turn to our partner, our friend, or our neighbor and ask them: “Do you respect wood?”
For the sake of shalom bayit, the time has come for all of us to curb our enthusiasm — to step back from our own passion just enough to respect our friend’s point of view. We don’t have to relinquish our deepest convictions. Just a little bit will go a long way to preserving the relationships that are so important to us.
Maybe there is truly no hope for Larry David. But maybe , because of his hilarious example, there can be hope for all of us.