It was my honest intent to write an upbeat article for my guest stint in the JTNews. A reflection on the promise of the new secular year, perhaps, or an appreciation of something cute that my children had recently done. Truly, that was my initial plan.
But then, on the first Shabbat of January, horrific events unfolded in Tucson, Arizona, that left six dead and numerous others wounded, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
At the time of the shooting, I was accompanying students to a program in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism. The program strives to educate students about the legislative process, and certainly in that environment in which we were acutely tuned to the work of congress, this egregious attack against a Congresswoman — not to mention a Jewish one — could not escape our attention.
As I write this, Representative Giffords is still hospitalized, but her doctors are hopeful for her recovery. May God grant a refuah shleima to her, and all those injured in that attack. And to the families of the six who tragically lost their lives, may God grant you consolation in your hour of grief.
Jared Lee Loughner, the accused gunman in this attack, has been revealed in the shooting’s aftermath as a deeply disturbed individual. There is evidence that the crime was premeditated and meticulously plotted. Nevertheless, links have been suggested between this act and the sharp rise in nasty rhetoric that has characterized political discourse over the past several months.
It appears that Loughner acted alone, and it would be foolhardy, irresponsible, and disingenuous to suggest that there is any direct correlation between this vitriol and the assassination attempt. Still, we know that words have great power, and there can be no doubt that the highly charged political atmosphere is contributing to an unpleasant environment.
While the key figures on this playing field may not be explicitly endorsing violence against their opponents, phrases such as “Don’t retreat; reload” and the like seem to reflect a trend toward an increasing intolerance for political or philosophical differences. Words do matter; they have incredible power, and while such punditry and clever turns-of-phrase may win one viewers, or listeners, or voters, it does so at the expense of the social weal.
The start of January coincides this year with our annual reading of the book of Shemot. We follow the Israelite journey from enslavement in Mitzrayim toward Canaan, a land of promise. Rabbinic commentators pun on Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt, and “metzar,” meaning a narrow place. They remind us that in every generation each individual undergoes an exodus, not only in the recounting of our ancestral journey, but also in our own struggle to free ourselves from the shackles of narrow-mindedness. May the American community learn from the lesson of Shemot, and emerge from this current culture of narrowness to a land that reflects the beauty that can arise from listening to a diversity of opinions.
In the rabbinic period, disagreements were common, if not essential, as intricate matters of halachah were discussed. The most well known were the struggles between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. In the majority of these cases, the school of Hillel prevailed. The Talmud teaches (Eruvin 13b) that this is because the disciples of Hillel were modest, studying the opinions of both schools, and favorably mentioning the opinions of Beit Shammai before offering their own.
Pirke Avot teaches us “Kol machloket she-hi l’shem shamayim, sofa l’hitkayem” — “Every argument that is conducted for the sake of heaven, is destined to endure.” In other words, it’s okay to argue, so long as we do so respectfully. And, if we could tone down the rhetoric, we might actually find room for meaningful dialogue — and if I dare dream, compromise.