(September 27, 2019 / JNS) As the year 5780 begins, political division is the predominant theme in both Israel and the United States.
In Israel, two attempts to elect a Knesset in one year may not have been enough. The stalemate that has prevented the formation of a new government is not so much about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies as it is about him. That has been complicated by the re-emergence of the ongoing conflict between secular and religious Jews.
But that may not be as bad as what’s happening in the United States. Americans seem divided into two warring camps that don’t merely disagree about whether President Donald Trump should remain in office as much as they simply cannot tolerate each other’s existence. The rancor is fueled by competing narratives put forth by different sets of politicized media, whose purpose seems mainly in reassuring each side that they are on the side of the angels and that their opponents are the spawn of the devil.
It is in this atmosphere that Jews will head to synagogues in the next week and speak of renewal, repentance and forgiveness. But the sincerity of these avowals remains very much in question.
The same is true of some of our rabbis, who will be regaling their congregations with politicized sermons that may please partisans but do nothing to advance the work of healing the nation.
Some see it is a moral imperative to mobilize their members to oppose Trump. Such rabbis are merely following the lead of their congregants, who want their spiritual leaders to affirm their beliefs rather than challenge their assumptions. For those who see their faith as indistinguishable from their partisan loyalties, it’s easy to blur the distinction between religion and politics. It’s hard to see how the rage that animates so much of our politics is compatible with the imperative to use this time of year to turn inward.
For Jews, the 10 days that encompass Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a period of introspection, during which each of us must conduct a cheshbon hanefesh or an “accounting of our souls.” That means not just deciding whether we’ve lived up to the highest ethical and moral standards, but also whether we’ve done harm to others.
The concept of teshuvah (“repentance”) rests at the heart of this process. If you’ve wronged someone over the course of the year, then this is the moment to sincerely ask for forgiveness and, in turn, to forgive others who might have wronged you.
This has particular relevance at a time of such intense political polarization. Communities, friendships and families have been fractured by the debate about Trump and our culture—debate that seems to revolve around the expression of contempt for opposing views and the individuals that espouse them.
Unlike the sort of ordinary bad behavior that decent people recognize, the contempt for our political foes and the deep anger behind it is something many of us are only too eager to parade before the world. A great number of Americans have come to believe that attacking or shaming those who disagree is evidence of virtue. Rather than apologize for demeaning those with whom we disagree, all too many of us pat ourselves on the back for excoriating those who disagree with us in the most uncivil terms imaginable. And we count on our “friends”—both virtual and real, assuming we still have some of those—to cheer us on. And with a presidential election coming up in which both sides are unlikely to regard any outcome other than victory as legitimate, it will only get worse.
You can blame this on the rise of social media, which has made it so easy to insult people you don’t even know by writing things you won’t dare utter to their faces. But we can’t just blame this on Facebook and Twitter. The fault is ours.
If you attend synagogue this year on Yom Kippur and recite the Al Chet prayer, when all present publicly confess their sins and ask God for forgiveness, this would be a good year to read the text and think seriously about how much of our public discourse in the age of 24/7 cable news and nonstop social-media exchanges falls into some of the categories of conduct for which repentance is required. Behaving with contempt, offensive speech, scoffing, slander, passing judgment and groundless hatred are just some of the sins that are staples of debate.
The answer from some of us will be that the awfulness of the objects of our anger justifies such tactics. That’s an excuse used both by opponents of Trump and those who justify his conduct, as they think it’s the only way to respond. To some extent, the same is true in Israel with respect to Netanyahu. So deep is each side’s conviction that they are right and the other is wrong that every exchange is invariably filled with self-righteous contempt.
So rather than think back on these debates with embarrassment, we arrive at the Al Chet convinced that it is only for others to apologize—and not us.
That’s a terrible mistake. The Days of Awe represent a moment in time when we should focus on finding the courage and the moral strength to forgive, as well as apologize for our faults. We should remember that none of us possess Divine insight, and that acknowledging doubt and what we don’t know is the real beginning of wisdom. Let us say sorry for offending others, forgiving those who have done the same to us and resolving to conduct ourselves, even on points where our feelings are strongest, with more restraint, civility and dignity.
That doesn’t mean we should stop voicing our opinions—or our complaints—about critical issues. But it should motivate us to recognize that “no-holds-barred” contemporary political combat is not only coarsening and corrupting our country, but also our souls.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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