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Rabbi to Rabbi: Managing our anger

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Meditation. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

RABBI AVI FINEGOLD

Founder, the Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal

RABBI PHILIP SCHEIM

Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, Toronto


Rabbi Scheim: As we approach Tisha b’Av and reflect on rabbinic sources that suggest that sinat chinam (baseless hatred) amongst the Jews was a cause of the ancient destructions of Jerusalem, the oversized role that anger plays in our lives today comes to mind.

Politics makes us angry; the actions of Israel’s chief rabbinate make us angry; BDS and other insidious calumnies targeting Israel make us angry. One has only to glance at the comments sections of online media to witness the prevalence of unrestrained anger, which people seem entitled to share with the world from the safety of their computers.

Maybe it is in our interest to use the forthcoming Fast of Av not only to remember past tragedies, but to focus on our own need to manage anger, to ensure that our words, both written and spoken, bring comfort and healing to a community and to a world already overburdened by the forces of hate.

Rabbi Finegold: My sense is that at the core of sinat chinam and the anger it engenders, lies a lack of empathy for others and a feeling that other people’s positions are not valid. Much of the anger and hatred could be avoided if we focus on the idea of machloket l’shem shamayim, that an argument is for the sake of heaven. As difficult as it may be to imagine, that is usually the case.

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I suspect that we both harbour similar ideas about Israel’s chief rabbinate, but we must strive to accept that they too are trying to do what they perceive to be the will of God. Let us remember that it is OK, even sometimes desirable, to disagree. But it is dangerous to disagree without any valid reasoning and without recognizing that the other side usually also has equally valid reasons.

Rabbi Scheim: You may be a nicer person than I in being melamed zekhut, striving to seek the good in chief rabbinate machinations. Religion and politics are a toxic mix and I struggle to imagine any altruistic or heavenly motivation in what amounts to the often insensitive and harsh treatment of those wanting nothing more than to be married (or converted) in accordance with our tradition.

But I do agree that, wherever possible, we have to value those with whom we disagree and, as you alluded to, in the tradition of Beit Hillel, to seek to understand the opposing viewpoint and to recognize its validity, even when we disagree. The polarity of today’s politics, which is especially evident in the U.S. and Israel (and to a lesser extent in Canada), at a time when few search for common ground, almost as a matter of principle, does not make for a better world.

When we resolve to seek understanding instead of resorting to anger and relentlessly clinging to our positions, we will have turned a corner that cries out to be turned.

Rabbi Finegold: Do I doubt that many of those working at the chief rabbinate think that what they are doing is the will of God? Not at all. But, as you point out, what they do is very often insensitive and harsh.

I have always maintained that my pluralism ends with the person who is unwilling to extend pluralism to others. And yet, these are the very people who we are usually angered by. I often understand exactly why intolerant people are intolerant. That does not help. The willingness to be flexible in our position does not help either, when the other side has chosen to cling firmly to theirs.

Perhaps that is the true work that needs to happen. Perhaps when we get to a point where we have good reason to be angry and to hate, but are able to avoid rising to the level of anger and hate, we will be able to set ourselves on a new path. I would love to be able to work on myself and get to the point where I can say, “I know that this person, or group of people, are absolutely wrong. I know that history will vindicate my view on this debate. Yet being angry or hating those on the other side will not benefit this debate, or my relationship with these people, so I choose to let it go.”

Maybe I’ll spend some time on Tisha b’Av working on this.