As a native New Yorker, I, like so many Americans, have been following the political season in the United States and the upcoming elections. But as a rabbi and an educator, I am always watching and reading with an eye toward lessons, inherent messages and the educational climate that is constantly evolving and changing.
As I followed the respective Democratic and Republican party’s political conventions just recently concluded (and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian federal election of last year), I was struck by the thought that, unfortunately, many of our children who are watching and reading about the American political season are being exposed to rhetoric that is intemperate, shrill and personal, and that our children may be tempted to emulate this behaviour.
Perhaps it is symbolic that the U.S. election is entering a new stage at the same time as the Jewish People mark the Nine Days. The Nine Days are supposed to be a time in which we exercise extreme care in our interpersonal relationships and interpersonal speech, a time when we are taught to engage in introspection within ourselves and our community, examine our levels of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and do our best to refocus our efforts towards ahavat chinam (unconditional love).
The Talmud in Tractate Gitten (55b) describes how a man with a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza hosted a lavish party. By mistake, Bar Kamtza, the enemy, was invited in place of Kamtza, the friend. When the host arrived at the party to see his enemy sitting and enjoying himself, he berated Bar Kamtza and physically threw him out of the party, despite Bar Kamtza’s repeated requests to stay and offer to pay for the entire party. The Talmud says that, “because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.”
We often forget that Bar Kamtza was initially innocent, that he happened to be invited to the wrong party. He was terribly embarrassed and declared, “If the rabbis were there and did not object, it must be that they agreed with what happened.” As a result, Bar Kamtza decided to take revenge upon the rabbis and the Jewish community by setting in motion a series of events that led the Roman emperor to conclude that the Jewish community of Jerusalem had gravely insulted him and were in rebellion against Rome.
While the Talmud declares that this story may have been the proximate cause to the destruction of Jerusalem, the ultimate exile of the Jewish People was prophesied already. One way or another, it would have happened. And yet, reading this story leaves the impression that if the leaders at that time had just stood up to the host and declared their outrage at the way another person was being spoken to and treated, perhaps the Beit Hamikdash would have been spared.
Many of us who observe the current debates, tweets and one-liners offered by American politicians react with laughter, at best, or, at worst, with approval of or partial acceptance of the harshly negative and personal comments we hear. If we react that way, knowingly or not, we may be demonstrating to those around us, most significantly our children, that this type of speech and behaviour is socially acceptable, perhaps even necessary to get ahead and be successful. I have no doubt that if our children spoke that way about or toward others, we would be horrified, but we perhaps fail to realize the implicit impact we are having on their eventual speech and behaviour if we do not overtly and outwardly express our disappointment over the seemingly appalling choice of words and responses from these political leaders.
We should instead try to emulate the schools of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who vehemently disputed so many issues related to our sacred Jewish law, yet, despite their disagreements, consistently showed love, mutual respect, deference and even friendship to one another. Perhaps all schools could even try to use the current political climate as a motivation to focus and plan for a much-needed emphasis on midot and menschlichkeit, and create programs and initiatives to heighten our sensitivity and raise our awareness toward a culture and world that is seemingly headed in the opposite direction when it comes to respectful disagreements and deferential discourse.
As Tisha b’Av nears, I hope an increased focus around positive and pro-social behaviour built on respect and care for others will bring about a special upcoming 50th celebration of Jerusalem that will not only celebrate our beloved city, but usher in the building of our Third Temple.
Rabbi Seth Grauer is the rosh yeshiva and head of school at Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto, Yeshivat Or Chaim and Ulpanat Orot Girls School.