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The BRS Civility Statement – Why Now? Why Ever? Derasha – Parshas Vayeira 2013/5774

on Wednesday, October 23 2013. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

A little over a month ago, BRS emailed our members our newly adopted Civility Statement that reads as follows:

In the spirit of our mission “Valuing Diversity and Celebrating Unity,” we believe that a community is built on the collective engagement of individuals representing differing perspectives, whether religious, political, or social.  As Boca Raton Synagogue is an environment where all of its members and visitors need to feel valued and welcomed, members are required to comport themselves in a manner which reflects mutual respect and a sense of inclusiveness.

In our Synagogue, we value debate about pressing issues.  This is consistent with the American democratic tradition.  Our sages saw the value of arguments conducted l”shem shamayim” for the sake of heaven,” believing that great minds who engage in respectful debate, will arrive at better solutions.  They valued and welcomed alternate views, as do we.

“Derech Eretz,” good and proper conduct, and mutually respectful dialogue are core values of the Synagogue community.  These create a “safe place” for inspiration and spiritual growth, the central purpose of the Synagogue.  It is a violation of Jewish law and ethics to use harsh language (vitriol) to demonize or to marginalize people with whom one may disagree.   Uncivil expression reflects negatively on our Synagogue as well as on the individuals who engage in such behavior.

Boca Raton Synagogue expects its members to act and to speak with kindness and sensitivity to others. It is only in this fashion that a strong, vibrant, and harmonious community can be created and maintained. Adherence to this policy is a requirement for membership in good standing at the Boca Raton Synagogue.

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The statement was authored by a diverse group of our members under the leadership of Jeff Klein.  Their task was simply to articulate a statement capturing something that we all already know and hopefully live, namely, the basic principle and value of civility or, put differently, derech eretz.  The statement was approved by the executive board of the Shul and then by the board of directors.  They agreed, almost unanimously, that though our community has no specific or particular struggle in this regard, there is a general deterioration in society of civility and derech eretz and our community, therefore, would be expressing leadership by making a statement of what membership in BRS means.

The board approved the committee’s suggestions including placing the statement in all of our literature such as the Weekly, in sharing it with guest speakers and scholars in residence as a guide for the tone of their talks, and lastly, in what seemed like a good idea at the time, to have every member sign the statement as an affirmation that this is something real and meaningful for our community to work on collectively.

To be honest, I thought the Civility Statement was as ordinary as mom and apple pie.  Who wouldn’t agree that we need to treat one another civilly and with derech eretz?  I expected very little response and anticipated that if people did have something to say it would be positive and appreciative of the effort to take a leadership position on a growing issue broadly.

Indeed, there was much positive response.  A handful of my colleagues reached out to say that they thought it was a great idea and saw it as a model for something they could replicate in their communities.  Individuals from our Shul wrote or mentioned that they appreciated the effort to create a warm and open environment for diverse views and positions, and that they greatly valued this effort.

However, I was shocked to have received some strong negative pushback as well. Much of the opposition to the civility statement stemmed from the feeling that being civil and having derech eretz is “obvious” and need not be said.   Remarkably, some of those who thought the statement was completely unnecessary expressed their feelings in what I would consider uncivil ways. One person actually took the statement, crossed it out, wrote a note to me on the bottom, saying: “my civility guide is the Torah!!  We don’t need another.  What hubris!”

Another person cynically wrote:

“How about adherence to

a – not beating your wife or kids….

b – not cheating the government, your fellow Jew…etc.

c – giving Tzedaka in proportion to our means…

d – not speaking “lashon hara ”

e – not acting promiscuously

f – not using HaShem’s name in vain

g – etc. etc.

Where are these principles also included in this statement which would be critical to being a member of the Shul??”  The email’s author concluded sarcastically, “Of course, minor things such as Chillul Shabbat and Kashruth cannot be included.”

Others, very concerned that they had missed some exciting drama, maybe something a little juicy, emailed me wondering what precipitated the statement.  What happened?  Who did what to whom?  Clearly something happened for the Shul to go to all this trouble.  “C’mon, fill me in” was the message I received from many.

As you can see, the Civility Statement elicited strong feelings and reactions in many directions, so I thought it would be worthwhile to share with you how it came to be and why I think it is important now more than ever.

The Beis HaLevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the first of the Brisker dynasty, felt uncomfortable wearing his Rabbinic uniform when traveling.  Once, he set out on a journey from Brisk to Baranovitch and didn’t want to be recognized, so he dressed in plain clothing, rather than the traditional Rabbinic uniform.  It was a freezing cold Lithuanian winter and the Beis HaLevi was traveling by horse and buggy.  The wind was strong enough to go right through to your bones and made being outside unbearable.  The driver recognized that they would not reach their destination before nightfall and, together with Rav Soloveitchik, decided to stop at a Jewish inn on the side of the road.

They knocked on the door only to be greeted by a grumpy innkeeper who unsympathetically asked what did they want.  They explained that they wouldn’t reach their destination that evening and needed lodging for one night, but the innkeeper was emphatic that he had no room because he was expecting a delegation of important guests.  The Beis HaLevi insisted that they would freeze and ultimately the inn keeper relented and told them they could enter so long as they agreed to sleep on the floor at the end of the hallway and pay an exorbitant sum of a ruble for the night.  Having no other choice, they agreed.

Not long after they settled in for the night, an entourage of Chassidim arrived, led by their Rebbe, the illustrious Reb Aharon of Koidenov.   The innkeeper and his wife rushed to greet the important guests whose arrival they were waiting for.  They provided red-carpet treatment, greeted them with big smiles, lit a warm fire, and prepared hot tea.

After warming themselves, the Rebbe, Reb Aharon realized they had not yet davened ma’ariv and went to wash his hands before beginning the evening prayer.  He made his way down the hallway when he noticed two Jews sleeping like homeless people on the hallway floor.  One of them looked remarkably familiar and upon a closer look Reb Aharon realized that yes indeed, it was none other than the great Talmid Chacham, one of the leaders of the generation, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Beis HaLevi.  He let out  a scream as he rushed to ask the Rav of Brisk, what are you doing lying on the floor?

The Chassidic entourage and the innkeeper rushed to see what the commotion was about.  Imagine his surprise when he learned that one of the gedolei ha’dor was in the same inn but sleeping on the hallway floor.  The innkeeper was humiliated: how could he have treated such a distinguished guest so casually and cavalierly as if he were an average person?  In front of everyone, he immediately turned to the Rav of Brisk and begged forgiveness.  “I am very sorry for how I behaved. I didn’t realize that you were the Beis HaLevi.” Without missing  a beat, the Beis HaLevi bluntly responded, “I don’t forgive you.”  The innkeeper was stunned but he asked again, “I didn’t realize it was you, please forgive me.”  Again, the Beis HaLevi said, “I don’t forgive you.”  Now, the innkeeper was beside himself.  He couldn’t think of anything else he could do other than ask one last time, “please, I implore you Rebbe, forgive me for I didn’t recognize you.”

The Beis HaLevi relented on one condition.  “I will forgive you as long as you let me tell you a dvar Torah,” he said.

“In Parshas Vayeira we are taught about two individuals who seem to equally excel at the same mitzvah, hachnasas orchim, gracious hospitality.  Avraham Avinu was 99 years old, on the third and most painful day after giving himself a bris milah, a circumcision.  Despite the blazing sun, Avraham sits outside his tent desperate to welcome guests.  When Hashem finally sends him three angels, Avraham rolls out the red carpet.  Without regard for having just had surgery, he runs back and forth and recruits his wife and son Yishmael to take good care of his guests.   Though they are angels, Avraham thinks they are anonymous, insignificant Arabs and treats them like royalty.  Understandably, the Torah lavishes great praise upon Avraham for his behavior.

Later in our parsha, we find Avraham’s nephew, Lot, seemingly showing the same wonderful behavior as his uncle.  When he encounters three angels, he invites them to his home and refuses to take no for an answer.   When they acquiesce, Lot prepares a lavish meal for them and, like his uncle, treats his guests like royalty.  Soon after, when the wicked residents of Sedom learn of Lot’s guests and demand they be handed over, Lot protects them, risking his life.

One would fully expect Lot to receive great recognition and reward for his excelling at this wonderful mitzvah.  Yet, when Lot was rescued from the destruction of Sedom, Rashi goes out of his way to tell us that it is only in the merit of his uncle Avraham and not in his own.”  The Beis HaLevi turned to the innkeeper and said, “Why would Lot not have the same merit?  Didn’t he exhibit the same behavior?  Why did he need to rely on the merit of his uncle?”

The Beis HaLevi explained: “When Avraham hosted the angels, he thought they were regular men, nobody special.  Nevertheless, Avraham troubled himself right after surgery to care for their needs with enthusiasm, zeal and devotion.  Avraham treated the Arab wanderer as though he were an angel.

Lot, in great contrast, knew from the start he was dealing with angels, emissaries of Hashem.  He treated them like royalty, but who wouldn’t take such good care of angels?  Lot only lavished such hospitality when it served his needs and advanced his personal agenda.  Avraham treated everyone the exact same way and displayed the same honor to a seemingly insignificant stranger as he would to an angel.”   The Beis Halevi looked squarely at the innkeeper and said, “It is no excuse to say that you did not recognize me and therefore treated me so harshly.  It makes no difference who I was, you should have welcomed me respectfully and graciously, as you should all your guests no matter who they are.”

Avraham, our patriarch and forefather, who remains a model for us until this very day, treated every single person the same way.  It is easy to be civil, kind and giving to those who think the same way as you, believe in the same beliefs as you, and vote the same way as you.  But that is not when it counts and that is not when it matters.  Displaying derech eretz, civility and graciousness to someone who is different is where effort is required and it is when our real worth as descendants of Avraham is measured.

The Netziv writes that the book of Bereishis is called Sefer Ha’Yashar because Avraham and his descendants were yesharim, they were straight, honest, had integrity and treated all people properly.  Says the Netziv:  “The greatness of the Patriarchs in addition to the fact that they were righteous, pious and lovers of God as much as possible, is that they were straight and honest.  Namely, they interacted with the nations of the world, even repulsive, disgusting idolators, with love and an effort to improve their lives since they too are part of God’s creation.”

Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov lived before the Torah was given.  We learn about their lives in depth because we are to emulate their interpersonal behavior.  Derech eretz kadma la’Torah.  Proper conduct, common courtesy, living with civility, come before the Torah and is a prerequisite to Torah.  Avraham was called ivri because he was me’eiver, on the other side of every issue from the rest of the world.  He disagreed vehemently and passionately with his contemporaries but nevertheless he did so with civility, derech eretz, and graciousness.

So what precipitated the Civility Statement?  Why now and why ever?  Last year, a woman met with me to explain why she would be resigning her membership to the Shul and not coming anymore.  Of course I took a great interest not because of the money or membership but because there was clearly something going on that was bothering her and her family enough to leave the Shul.

Our meeting came closely after the 2012 presidential election and she explained that her personal views on politics were perhaps not the same as the supposed majority.  She described that even though she didn’t share her views publicly, didn’t lobby, campaign or proselytize, it wasn’t a secret that she identified with a particular candidate.  As a result, she explained, she was treated with animosity, hostility, loathing, criticism, and even name-calling.  She went on to explain that she didn’t grow up in an observant community and was relatively new to observance.   “I come to shul to find a peaceful, safe space,” she explained.  “I come to be with people who want to connect with community and with God.  I don’t come to experience negativity and so I will no longer be coming.”

I was stunned.  While not rampant or widespread, there is no question that some people who feel very passionately about their positions often don’t communicate them appropriately and respectfully.  As I listened to her perspective and experience, I realized how right she was and how responsible I, together with the lay leadership of the Shul, am to help create and maintain a safe, warm and welcoming environment for a wide and diverse array of people.

Around the same time, a member of our Shul forwarded me an email she had received from another member.  The recipient was a single woman who posted on the community message board about a singles event she was organizing.  A married woman in the community responded to her post by writing: “If you’d stop supporting the TOXIC CANCER you might find someone normal in the crowd where we are right now!”  Imagine how you would feel if you were trying to do a noble task of organizing a singles gathering and you receive a hostile email like that.

To be clear, a lack of civility and basic derech eretz is not just about politics.  Talking during davening and preventing others from connecting to Hashem is grossly uncivil.  One person wrote to me last week, “I was in the main minyan and a woman was talking loudly and incessantly to her two friends during Torah reading.  When I asked her if she could kindly not talk so that other people could hear the Torah, she said so nastily: ‘This is MY Shul.  If you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere.’  This was so venomous that I just said to her: ‘It’s my shul as well.’”

Walking right past people who are different from you as if they are invisible and aren’t worthy of a good Shabbos, is uncivil.  Not holding the door, or cutting the line at a Kiddush, is uncivil.  Reading a book while someone is giving a sermon or blocking the view of the speaker from others while you are catching up on davening is insensitive and lacks derech eretz.

A lack of derech eretz and civility is not a local issue.  In Israel, we are all familiar with the horrific behavior in Beit Shemesh a few summers ago.  Shuls across the country are struggling with how people treat one another and talk to and about one another.  Schools are grappling with replacing bullying with derech eretz and common courtesy.

In Congress, just these past few weeks we witnessed perhaps an unprecedented level of bi-partisan incivility.  Grown men and women who are supposedly our leaders called one another every name in the book including anarchists, terrorists, jihadists and more.  They pointed fingers at one another, called each other names, refused to talk or negotiate and put on display for our children a perfect performance in how not to resolve your differences.

Again, to be clear, the Torah, BRS and the Civility Statement are not seeking uniformity.  Diversity is part of our motto and the dignity of difference is fundamental to our community’s mission.  We can disagree vehemently, see things in polar opposite ways, behave differently, vote differently, daven differently, and root for different sports teams.  What we cannot do is turn differences into divisiveness, or respectful debate and dialogue into bullying, vitriol and demeaning language.

We cannot call names and speak dismissively of others.  It is horrible how comfortable we have gotten with referring to public figures with name-calling.  “He is such a moron, she is a total idiot, and they are absolute imbeciles.”  Instead of debating issues and putting forth compelling positions, we have resorted to calling names, thereby reflecting so terribly on ourselves and putting forth such a negative example for our children.

Yes, there will be times that we must take strong positions, make decisions that will have real consequences and implications, but we must do so with respect, dignity and civility.

I must tell you that not only is it inappropriate, incorrect and unacceptable to speak harshly, it is also not effective.  Nobody ever changed an opinion or observance because they were yelled at, called a name or dismissed.  Shlomo Ha’Melech teaches us in Kohelles: Divrei Chachamim b’nachas nishma’im.  The more gentle, refined and respectful we communicate, the better the chance that our position will be heard and perhaps even embraced.  It is not a coincidence that the same Avraham who was the ivri, on the other side of every debate, also succeeded in winning over thousands of followers.  His methodology of respectful debate and the power of persuasion proved incredibly effective.

So why did we have to release the Civility statement, doesn’t everybody know that derech eretz kadma la’Torah?  Why must we state or sign onto the obvious, I was asked numerous times?  The Arizal writes that before davening each and every day all of us should recite, hineni muchan u’mezuman l’kayeim mitzvas v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha.  Why does the Arizal ask us to say it each and every day, doesn’t everybody know to love neighbors as themselves?  Isn’t it the klal gadol ba’Torah, it is obvious?  And why specifically before davening and not at some other time?

Firstly, you see that just because something should be obvious it doesn’t mean that it need not be said, and said, and said over and over again, every single day.  For the Arizal, we are about to come to Shul, daven with the community, interact with a diverse range of people, and we must remind ourselves that our talk with God is only welcome after we have committed to talk properly with people.  V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha.  “Love my children, even the ones you disagree with, and then – and only then – you can claim to love me,” says God.  “Talk nicely to everyone, even those who you differ from greatly, and then you can talk to me.”

Asking people to sign on to the statement is simply a way of creating a campaign and movement to be mindful of how we talk to one another.  If you don’t want to sign in, by all means, don’t sign it, but I beg you, I implore us all, to do better at living it.  Once again, the BRS Civility Statement did not come about because our community has a particular or acute problem.   All communities and society as a whole seem to have a growing problem and with this statement, BRS was simply trying to tackle it head on, rather than ignore or be indifferent to it.

Why not a statement about not beating your wife, not cheating the government, keeping Shabbos, as I was asked with righteous indignation?  Because our tradition says derech eretz kadma la’Torah, it doesn’t say not beating your wife kadma la’Torah.  Derech eretz is one of the four things that the Talmud tells us constantly need chizuk, not Shabbos or kashrus.

Rather than read an agenda or ulterior motive into the civility statement, I invite you to partner and help us be the safest, most welcoming, and warmest Shul campus in the country.  Let’s continue to disagree, but agreeably.  Let’s continue vigorous debate, but respectfully, not divisively.  Let’s truly be the progeny of Avraham Avinu and treat every human being with dignity and honor and thereby, please God, ourselves be worthy of being called yesharim.

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