The Urgency of Civility

Seinfeld's Frank Constanza, demonstrating anger

It seems to me that we do not do a lot of talking to each other anymore. There is lots of talking about each other or past each other but not a lot of talking to each other. Furthermore, the tone of our supposed dialogues have become increasingly fractious and divisive. One does not need to look very far to find examples of this phenomenon both from within the Jewish community and in the larger American situation.

Anything we do within our own small communities is now readily available for review by anyone with an Internet connection around the globe. We do not live in a world anymore where I can do what I want or say what I please without facing the potential criticism of a global audience. Yet, is critique always the right approach? The urge to condemn or critique can be strong. One can feel justified in their offering of condemnation, perhaps even righteous, but still is this the preferred approach?

The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 31a, relates the oft-quoted story of the potential convert who came before the first-century sage Shammai, asking to convert on condition that all of Judaism be taught to him while standing on one foot. The Talmud records that Shammai angrily chased him away while whereupon approaching Hillel with the same request, he was immediately converted. Several other stories of a similar nature are offered with the same result: Shammai scolding while Hillel embraced them. It is the end of this particular passage though that most provocatively puts forth a different tactic from the one of critique and condemnation. The Talmud asserts that “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us [converts] from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

On a similar note, the Babylonian Talmud in several places (Eruvin 72b; Hullin 58a; Niddah 59b) demonstrates that the ability to permit something (in Hebrew “koah de’heteira“) is preferable over the opposite ability to prohibit. It takes a careful approach to matters, a nuanced view of a situation and knowledge of all the dimensions to a problem to genuinely permit. Any knee-jerk reactionary can scream from rooftops condemnations but a true mensch and scholar can be expansive and open.

The 16th-century Greek rabbinical judge of the northwestern city of Arta, Rabbi Benjamin Mattathias, in his work of legal rulings teaches that the power to permit is greater than the power to prohibit just as the sayings of scholars is greater than the sayings of prophets (She’alot U’Teshuvot Binyamin Ze’ev, sec. 7). Perhaps we can understand this comparison as telling us that while a scholar can modulate and adjust his or her perspective over time, can take in extenuating circumstances into his or her calculations, this is not possible for a prophet, who simply conveys a Divine message to the people. So too it is all too often easier to prohibit, less taxing and time consuming to just simply say no, but it is the person who weighs all the evidence, considers all the points and perspectives, that can authentically permit. (The same is also true, of course, if the conclusion one arrives at after careful study is a prohibitive one.)

In our world of condemnations, chastisements and ridicule I would like to suggest that the power of praise, while sometimes more difficult and not as natural, is preferable over the power of criticism. There has been lots said in rabbinic thought throughout the ages about the superiority of the koah de’heteira, the power of permitting things, but nowadays I think our time urges us to discuss publicly and openly the koah de’shevah, the power and preference for praise over critique, compliment over ridicule and thoughtfulness over cynicism.

In a society with more praise and less critique, more considerate reflection and less knee-jerk negativity, we might come that much closer to healing the rifts that are tearing us apart and dividing our communities.

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