Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I don’t like to write political posts. Not because I have no political opinions. But because they attract edgy comments.
You might blame social media. But you would be wrong. It’s the people, not the medium.
Years ago, when the Internet was still a twinkle in its creators’ eyes, I loved reading and writing letters to the editor. Here, I thought, is the real heartbeat of the news, a record of what ordinary people think and feel.
Once, a local newspaper published my letter criticizing a politically biased guide to U.S. colleges. In response, I received an anonymous handwritten note at my home. “Dear Ms. Kaplan, based on your letter, I bet you eat p***y.”
Another time, I wrote a letter about a beloved indoor-outdoor cat. After the letter was published, I received an anonymous typewritten letter. It seemed to come from a militant advocate for indoor-only cats. The letter, which the author claimed would be cc’d to my boss, said, “I hope they throw your dead cat on a pile of used tampons.”
You might think I could escape this by sticking to spiritual posts. By focusing on love, reconciliation, and peace. By expressing compassion all around.
No such luck. If you express compassion, you are “asserting a false moral equivalence” between the good and evil sides. If you use humor but a humorless reader takes your words literally, “you are truly an evil person.”
How do I respond to such comments?
Politely: “Thank you for your kind note.”
Kindly: “I’m sorry. It was not my intent to harm anyone or to fail in empathy.”
Generously: “Although your email is anonymous and nasty, it makes some good points.”
The comments leave me feeling hurt and angry. But I don’t respond with righteous indignation. I don’t see how that would help.
My not seeing indignation as helpful could be a fault. Unhappy friends have criticized me for it.
Secretly, I experience these criticisms as compliments. Actually, they identify virtues that I work hard to cultivate. Daily, I reflect on my feelings, trying to get between triggers and reactions.
Inner work is not in and of itself political activism. But refining my feelings seems like taking a stand for something. The human world is simply a network of people. One less conflict, one more accord, strengthens the web. Or so my temperament teaches.
I know others disagree, believing that when you ignore a slight directed at you, your social group, your political or religious beliefs – why, you’ve let it stand. You’ve tacitly agreed with it. You’ve failed to defend yourself and those you claim to care about.
For these others, indignation, affront and anger are important inner postures. With these inner postures, one can protect people, communicate values, and preserve legacies. Holding them is a kind of political action. But is blurting them out an effective action? Perhaps the rude letter writers believe it is. But most of the letters missed their marks of protecting, communicating or preserving.
I don’t want to miss the mark – in social media, personal conversation, or formal dialogue. So I reflect, every day, on a personal prayer of 4th-century Jewish spiritual teacher, Mar bar Ravina. Mar’s prayer appears in the traditional siddur, at the end of the Amidah’s daily silent reflection:
My God, stop my tongue from gossip, and my lips from haughty speech. When others curse me, quiet my reactions; help my being be as porous as dust.
Imagine if each of us recited this mantra just before hitting “send” or “post.” How would our inner lives change? And then our communication? And our political discourse? And maybe even our politics?