Civility is Not Enough Anymore

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 26, 2018 / 17 Cheshvan 5779 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rav Kook—Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook—the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of modern day Israel. He’s been on my mind along with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Rav Kook was a great modern mystic. In those early pre-state days, there was tremendous enmity between religious Jews and the “free” or secular Jews. A thick cloud of suspicion prevented one from seeing the other except as grotesque caricatures. They viewed one another as existentially problematic—as enemies really fighting for vastly different images of what society should look like.

Into that world of fragmentation, Rav Kook discovered a mysticism of unity by which he was able to perceive the essential roles that religious and secular alike were charged with. Moreover, he was able to discern that these two groups who seemed so different on the surface were both engaged in the same work. His mysticism was not a private activity—it led him to take actions unimaginable in those times. At tremendous social cost, he forged relationships with the secular Jews of his time and visited them not to transform them to his way of thinking, but rather to be transformed by them. Remarkable.

My internal urgency to rediscover Rav Kook’s work has grown as politicians in restaurants are accosted and screamed at by an incensed citizenry, or as bombs are sent to their homes or to the news agencies who report on all this. The anger coursing through our society is stunning. It affects almost everyone. Most of us are not going to threaten our politicians in such dramatic ways. Yet with so much self-righteousness swirling about, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that many people are enjoying a bit of schadenfreude when politicians they dislike “get what’s coming to them.” After all, how many people believe “I am only angry because they made me angry?”

In response to the letter bombs, our same leaders who have publicly been dismissive of their opponents have issued reminders that we need to be civil. They make proclamations that while it is acceptable and even praiseworthy to resist policies with which we disagree or even find abhorrent, we must do so in a civil manner.

Such urgings, coming as they do from our national leaders, ring a bit hollow. For a slew of reasons, our politics has become a blood sport. Winning at all costs has become the goal, and the blame game is a useful tool in this endeavor.

From my vantage, that tendency is hardly partisan, nor is it limited to the political class. We have arrived here together as a society, and unless we seek communal answers and approaches, all of us ultimately will bear the cost of our collective anger. Truth is, our bill has already come due.

Still, to hear those who are uncivil professionally now urge restraint upon us? To be instructed in proper behavior by the very people who consistently cast blame on their political opponents in the most noxious of ways? Well, it boggles the mind. These calls for civility are no longer sufficient. 

That may seem surprising coming from these quarters. For the past number of years, my own commitment to dialogue, civility, and encounter with those who think differently has been on public display. It doesn’t mean I always get it right—believe me, I am fully cognizant of my shortcomings in this arena. Nonetheless, my commitment to civility is iron-clad and consistent. Sometimes, in fact, I sound to myself like a broken record.

Next week, I’ll be on retreat with state faith leaders who are gathering precisely to demonstrate those very qualities of dialogue, civility, and encounter. I’ve been asked to frame our time together using the very listening tools that the Kindness Commons has developed to transmit the values of a civil society.

And even so, civility is not enough. Because even when we are committed to comport ourselves in a respectful manner, the best of us still stumble. None of us get this right. Even if our public behavior is exemplary, we might find that our thoughts remain a jumble of rage.

That’s the thing with anger. It’s hard to contain. One day, we are angry for noble reasons. The next day we’ve lost control of those internal energies. We allow a familial spat to fester until we can no longer see our role in the dysfunction and blame our relatives as our family implodes.

Or our fury sends us to our garages where we first build and then send bombs to public officials. Untreated anger may not show up in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as its own mental illness (though there is a category called “intermittent explosive disorder”), but anger is most definitely a form of spiritual illness.

On the one hand, as Gandhi held, anger is to people as gasoline is to cars. It fuels us. Like gasoline, it propels us to stand up and build a better society. Our Sages weren’t familiar with gasoline, so they framed this phenomenon as the “yetzer hara,” or the evil impulse. It’s a term they derived from the Biblical Hebrew in the story of Cain and Abel and the Generation of the Flood. So too, in this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, Abraham uses his righteous indignation to challenge God to deal justly with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Without the productive use of our yetzer hara, it is stated that no house would be built and no chicken would lay an egg. Yet without proper constraints, the evil impulse can lead us to engage in a host of destructive behaviors that harm us and those around us. Similarly, in a properly tuned engine, the explosive power of gasoline is harnessed into productive forward motion. Hollywood, meanwhile, is quite adept at portraying the destructive power of gasoline as chase scenes often end with a car exploding in dramatic technicolor.

Anger can take us where we need to go, or it can ensure we don’t get anywhere.

Which is why calls for civility are insufficient. Learning to channel and transform our rage into socially productive forms is a spiritual discipline. That is one of the reasons our politics as they are currently constituted are insufficient because in a nation that (properly) separates religion and state, it is very difficult to legislate this spiritual work. Each of us needs to take responsibility for the shape of our internal world. Like a landscaper, we must peer at what is there, develop a vision of what ought to be there, then cultivate that image until it takes form. Civility is as much a product of this inner work as it is a tool to get us there.

That’s what has led me to think about MLK and Rav Kook. We need a new national language of love for our day such as they developed for their historical moment. A language that allows us to see everyone—especially those with whom we disagree—as our friends.

One role of a true friend is to help us become our best selves. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t condone racism. He wasn’t civil to bigots as an answer or a resting place. Rather, he understood that to achieve the massive social change we needed, all hands were needed on deck. And the only motivating force strong enough to create such unity is love.

Fear divides. Love unites. Anger can lead us in either direction.

Which way will you go?

Love and blessings,

– Rav D



Shabbat Table Talk

  1. In your heart of hearts, do you believe your enemy has something to teach you? How can a positive image of “the other” help you grow as a person?
  2. What is the state of your inner landscape these days? How often do you wrestle with powerful feelings of anger?
  3. In this age of suspicion, do you mostly find yourself hopeful, resigned or depressed?

Elections are coming. Please be an informed voter.

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