At the close of a heated election season during which people held tightly to their political identities, the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix wanted to do something to lower the rhetorical temperature and bring the local Jewish community together.
And on Nov. 10, JCRC released its video “Machloket L’shem Shemayim Project” on YouTube with that goal in mind.
Paul Rockower, JCRC’s executive director, explained the name choice.
“It’s the notion that you can have disagreement with civility,” he said. “That’s a rabbinic idea that really focuses on disagreement with civility, and that Jewish tradition is very profound.”
The video features nine area rabbis talking about moving past the divisiveness and general anger of election season to a place of compassion and common understanding. The 5-minute video moves quickly between participants who echo one another’s points and, at times, answer one another’s questions.
Rockower said that while the JCRC board talked about including laypeople, ultimately they decided it was best to have only clergy.
“We chose rabbis to be the spokespeople for this because there was a lot going on prior to the elections about clergy helping to deescalate and tamp things down,” he said. “We thought the rabbinic community would be the best mechanism to discuss bringing the community together and healing.”
Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman of Congregation Kehillah started things off by detailing the project’s raison d’être: It is time to bring the Jewish community together and rise above partisan politics. To accomplish that, she explained that she and her fellow rabbis would speak about civility, unity and healing “in the wake of this turbulent political season.”
Reflecting on the project’s name, Sharfman opined that “deeply ingrained in our tradition is a respect for machloket, for argumentation, for l’shem shemayim, for the sake of heaven. “In other words, argumentation to seek truth without disparagement.”
Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Congregation Beth Tefillah followed on Sharfman’s heels, speaking about the resentment and animosity bred by this year’s election and the need to put it aside and come together again as a community.
The idea that some people believe only their candidate is acceptable is a dangerous one, Rabbi Yossi Levertov of Chabad of Scottsdale said, because that way of thinking leaves no room for other people or other opinions — which only accentuates animosity.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz of Valley Beit Midrash and Rabbi Stephen Kahn of Congregation Beth Israel followed with a call for healing. Kahn also pointed out the need for “compassion and wisdom” in the days following the election.
“The moment calls for some calm, some patience and some thoughtful analysis,” Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai said.
“How do we move forward as a country? How do we move forward as a community?” asked Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami.
“I believe that this is a leadership opportunity for us as a Jewish community to help forge a path forward,” answered Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs of Beth Joseph Congregation. He denied claims that diversity need be divisive. “There’s no better time to show how ethnicity can unite us, even though we have differences as Jews among ourselves.”
Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel celebrated the diversity of opinion in the Jewish community and explained that even with different ways of worship and ideas, there can be a “paradoxical unity.”
The unity Linder and Isaacs spoke of is “a true unity built upon difference,” said Yanklowitz, who recalled the phrase the project is named for. “The Jewish tradition is built upon machloket, a Talmudic discourse of disagreement.”
“What is it about the messages that I feel so strongly about that’s not resonating with the rest of America?” Chernow encouraged viewers to ask themselves, while Allouche encouraged people to “see the good in everyone.”
Rabbi Elana Kanter of The New Shul challenged people who feel anger toward those they disagree with to imagine them as babies and children — not to disparage them, but to remember their vulnerability. That in itself “can open us to compassion and let our anger find another home,” she said.
Schneider reminded people that acts of tikkun olam are the Jewish response to how individuals will leave the world better, and Yankowitz reiterated “our Jewish identity is greater than any political identity.”
Isaacs encouraged Jews to be “a model for a divided nation” by finding common ground, and Linder suggested the importance of finding a core group of Jewish values to have unity and a common foundation.
Ultimately, “it is respect that is the antidote to the plague of intolerance,” Levertov said.
The video wrapped up with the rabbis asking God’s blessing on the country and the Jewish community, as well as their hopes for peace and understanding.
“Bringing people together to see we’re one community when it comes down to it,” said Rockower, is really what the video is all about. JN
To see the video, go to: https://youtu.be/iSu7W4sPJdA