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Rabbi Jennifer Krause

Rabbi Jennifer Krause

Posted: August 19, 2009 11:10 AM

For Heaven's Sake, See the Movie!


I don't know about you, but summer serves up such a huge bumper-crop of movies that I barely know what to see first.

For instance, I've heard amazing things about a couple of new flicks, now playing in a high school cafeteria or community center near you: "Smiteapalooza"-- Angry Red-Faced Man gets all up in Crooked Senator's grill at a Health care Reform town meeting and shouts, "God will judge you!" Crowd erupts into "Norma Ray" (although in no way socialist)-style applause at the specter of Crooked Senator's pending divine smackdown.

Also playing: "Dis-ruption"-- The Disrupter, wearing a "Pro-Life American" t-shirt and a leather Blackhawk gun holster, and The Real Disrupter, clad in a Juicy Couture "Anti-Healthcare Reform=Pro-Death" hoodie, hurl pithy insults at one another sure to be played and replayed for days on YouTube and the evening news. Eventually unable to determine who the True Disrupter is, the assembled crowd leaves the building to go grab $5 Footlongs at Subway. The Disrupter and The Real Disrupter do not notice until Janitor switches off the lights.

Fade to black.

By the way, that's just film lingo and is not meant to be a racial slur. Surely a Wise Jewish Woman like myself would be more sensitive to these issues than others. Unlike the President of the United States, or, as some call him, Secret White People-Hater in Chief.

If only what's happening right now in the Land of the Free were a movie, we could dab the cold sweat from our collective brow, walk out of the theater, and into a reality that isn't nearly as frightening as "I Know What You Did Last Summer 12." But it isn't a movie. It's real. This time, what's turning The Land of the Free into The Land of the Free-for-All is the so-called lively debate over health care. It could just as easily be about anything else. The same thing would be apparent: we've lost the ability to argue with one another for a higher purpose and a greater good. Now we just argue.

Surely you've heard the joke about two Jews, three opinions. As with all humor, a truth lives at this joke's core; namely, Jewish life has evolved, remained relevant, and alive over the course of thousands of years primarily because we cannot agree on much at all. That tradition of debate, as vital a part of our people's life as welcoming an infant boy into the community with minor surgery followed by a bagel brunch, has kept us together through exiles, pogroms, and Borat. It's called machloket l'shem shamayim -- arguing for the sake of heaven.

An argument for the sake of heaven usually crops up around an issue that has no simple solution and a variety of competing truths. If you happen to stumble upon one of those bad boys and want to take a shot at finding some type of working resolution, here are a few simple "for heaven's sake" ground rules:

1) Even if your starting assumption is that the other person is a cardboard cut-out rather than a complex, living, breathing human, you must act as if he/she is not.

2) Just because you have an answer, doesn't mean you have the answer.

3) You have something to teach AND something to learn.

4) Listening and waiting quietly to offer your next retort while the other person is talking are not the same thing.

If you follow these steps, something astounding generally occurs: the cardboard cut-out to your left (or right, as the case may be) becomes an actual human being who in some ways is just like you and in others ways is nothing like you expected. You also start to realize that you mostly want the same things as the other guy, and (here's the cool part) that you don't have to verbally annihilate or demonize him to get it. And while you still won't agree, you may have made some actual progress, rather than making a bunch of noise.

Before I start to sound like a "ShamWow" infomercial, let me say that arguments for the sake of heaven are no kumbaya-fest. In the Jewish world, we're still working on doing them well and doing them right, even with millennia of practice under our belts. In fact, the greatest "for heaven's sake"-debaters were two rabbis who lived thousands of years ago named Hillel and Shammai. Those two used to butt heads like MoveOn and FreedomWorks, like Olbermann and Limbaugh, like Jon and Kate. In the interest of full disclosure, the Hillel and Shammai posses even caused some bloodshed before they realized that rabbi-on-rabbi violence was not the answer. While the carnage came to a halt, though, the arguments continued. The Houses of Hillel and Shammai never saw eye-to-eye, but the way they argued changed dramatically. No matter who ended up with the majority opinion (usually Hillel), the two sages and their descendants from generation to generation had to study every single one of the other's teachings. In the Jewish community, we continue to study all of them to this day.

We've got to start arguing for the sake of heaven now if we want to advance the highest values we all hold dear -- life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness; the ability to hold our heads up high when we look in the mirror, gaze at our children, and when we pass a complete stranger. And we've got to get going quickly. Because whether it's health care or abortion, marriage, race, religion, education, or foreign policy, the invective, vitriol, basic erosion of civility and humanity, and the overall fever-pitch in these ugly sparring matches posing as debates in our nation today have the makings only for peril, not progress. Hillel and Shammai figured it out, but not without body bags first. Nearly one million Americans died in the Civil War. No one wants to see that kind of drama play out again.

We've been there, done that, seen the movie.