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Drash Judaism and Civility The Other Side of Halaka

Drash, By Paul Roitman Bardack, Given August 2002


Shabbat shalom, everyone.

It's summer … a time to kick back, stay out of the heat, and reflect on some of life's basics. For that reason, this morning I would like to share with you my research on Jewish notions of civility.

Several months ago, the idea for this talk originated during a Kiddush luncheon. Rabbi Seidel and I were discussing behaviors we notices, behaviors which bothered us, in a wide variety of settings: the office, the supermarket, some of our own congregation's e-mail discussions, the neighborhood street, the Beltway, the doctor's office, and so on. Our survey was anecdotal and hardly scientific, but incivility seemed rampant, and on the rise.

The following passage, taken from Yale Law Professor Steven L. Carter's book "Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy," evokes wonderfully the sort of behavior to which Rabbi Seidel and I were referring. The passage is entitled "Barbarians Running Late:"

"After being cut off by another driver in traffic and slamming on your brakes, you stop at the next service station for gas, your adrenaline still pumping, only to be made to wait by a clerk who is busy flirting with a girlfriend but who finally, after finishing a cigarette, emerges from his grimy booth and saunters sullenly to your car and stands outside the window, not speaking, barely glancing your way, waiting for you to state your needs, which he fulfills silently, neither cleaning your windshield nor checking your oil, and when he is done, he speaks his first words, "Sixteen fifty," and glowers at you when you lack exact change, but at last, after a period of further flirtation, drops a few greasy, torn dollars and some dirty coins into your palm, and now your blood is boiling, so you pull out of the station a little too fast, narrowly missing another motorist, who raises his middle finger and mouths an obscenity at you…."

More or less, that is the sort of behavior to which Rabbi Seidel and I were referring.

To be sure, ours was not the only recent conversation on the subject of civility in daily life. Our own Bill Galston, for example, has written and spoken extensively on the notion of civility as a strengthener of the body politic. Yale Law Professor Steven L. Carter, in his book entitled "Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy," from which my example was drawn, stressed the need for reemphasis of that virtue as a precursor to a healthier society. Bill Bennett has created a virtual cottage publishing industry promoting civil virtues. Elsewhere, voters rejoice as each President since Watergate promises to establish a more civil tone in Washington than was found in the culture he inherited. And who among us doesn't at least occasionally nod in agreement at the social observations of the newspaper's Miss Manners?

No, Rabbi Seidel and I were hardly the only ones recently to speak of civility. But, we noted, the secular conversation would appear to view civility as the icing on the cake --- while the Judaic conversation would view civility as the cake itself. In secular thought, it seemed, civility was nice, pleasant, crucial, helpful, ideal, useful --- but neither intrinsic nor necessary for successful social interaction. In Judaism, on the other hand, civility appears intrinsically essential for life to have meaning.

Over Kiddush lunch that day, Rabbi Seidel and I spoke of "derekh eretz," roughly translatable as the requirement to offer another respect. We spoke of "lashon hora," speaking ill of another. We concluded, however, that the subject of civility, while encompassing these matters, was Judaically really larger than them.

At the conclusion of our conversation, Rabbi Seidel asked if I might wish to pull together some thoughts on the subject and share them with our congregational community. I didn't exactly say yes, but I didn't say no, either. Still, the subject of civility --- and Judaism's teachings --- became one I found myself thinking about more and more.

Subsequently, our friend Jerry Goldberg passed away. To me, to my immediate and to my extended family, to my congregation, and to my many friends, Jerry was always a most civil man. The day I learned of Jerry's death was the day I decided both to give this talk on civility and to dedicate it, with honor and love, to that extraordinarily civil man, Jerry Goldberg.

So here it is.

Civility. Although one can speak of civility among and between nations, or among and between communities and families and races and genders and other groupings, or even between people and animals and people and nature, in the interest of time I will limit myself this morning to the civility, or incivility, displayed by one person towards another. This is not to say that there is no interplay between individual relations and group relations; clearly there is --- discriminate against a group and inevitably you're hurting individuals. Rather, traditional Jewish attitudes toward group behavior are a bit different from traditional Jewish attitudes toward individual behavior, and due to the time allotted me I fear I can only do justice to one of these subjects today. Perhaps, if you'll permit me, I'll tackle the subject of civility in intergroup relations at another time. For today, though, I'll stick to the realm of the interpersonal.

A typical English dictionary definition of the word "civility" would have it refer to such qualities as respect, politeness, and consideration of others, but from a Jewish perspective, I think, those sorts of definitions miss the mark.

For while Anglo-American secular conceptions of civility seem to focus on those niceties which make life pleasant, Judaism seems to conceive of civility as involving those essentials which give life meaning. Civility, in the Anglo-American secular tradition, permits democracy and the exchange of goods and ideas to flow more smoothly but, like icing on any cake, it is not intrinsically essential to the underlying experience. Madisonian political theory in its implementation permits democracy to carry on during unruly, exceedingly passionate and impolite times. The law of contracts permits the free exchange of goods among even highly incivil people. And a place like the Lower East Side, hardly viewed as a calm bastion of civility by the immigrants who have lived there, was surely extraordinarily stimulating intellectually to those who made it home.

No, civility, I would contend, is thus a nicety and not an essential of a functioning secular culture. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for secular society to work, although when it is present it clearly makes one's experience of secular society more palatable.

But if Anglo-American secular conceptions of civility seem to focus on the niceties of life, I think, Jewish conceptions seem to focus on those essentials which give life its meaning: meaning for one's own self, and meaning for the other person. Let's look at a few examples from the Torah.

In Genesis chapter 43, beginning at verse 26, when confronting his brothers who have just returned to him from their home, Joseph offers his greetings to them. "How is your aged father of whom you spoke?" Joseph asks. "Is he still in good health?" From this, the editors of "Etz Hayim" point out, "Asking about a person's well-being became an expected norm in rabbinic Judaism, both as an act of friendship and as a way of knowing when to fulfill the commandment of visiting the sick ("bikkur cholim")."

Elsewhere, at Exodus chapter 12, verse 49 we are told "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you." That means that fair treatment, just treatment, and compassionate treatment is to be offered all --- Jew and non-Jew alike.

In the Ten Commandments, first found at Exodus chapter 20, we are commanded both to honor our parents --- to assure our endurance within the land of Israel --- and to honor our spouses by refraining from adultery.

In Exodus chapter 22, starting at verse 18, we are commanded neither to wrong nor to oppress the stranger for we, too, were strangers. We are prohibited to ill treat the widow or orphan. We are forbidden to extract interest from the poor and if --- for economic reasons --- we must take a neighbor's garment in pledge we must further --- for compassionate reasons --- return the garment before night's chill sets in. We are told, moreover, to let the needy eat of the land that rests in the seventh year; and we are told that the reason we are to rest on the seventh day is so that others connected to us may rest as well.

In Leviticus chapter 19, at verse 10, we are instructed not to pick the vineyard bare, so as to leave the fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger. Verse 13 of that chapter says that "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning." And, in a wonderful statement regarding the centrality of civility to Jewish life, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 14, says: "You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord." I think that's a wonderful summation of Jewish thought on civility: "You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind." For we are commanded to "Love your fellow as yourself."

The preceding examples of civility within our Torah were not meant to serve as an exhaustive litany of commandments regarding expected norms of interpersonal behavior. That list would be endless. Rather, they illustrate three points I wish to share with you from my research:

First, that people do not receive God's commandments as isolated entities, divorced from others in our society, but rather as members of society engaged in relationships with others;

Second, those relationships may be actual and volitional --- as with a spouse or a loan recipient, or they may be potential relationships which have not yet actualized --- as with a stranger or blind person who may be approaching; and

Third, whether the relationship is actual and current or merely potential and waiting to happen does not matter Judaically: fulfilling a commandment, living the halakhic life, brings us closer to God while, at the same time, according potential spiritual, emotional, financial, or physical benefit to other people. And those may be people we know, those we don't yet know, or those we never will know. It doesn't matter.

Thus, by example, the Torah seems to sketch a model of interpersonal civility which goes something like this: if one seeks to touch God through halakhic observance of God's commandments, one opens up the further possibility of touching positively the lives of other people --- known or unknown. Let me repeat that: if one seeks to touch God through observance of God's commandments, one opens up the further possibility of touching positively the lives of others --- known or unknown. Seek God and you may benefit someone else in doing so, in other words.

Ironically, as interpreters of last week's "parasha" have suggested, the connection between observance of God's laws and the benefit afforded others through such observance may be far stronger than the connection between observance of God's laws and the benefit we derive ourselves. Turn to Deuteronomy, chapter 11, verse 13. Let me read it to you. "If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil --- I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle --- and thus you shall eat your fill." We know these words from the "Sh'ma," yet especially after the Holocaust we have trouble drawing a direct line between individual morality and one's own material or physical blessing. Observant people are gassed, Torah learned people bayoneted, God-fearing people are shot. We know these things happen. Thus, it is a popular post-Holocaust interpretation of this passage, building upon the plural rather than singular syntax in which the Hebrew is written, to assert that it refers to the prospective physical and material benefits derived through moral behavior by others of your group, rather than the benefits you yourself derive as a consequence of your actions. The connection between morality and self-benefit is regarded, especially after the Holocaust, as far less direct and strong than is the connection between morality and benefit to others.

And that is the key, for me, to understanding the Jewish concept of civility. Halakha is set before us as a series of actions and rituals to be adopted, or not, as we choose. The choice is ours. If we choose the halakhic lifestyle we may, or we may not, benefit personally. Our theology is, at best, ambivalent about that.

But our theology is not at all ambivalent on another notion: that if we choose the sort of halakhic lifestyle which emphasizes benefit to others, others may benefit and our own lives will become enriched thereby. Inquiring about the health of others to ascertain whether they need assistance; treating citizens and strangers alike; honoring parents and spouses; not extracting interest from the poor; resting on the seventh day so that others associated with you might also rest --- these are among the sorts of benefits which come to others, and the sorts of things which provide meaning to one's own life, through what I will term the "other-directed" halakhic lifestyle.

The "other-directed" halakhic lifestyle seeks less to benefit oneself and more to benefit others. It is an attitude, and not just the accompanying rituals and actions, which focuses one's own relationship to God on service to others, both known and unknown.

The "other-directed" halakhic lifestyle begins with the premise --- Judaism's premise --- that people exist in social relationships and that those relationships are paramount to understanding and living God's commandments of us.

And the "other-directed" halakhic lifestyle is, essentially, the Jewish conception of civility. It is not the Anglo-American notion of politeness, though it certainly includes it. It is not a nicety, an add-on, the icing on the cake. It is Judaism, itself.

Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you.

Maimonides, in "Hilchot De'ot" at 6:3, notes that one is to treat every other person as one would treat oneself; that one is to speak only positively about another person; and that one is to even care about the monetary assets of another person as much as the person would about his own. This is based on the "mishnah," at "Avot" 2:10, which asserts that a person is to treat another with the same dignity as he treats himself. For the "midrash," at "Bereishit Rabbah" 24:7, says that each time you embarrass another human being you also diminish God, the creator of that human being. That is why you shall not insult the deaf --- even though she or he will not hear you, her or his creator will be diminished by your insult.

Indeed, as "Avot" 3:11 points out, a person who embarrasses another publicly loses his or her share in the world to come. Maimonides, in "Hilchot Chovel Umazik" at 3:7, codified this view as immutable law: publicly embarrass another and you lose your share in the world to come. Causing psychological damage to another person is in some respects, therefore, worse than causing physical damage, according to Maimonides; for physical pain may lessen over time, whereas the pain of public humiliation may not.

Indeed, rabbinic Judaism goes to great lengths to preserve a person's dignity. The Talmud, at "Berachot" 19b, says that preserving another's dignity takes precedence over observance of a negative commandment. And Maimonides, in "Hilchot Kelayim" 10:19, ruled that a person may violate any rabbinic --- though not biblical --- injunction to preserve dignity. Since most of Jewish practice is rabbinic in nature, rather than biblical, the consequence is that most "mitzvot" may be violated if doing them would necessitate violating a person's dignity. That is how utterly essential to Judaism civility is. A person is to be praised; only her actions or words, not her personhood, are to be condemned.

What I have termed "other-directed" halakha therefore helps us to understand the following passage from "Bava Metzia" 58b: "Just as there is unfairness in business transactions, so too with words. Do not say "How much does this cost?" if you don't intend to buy, and don't say to a repentant sinner "Remember your former ways!" and don't say to a child of converts "Remember the deeds of your ancestors."

For, in "other-directed" halakha, the dignity of others is paramount. At maximum, we are obligated affirmatively and creatively and proactively to seek out new ways to enhance the esteem of others. And, at minimum, we are obligated to avoid actions which diminish the esteem of others. Seek out ways to elevate the esteem with which others are viewed or with which they view themselves or, at minimum, avoid actions which lower the esteem with which they are viewed or view themselves.

That is not merely a pleasant nicety as in the secular idea of civility. For what I have termed "other-directed" halakha, a halakha focused on serving God through service and attentiveness to others, is what Jewish civility is all about.

I'll be happy to entertain comments and questions, and again I would like to dedicate this talk to Jerry Goldberg, a most civil and other-serving man.