5 November 2010
28 Cheshvan 5771
The tragic thing about Yaakov and Esau’s relationship, which begins in this week’s Parshat Toldot, is that it was doomed to fail—doomed, yes, by God’s forewarning that they would grow into two separate peoples. Yet, it seems they were doomed even before that by Rivka’s reaction to her unborn children’s struggles in her womb. Why does Rivka react so strongly (“Im kein, lamah zeh anochi – If (they struggle) so, why do I exist/why should I go on living?”) to the ambiguous discord that she is feeling in her stomach (“vayitrotzatzu habanim – the children struggled/moved around”)? Perhaps, she fears having a miscarriage. Perhaps, she can intuit the future irreconcilable differences between her children, and this causes her immense distress. Or, perhaps, I suggest, her response represents the existential discomfort so many of us have with conflict and differences. In a world where only one child gets the birthright, where it feels as if our very continuity and survival are at stake, healthy sibling rivalry is often elevated to existential and familial crisis. To quote Jon Stewart during his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” we seem unable to have animus without turning each other into enemies. This challenge, or phenomenon, is one of the things world-class lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz alluded to during his engaging and provocative talk with our community this week.
Commenting on people’s different views on Israel, Professor Dershowitz suggested paradoxically, “Never hold back your views (it is important for people to be able to express their opinions about Israel); I just think that we stand stronger when we all stand together.” The paradox he alluded to regarding the Jewish community’s stance on Israel is also generally true for a pluralistic Jewish community. Somehow, we want to preserve a sense of unity, of “standing together” for our shared values and commitments, while maintaining and even encouraging as great a diversity of opinions and perspectives as possible. As a master rhetorician, Professor Dershowitz himself walks a fine line between promoting the value of debate and shutting down true debate by articulating his beliefs and perspectives so passionately and compellingly and with such moral authority. In many ways he, himself, is living the paradox.
Later this week I received an email from a student asking me for a quote for our school newspaper about whether I think bringing in such opinionated speakers goes against our pluralism or is actually the definition of our pluralism. I thanked her for asking the question and for bringing to light the fine line between a presentation that shuts down discourse (and thus would be, in my view, challenging to our pluralism) versus a presentation that generates discourse (which is exactly what our pluralism is all about).
Of course, the highlight of Professor Dershowitz’s talk was when he said, “Gann reminds me of the school I wished I had gone to as a kid . . . I know what a phenomenal education Gann offers because I see your product (Gann graduates) in my undergraduate classes at Harvard.” But most inspiring to me have been the incredible discussions that have ensued between our students—both in person and online—after his presentation. Lest I worry that our students took Professor Dershowitz’s words as gospel (which is quite easy to do), our students saw them as a starting point, a challenge, an opportunity to think critically, to revisit and rearticulate their own views and opinions, and to engage with each other despite their strong disagreements about essential questions that we must face as individuals and as a community, such as, “What does it mean for us to support Israel?”
Perhaps, our students are modeling a tikkun (a reparation, a correction) for Rivka’s angst at the beginning of our parsha, and from the all-too common reality that our struggles and our differences inevitably divide, weaken, or, God forbid, destroy us. When our students respond to a speaker as persuasive as Alan Dershowitz with this kind of discourse, they are living out the paradox of our pluralism and showing us that we can have makhloket (principled debate, even discord) that honors and strengthens our community rather than fractures it.
Rabbi Marc Baker