For our unforgiving age, advice from an unassuming sage

Melanie SturmOther, American Society, American Values, Israel/Anti-Semitism/Jewish/Radical Islam, Meaning of Life

Inspired by a good joke and a stirring play, I offer these remarks, including a rather unorthodox ending:

A young man is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a trucker. After thanking him profusely, the young man asks the trucker, “Don’t you ever worry that if you pick up a stranger, they could be a serial killer?” The trucker replies, “Oh no, I’m never worried. After all, what are the chances of two serial killers in the same truck at the same time!”

Imagine the young man’s fear, and remorse! Imagine how one innocent mistake, and everything can be taken away! Kind of like the fear many experience today in America. While heads don’t literally roll, the reputations of those refusing to adhere to prevailing orthodoxy do. I call it “reputational beheading.”

It’s a sort of “obey or else” intolerance that a Soviet dissident like Natan Sharansky is best suited to explain:

“Today, the pressure to conform doesn’t come from the totalitarian top — our political leaders are not Stalinist dictators. Instead, it comes from the fanatics around us, in our neighborhoods, at school, at work, often using the prospect of Twitter-shaming to bully people into silence — or a fake, politically-correct compliance. Recent polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans report self-censoring about politics at least occasionally, essentially becoming a nation of “doublethinkers” despite the magnificent constitutional protections for free thought and expression enshrined in the Bill of Rights.”

The freedoms to which Sharansky refers evolved in part from another hysteria-induced episode. The Salem Witch Trials in Puritan America taught our founders the dangers of false accusations and contempt for due process, becoming a metaphor for 1950’s “witch-hunts” led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In his final years, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks condemned our era’s McCarthyism. In 2019, Sacks delivered his last sermon before a live congregation entitled “An Unforgiving Age.” He cited several examples, including a British scientist who made one inappropriate joke, and despite his profuse apologies was condemned without trial, due process, appeal, mercy, or regard either to his lifetime of service to science and “the simple fact that he was a human being and human beings make mistakes.”

Referring to Jordan Peterson who was ejected by the Cambridge University’s Divinity School for standing in a photo next to someone in an inappropriate t-shirt, Rabbi Sacks asked, “Have they heard of the word “forgiveness” in the Cambridge Divinity School?”

For the injustices to end, self-censoring must end, and liberal-minded people – thankfully, the vast majority — must speak out. Former NY Times editor Bari Weiss is one righteous liberal doing that in her new Substack newsletter, launched with the aim of being the best editorial page in America – a low bar, she admitted.

Last fall, she published a column titled, “Stop Being Shocked” in which she explained that American liberalism is in danger from a new illiberal ideology – one with dangerous implications for Jews.

The new creed’s premise is that any disparity is proof of discrimination which can only be addressed by suspending the liberal order that spawned it. That means, she wrote:

“…the normal rules of the game—due process; political compromise; the presumption of innocence; free speech; even reason itself—must be suspended…. America is imperfect,” she continued. “The past few years, and the problems they have laid bare, have rocked my faith like no others before. But the ideas this country is based on truly are exceptional, worthy of our relentless defense and more. The idea that we should judge each person not by their station or their family lineage but by their deeds; that human beings have agency—these are revolutionary ideas that are, at root, Hebrew ones. We should never be shocked that any ideology that makes war on these true and eternal values will inevitably make war on us.”

So, how do we check the “new McCarthyism,” and the self-censorship it induces? Jewish tradition tells us to listen to the better angels of our nature, recognizing Soviet dissident Alexandre Solzhenitsyn’s insight that “the line separating good and evil passes… through every human heart.” That’s why we should think of our life’s deeds as perfectly balanced helping us strive to tip the scale toward the good with every act we do, as rabbinic sage Maimonides taught.

In his book “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives” Theodore Zeldin writes, “a conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards, it creates new cards.”

So why not try creating new cards by loving your neighbor as yourself? Imagine listening with radical curiosity to someone with differing beliefs and having them reciprocate. Then try engaging in conversation where you express their views, and they yours. Might common ground be more easily discovered?

Isn’t this the American Idea on which we were founded, that people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and religions could come together in the public square to hash things out, thereby forging a more perfect union, as Abraham Lincoln put it?

Wouldn’t we be a sage people, if we granted each other the right to an opinion on how to achieve it, and the grace to be wrong?

Might it become clearer that no one has a monopoly on virtue or vice, restoring the ethic “to err is human, to forgive – this season’s purpose – is divine?”

The truth is, America is human history’s greatest experiment as the only multiracial, self-critical democracy that has not — yet! —descended into tribal violence. How do we keep it that way, while addressing society’s biggest ongoing problems?

During prior divisive times, we’ve had leaders who encouraged us to have “charity for all and malice for none” (that was Abraham Lincoln), and to “learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” (that was Martin Luther King Jr). But these two didn’t live amid the toxicity of social media, which turbocharges malice and foolishness.

So, why not unplug from cable TV, the parrot-like mainstream press, and the social media memes and mobs destroying our moral consensus? Find articulate heterodox thinkers – like Bari Weiss — to inform and inspire you. Practice radical curiosity with people who think differently, always upholding the Golden Rule while questioning, listening, and searching for common ground.

I’d like to close with some genuine wisdom derived from the struggle of an African American woman, and grandmother of playwright and actress, Kay Winks, whose coming-of-age story, “Token,” was recently performed in Theatre Aspen’s one-man show festival. Kay is an equal opportunity offender in her portrayals of black relatives and acquaintances, and white southern racists and northwestern virtue-signalers. Throughout the play, she straddles black and white worlds with the help of her wise grandma, her North Star.

So, I send you out into the introspection of the Ten Days of Awe before Yom Kippur with the closing lines of the play, said by Kay’s grandmother (from the afterlife) as a sort of prayer for her granddaughter, and for America.

“Life is about loving. And the first folks we all ever love is our family. And I’m yo’ family. Mm hmm. We ALL family. Black, white, Mexicans, Asians, Indians, A- rabs, de Jews, errbody is family! Errbody’s histories and heritage is married in the soil of this land and no matter how many times y’all try to file for divorce, ‘til death do you part. And I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t want my old nation to die and part. I want it to live. And thrive, and be better than it’s ever been and anybody ever dreamed it could be. So y’all best git to uniting. Dis ain’t da time for tendin’ no leaves, it’s da time for healin’ da roots. To finally love one another as brother and sister. Or at least dislike errbody the same if ya got the devil in ya, but if you got the devil in ya, you best git ‘em out, take yo’ funny lookin’ tail to church, learn ‘bout Jesus, make y’all grandmamas proud.’ Cus Jesus is real, chirren! He standin’ right here, y’all just can’t see ‘em. Mmhmm. That’s just my two chit lins .”

L’shana Tova!

This column is based on the remarks I gave at our Rosh Hashanah services. They are the prequel to the Yom Kippur remarks I made ten days hence – Want to be as good as your dog thinks you are? On Rosh Hashanah, I focused on macro issues that impact our world, while on Yom Kippur, I focused on micro issues that impact how we can best live our lives, making the world a better place.