This is a time of unusually polarized and polarizing discourse in the Jewish community. The situation in Israel and in Gaza is devastating. And so is the way I've seen people reacting to different beliefs and opinions regarding that devastation: who's at fault, which atrocities are "worse," whose suffering merits our attention. As though compassion were a zero-sum game. As though anyone "deserves" fear, destruction, and loss. As though feeling empathy for the Other weren't at the very heart of Torah.
Just last week I received an email from someone who sought to put me in cherem, excommunication, because this person perceives that my writings about how I hope peace and justice will come to Israel and Palestine are a threat to Jewish unity. One of my dear colleagues has received death threats directed at them and their children. Another colleague was the victim of a spoof press release, filled with hateful rhetoric, which purported to be from him and featured his full name and contact information.
Everyone I know who writes about the Middle East expects to receive hate mail. Often that hate mail is laced with profanity. Often it draws analogies to Nazis, insisting that one who holds the "wrong opinion" about Israel and Palestine is no better than a kapo, one who collaborates with the destruction of our people. This is hate mail written by Jews, to Jews. When we are feeling strong we shrug it off, try to laugh, say ruefully that it's the price one pays for having an opinion. But in truth, receiving this vitriol hurts.
What is the matter with people? This is a real question. What is wrong with us, that anyone imagines that these are appropriate ways to treat others? Harassment is never called-for. Neither is name-calling. And surely it should go without saying that no one should ever make death threats, or spread libelous allegations which could be damaging to someone's livelihood. This is not the way that human beings should treat each other. Ever. No matter how substantively we disagree, about anything.
The sages of the Talmud, I suspect, might agree:
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed.
But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed baseless hatred. This teaches us that baseless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.
Baseless hatred, say our sages, is of equal gravity with the three worst sins in the Jewish lexicon. Because our community was unable to overcome its internal divisions; because of unkindness and inability to bend -- say our sages -- the second Temple fell. Tonight at sundown we will gather in fasting and prayer and lamentation, remembering that destruction, mourning every grief and brokenness we know. Have we learned anything about kindness and compassion in the last two thousand years?