December 5, 2002
Most of my congregation knows from references I've made over the years that I am a devoted sports fan. Ever since I was a youngster,
sitting with my dad watching football on TV, I've had "my teams" -- the Rams, the Dodgers and the Bruins. On rare occasions I have even gone to the games, and there, like everyone around me, I've participated in cheering on the players. That has always seemed to me perfectly reasonable behavior -- it is, after all, recreation -- and, in the last analysis, it's just a game. There are limits, of course, to acceptable behavior in the stands -- I never could get into booing and screaming epithets at the other side, or at the referees and umpires. Starry-eyed idealist that I may be, I have always believed in good sportsmanship.
I was reminded of this when I attended the grand debate between Michael Lerner and Dennis Prager on Nov. 7, sponsored by the JCC, the Community Scholar Program and Temple Bat Yahm. The Bat Yahm sanctuary was packed with a Yom Kippur-sized crowd, well into the overflow area. They were there to hear two highly intelligent and highly skilled orators representing different poles on the spectrum of Jewish political belief. In fact, as the panelists made clear, they really had two different worldviews, two different takes on what Judaism is and should be.
Though it is no secret that my own weltanschauung (philosophy of life) is much closer to one of the two panelists, I listened respectfully to both of them, trying to fully grasp their arguments, trying to fully understand the intellectual and moral bases behind their positions. The great sadness I felt was that so many in the audience --Â indeed, it seemed to me like a majority of them -- saw this much more as a sports event, and they mistook the sanctuary for a coliseum. From the very first time that one of the panelists spoke, he was greeted by loud applause, and this pattern continued throughout the evening. The other panelist received much less applause, and, as the night wore on, increasing catcalls and boos as well.
Judaism has always valued discussion, even debate. It is part and parcel of the Talmudic method, and it is probably the most important asset we have had as a culture. The reason we have had so many award-winning scientists in the last century is because of this Talmudic devotion to a process in which truth is discovered through intellectual inquiry and serious discussion.
In the ancient houses of study, discussion was structured in such a way as to make sure that every person who spoke would be treated with respect; thus, the younger scholars were encouraged to speak first so they would not be intimidated by the words of the older scholars if they had a different perspective. Debate might be passionate, but it was never supposed to be rude and the reigning principle behind all this was "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim Hayim" -- both sides were the words of the Living God.
I came away from the lecture saddened by the spectacle, thinking how far removed we are from the wisdom of our sages. When we approach a debate on such serious issues as politics, race relations, the future of Judaism and the Middle East situation as if we are spectators at a hockey game, cheering for one side as if it is all a game, we cheapen the debate and we diminish the image of God among us. My prayer and my hope is that, at least within the walls of our synagogue, we can agree to disagree with civility, and keep in mind that truth is discovered not through cheering and booing, but through the thoughtful process of intellectual give and take.
Allen Krause is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo.