A few years ago, the word “civility” was all the rage. You read about its importance in op-eds. You heard about it on television. You saw rabbis giving sermons about it all the time.
You hear about it a lot less these days.
The past few weeks, the president of the United States has said things and been present at rallies that have been widely interpreted by many as racist. From criticisms of American cities where the residents are predominantly black, to chants of “send them back!” about four female legislators who are American citizens, we have seen a coarseness and a vituperative hate in our public discourse the likes of which I personally have never witnessed.
If civility was on life support for the past few years, recent weeks in America may have killed it altogether.
It’s not that civility, the idea, is dead. In principle, acting toward others with a sense of openmindedness and a belief in their good intentions remains an important value, both for us as Americans and as a Jews. It is in Pirkei Avot that we are taught to “judge everyone with the benefit of the doubt.” In a famous story about Hillel and Shammai, we learn that they argued for three years, but that when the House of Hillel won, it was only because they were magnanimous and kindhearted, and taught both sides of the argument wherever they went. Civility still exists, and G-d-willing, there should soon come a time for it to return to the public sphere.
But not now.
That’s because there is a different operating principle that the Jewish community has now confronted due to the rough language of our current moment. That principle is: Silence is assent. That value also comes from the Talmud. According to Jewish law, for testimony to be valid, there must be two witnesses that will testify to it. When there are two witnesses to an act, and the first makes a statement in regard to the act, but the second remains silent, the court follows the legal concept that “shtika k’hoda’ah dumia” — silence is assent. By remaining silent, it is assumed that we agree with everything that is going on, and everything that is said.
There are those that Judaism regards as unfitting to testify as witnesses. Among the category of individuals unfit for testimony are slaves, minors and imbeciles. All are believed to lack the intelligence or the self-agency to make important determinations that might determine an important outcome.
We as Jews — as Americans — are all witnesses to the events of our time, including the outrageous ones and the unjust ones, the offensive ones and the hateful ones. We must not remain silent in the face of racism. We cannot accept the indefinite detention of migrant children in abysmal conditions at our nation’s borders. We must express our outrage against those who attempt to pervert democracy from outside our borders, and those within our borders who blindly allow it to happen, in hopes that the perversion of our election might serve to benefit them.
We each must find our voice, both independently and collectively, to express that we do not approve. If we remain silent, we telegraph to each other and the world that we agree with every act, every word, every immorality, that we witness. We are either witnesses with voices, or we are imbeciles, unfit for testimony, lacking the basic qualities that make us worthy to be free people. To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “We must declare a state of moral emergency. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” The time for civility is over. The time for words and actions is now. pjc
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie. He lives in Pittsburgh, and teaches in and around the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.