How to be Part of the World Around Us

A couple of weeks ago, I invited a close friend to a Martin Luther King Day event.  The event featured a number of speakers including leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I can’t come with you,” she told me.

“Really? Why?” I asked.

“Black Lives Matter is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.” She stated matter-of-factly.

An intelligent, educated, professional who dismissed the entire organization because of one part of their platform. She was unable to see the values that she did agree with. The way Black Lives Matter works to end racial injustice and to dismantle the systems, which maintain inequality, values that I know she holds dear.  Instead she could only see the one value she disagreed with.

This is something we all do far too often.

We take an organization that challenges our values, the way Black Lives Matters might, when it puts in conflict two core values; a belief in justice and equality for all people, and a vision of democratic Jewish State.

We take organizations like AIPAC and J-Street that challenge our values in the ways; they approach the relationship between Israel and United States.

We take our local organizations and federations that challenge our values because of the organizations they do and don’t support, because of the programs they do and don’t run, because of the statements they do and don’t make.  The values articulated in those decisions, sometimes conflict with our own core values.

In those moments we have a challenging decision to make.

It is difficult to decide what organizations to be a part of.  We only have so much money to donate.  We only have so much time to volunteer.  And each of us has to make careful decisions on how to allocate our money, our effort and our time. 

But, we have to be careful not to rush to a decision. Not to dismiss entire organizations, groups and movements. Our tradition is full of stories of dismissing the other, dismissing people, groups and communities because of a single disagreement.

The Oven of Aknai, (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59a – b) a famous Talmudic story, is a story about a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of Rabbis, about the purity or impurity of a newly designed oven.  Rabbi Eliezer says it is pure and acceptable for use.  The rest of the Rabbis say it is impure and not acceptable. 

Rabbi Eliezer needs to convince them that his position is correct, because the legal ruling follows the majority.  So, Rabbi Eliezer uses well-reasoned argument to try to convince his colleagues that his position is correct, but the other Rabbis will not listen and they will not change their ruling.

Rabbi Eliezer knows he is correct, yet, his arguments are not convincing anyone so, he calls for a miracle to prove his argument, and he gets four separate miracles.  A tree uproots itself; a stream reverses direction, the walls of the building move and a heavenly voice speaks.

Having heard all the arguments and seen all the miracles, the Rabbis still refuse to change their position. Eliezer’s argument is well reasons.  Eliezer is correct.  But he is the minority and the other Rabbis will not change their position. So the law follows the majority and the oven is declared unclean.

We often stop telling the story here. We teach that the essence of the story is about the importance of argument, well reasoned discussion, the will of the majority and not miracles. But, it is also a story about an unwillingness to listen to a person who has a dissenting opinion.

After the argument is over and decided, after the oven is declared unclean.  The story continues. “At that time” it says, “At that time they brought all the objects that Rabbi Eliezer had ruled were pure and burned them and they voted and banned him.”

Rabbi Eliezer, because he dared to continue arguing a dissenting opinion, is kicked out of the community; an action that is likened to death.  And to add insult to injury, every ruling he had ever made is nullified.

The story quickly moved from well-reasoned discussion giving honor to both sides to a complete and total rejection of the person and everything he stood for.

In removing someone from our community and removing ourselves from a community similar rules and ethics apply.  We should be careful not to reject the entire organization because of a conflict.  We should not nullify all the good they are doing because of a challenge. We cannot expect our organizations to adhere to our most rigid values all of the time.  We should instead understand that they too live in the real world. Sometime we will agree with them and sometimes we will disagree.  That is okay. 

We can each for ourselves set the lines we will not cross, the organizations and groups we cannot be a part of.  The values we will not compromise.

Yet, when we stick to a rigid, inflexible set of guidelines, we are in danger of becoming like the Rabbis in the story.  Of rejecting others because our values and their values are not in total and complete alignment.

Instead, the Prophet Amos offers a different way to understand the world.

Amos starts with a repetition of the need to forgive a small number of transgressions, while not pardoning a larger number.  “For three transgressions, “ he repeats over and over again, “For three transgressions…for four I will not revoke it.”  (This sentence structure repeats itself numerous times in Amos chapters 1 and 2 including, Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13)

Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, explains that God is willing to forgive two or three times, but upon more, judgment will be severe.  With each transgression, the community is punished or rebuked, but ultimately forgiven.

Amos, sets a standard that is sustainable, acknowledging the no one can behave in a unanimously agreeable way all of the time.  He set a standard that can work.

We want to live in integrity, in harmony, where our values and our actions are in line.  However, doing so all of the time proves to be difficult.

In the spirit of Amos, who was willing to forgive three times, I offer three reasons to be active in organizations you do not agree with completely.

First, to create space

The Boy Scouts of America is an important organization for me.  I first joined scouting when I was 7 years old, and I believe it had a massive impact on helping me becoming the person I am.

Scouting is also an organization that challenges me, because it sets some incredibly significant values in conflict with each other.  Values of inclusion and equality are challenged by a history of discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity.

I continue to be active in scouting as an adult because I believe in the good I can do as a leader to help create space, help create safe spaces for those marginalized individuals to feel welcomed and included.

Through my summers, as a Chaplain at Philmont Scout Ranch, one of scouting’s national high adventure bases, I had these opportunities.  To sit at a picnic table with a young staff member who felt rejected by his community and his church. To process with a staff member who felt that she had hit the glass ceiling within the organization, and was being denied a position because of her gender.

We can engage in organizations we don’t always agree with to help create these opportunities and spaces.

Second, to work to change the organization.

As individuals and as a community, we have the opportunity to have a powerful and significant influence to affect positive change.  We can challenge preconceived notions and work too more closely align our values with our work. 

Chaplain Nathan Williams, the Chairman of the Church of Christ for Scouting, and Rabbi Peter Hyman, the National Jewish Chaplain, tell stories of sitting in rooms with the senior national leaders of the Boy Scouts as they were wrestling with changing the national policies towards LGBT youths.  They were able to share the perspectives of our common traditions to understand those verses in Leviticus differently and express the harm being done to young men and women.

It was through the work of these men and people like them that scouting has changed and become more open and more diverse.  If they could have chosen instead, to reject the organization; something many encouraged them to do.  Scouting would look much different today.

We can engage in organizations we don’t always agree with to help affect positive change.

Third, because of the importance of the greater mission.

Sometimes we cannot change the organizations.

Sometimes we cannot create the space for disagreement and dissent.

But, in those moments if our belief in the organization, in its values, mission and purpose are so great, are so strong, are so significant, we can look past the conflict and continue to be a part of it.

There are not a lot of organizations and communities that we are a part of that we agree with all the time. 

When we find an organization that creates a conflict in our values.  We have an opportunity to acknowledge this and reflect on why we are a part of them.

We have options.

We have an option to walk away; we can say, because your values and my values are not completely aligned. We cannot be part of the same conversation.

Or we can wrestle, we have an opportunity to wrestle with how to be a part of the world around us.

How to be a part of spaces that make us uncomfortable. 

How to engage in organizations where our values are in conflict with each other. 

How to create change

How to create space for dissent.

We have an opportunity for growth.

When we don’t remove ourselves or others from the conversation.

When we engage with the world as it is, and work to turn it into the world we wish it to be.

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