My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka, was kind enough to share with me a copy of his Rosh Hashanah sermon (which is now available on the Bet Shalom website here). In it, he made an appeal that has often been on my lips and the lips of others:
Demonizing and personal attacks have no place in civil debate. It diminishes the strength of legitimate arguments. It is time for more compassion and respect, especially toward those with whom we disagree.
Rabbi Cohen gave the example of Hillel and Shammai, who “disagreed on nearly everything.” They debated hard and strong with each other, “[b]ut when the day was done, they were ‘friends.’ They were each passionate about their opinion, but found a way to respect their opponent.”
He then said something very sobering. Referring to the Hebrew expression Sinat hinam (baseless hatred) he quoted another rabbi, Rabbi Danny Gordis, who has been the victim of personal press bashing. Rabbi Gordis referenced the destruction of the First Temple, destroyed by serious violations like murder and incest, and the destruction of the Second Temple, destroyed because of “baseless hatred.” He then asked the question: How is it that the First Temple was rebuilt after 70 years after being destroyed by the more serious violations, but the second was never rebuilt? Rabbi Gordis continued
The answer was that sinat hinam, baseless hatred, dismissive attitudes, and communal rancor are different. They are the sorts of actions for which we can always find explanations and justifications, and so, we never really confront the fact that we’ve sinned. This is why the Temple that was destroyed because of baseless hatred has never been rebuilt.
I think that last quoted piece from Rabbi Gordis is worth a lot of reflection.