אַל־תָּרֹוב עִם־אָדָ֣ם חִנָּ֑ם אִם־לֹ֖א גְמָלְךָ֣ רָעָֽה׃
Al tariv im adam chinam, im lo gamalcha ra’ah.
Do not trump up an argument with someone, if they have not done you any harm. - Proverbs 3:30
Two classic stories about synagogues:
The new rabbi comes to town. The first Shabbat that she is leading services, half the congregation stands up for the sh’ma and half the congregation sits. Immediately, an argument breaks out. “What are you doing? The new rabbi is here. Stand up like you’re supposed to!” “What do you mean, we have always sat for the sh’ma. What kind of an apikouros (heretic) are you?” Before the congregation can come to blows, the rabbi tries to engage them in a conversation about the minhagim (traditions) of the congregation. One half says they have always remained seated for the sh’ma, the other half says the opposite. No matter whom the rabbi asks, no one has a definitive answer that the others will accept. Finally, they send the rabbi to the house of the oldest member of the congregation, one of the founders, who has just reached his 100th birthday. The rabbi asks him, “What is the real minhag of the congregation? Do we stand for the sh’ma?” The senior member shakes his head, “I don’t remember that.” “Do we sit for the sh’ma?” The senior member shakes his head, “I don’t remember that either.” “You have to know. Otherwise, they’ll keep shouting and each other and arguing all the way through the service.” The senior member’s eyes light up, “Ah, now that’s what I remember.”
Second story - a person goes seeking the famous atheist of L’vov. She reaches the town and goes to the local tavern, the market, the library, and all the places she can think to look. Finally, out of desperation, she goes to the least likely building in town, she thinks, to find an atheist: the synagogue. There, of course, is where the famous atheist can be found. Dumbfounded, she asks him why he would be in the synagogue, of all places. Is he coming to speak to God? “No,” he replies. “Schwartz comes here to speak to God. I come here to speak to Schwartz.”
One of the unexpected challenges in being the long-term rabbi of a congregation is monitoring and taking responsibility for the tenor of conversation between congregants. No one wants to be a member of a congregation that is arguing all the time. Conversely, no one wants to be a member of a congregation where people of differing opinions are not accepted. Unsurprisingly, being a Reform congregation in a state in the Northeast, most of our members are politically liberal. However, our diverse congregation includes not only people of different socio-economic levels, backgrounds and educations, but also of differing political beliefs. Confronting the story of a rabbi who had banned all political discussions in their congregations, we went the opposite direction. We imagined that, as our sacred space, Temple Sholom should indeed be the place where people can feel safe sharing their opinions, even if they disagree.
Admittedly, we are not there, all the time, yet. We have created a list of Jewish values that help us respect each other in our conversations (see this column from Summer of last year - http://sholomravtempletopics.blogspot.com/2016/05/ ). This past election season, dedicated Temple volunteers brought together congregants with widely divergent political views for a potluck meal to watch the gubernatorial debate. The evening was a great success - and a path forward. We may not be where we want to be, but we are working hard. The trick is for all of us to remember - we are all good people, and often believe in the same goals, we just have different ways that we think are the right ways to get there.