My family and I were recently volunteering for the nonpartisan group Baltimore Votes at the Highlandtown Pratt Library early voting site. A Black man walked out of the polling place, and we offered him some refreshments and a sign to put in his window. He declined, clearly in a hurry.
My son called out, “Thank you for voting!” As he was walking away, the man briefly turned toward us and said, “Thank you for not suppressing!” I thought to myself, “Is the bar really that low?”
Unfortunately, I think it is.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and many sins of the outgoing president and his administration, a silver lining has been the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the MeToo movement, the Women’s March, the youth-led March for Our Lives and, overall, more widespread grassroots advocacy than this country has ever seen in its 245-year history.
Each of these movements and more have (rightly) demanded we move beyond calls for basic civility toward the need for structural and systemic change. Many Americans have become more sensitized to the ways politeness, colorblindness and liberal do-goodership have been complicit in maintaining systems of oppression against women, LGBTQ people, Black and brown people, Jews, the disabled and more.
Civility isn’t enough. Civility can actually be part of the problem because it can mean avoiding confrontation and essential truth-telling. To dismantle racism and sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, we need to go deeper; we need to work harder.
I think this is why I was so taken aback by CNN commentator Van Jones’ widely shared emotional speech after Joe Biden was declared to be the next president of the United States. Speaking through his tears, Jones said, “It’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters. It matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters.”
Jones was speaking an essential truth: civility is also important. In Yiddish, if you want to describe someone truly admirable, you call them a mentsch, a fundamentally good person. Being a mentsch isn’t about fighting for justice vs. speaking and acting with compassion. It’s about both.
Provocation without compassion can be cruel. And cruelty should be no one’s aspiration. As my late father used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
I didn’t hear Van Jones live, of course; I was in the middle of leading Shabbat morning services. But I did get word about the election outcome soon after CNN called it. I had just finished teaching a section from the Babylonian Talmud about minhag s’dom, the practices for which, in the rabbinic imagination, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah needed to be destroyed. Many crimes are listed but for me, the most upsetting was the way even kindness was weaponized.
“When a poor person would come to Sodom, each and every Sodomite would give him a dinar [a coin], and the name of the giver was written on each dinar. And [then] they would not give or sell him bread. When he died [of hunger], each and every person would come and take his dinar” (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a).
It’s one thing to systematically withhold assistance. That, in of itself, is unacceptable as an expression of basic cultural mores. But to provide assistance as a false flag and then deny human beings the dignity of acquiring vital sustenance is brutality on a different order of magnitude.
The emotional release Van Jones experienced when he learned a man known for pettiness and cruelty would no longer occupy the White House was a catharsis felt by many on Saturday morning, Nov. 7.
The work ahead of us, though, is daunting. In the coming months and years, we’ll need to rediscover our societal compassion while resisting the complacency that allows civility to mask the need for truth, reconciliation and justice.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on The Urban Rabbi. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.