If you have two Jews stranded on a desert island, they will build three synagogues—one for each of them and one synagogue that no one will visit on principle. Jews often disagree with other Jews. “Two Jews three opinions”—that is, if you ask two Jews about something, you’ll get three opinions—its a popular saying.
Jews have been arguing with each other for millennia . We perfected the art of argument. We argue with each other and we argue with God. In the Talmud we learn
Rabbi Eliezer was in an argument with five fellow rabbis over the proper way to perform a ritual. The five Rabbis were all in agreement with each other, but Rabbi Eliezer vehemently disagreed. Finally, Rabbi Nathan pointed out “Eliezer, the vote is five to one! Give it up already!” Eliezer got fed up and said, “If I am right, may God himself tell you so!” Thunder crashed, the heavens opened up, and the voice of God boomed down. “YES,” said God, “Rabbi Eliezer is right. Rabbi Eliezer is pretty much always right.” Rabbi Nathan turned and conferred with the other rabbis for a moment, then turned back to Rabbi Eliezer: “All right, Eliezer,” he said, “the vote stands at five to two.” 
Our entire oral tradition is based on argument and at its core, these disagreements are conducted with civility and a common good or purpose.
Today, our civic conversation is neither civil nor a conversation. It is often a feud of twitter banters of 140 characters or less, it is of harsh blaming and name-calling, rarely face to face but through social media wars and the real purpose behind the arguments—why we engage in the first place, is lost, long forgotten.
Today there is so much discordant discourse, and virulent rhetoric in our political conversations, we have come to see the other as the enemy. I heard a recent statistic by Parker Palmer that 30-40% of Democrats and Republicans desire their children not marry someone from the other political standpoint. It seems like we are at an all time low with our public discourse, and it is undercutting the very values of democracy that America was founded on.
Although civil discourse alone will not solve the world’s ills and all that is wrong with our country, it must be present in order for problem’s to be solved in a lasting, peaceful way.
Engaging with civility is a critical component to bringing about a better country and world. Civility to one another in the home, in the community, in our country and in the world will bring forth a measure of peace in the world and in our lives and we pay a heavy price when members of society do not engage in civil discourse. For not only does it bring the level of communication down to who is loudest, most insulting and humorless, it, this rhetoric and disrespectful conduct, rarely if ever, changes anyone’s opinion. In fact it creates a road block to hearing each other and to advancing ones heart-felt position. When yelled at, called names, or feeling not heard or respected, people turn away, they don’t want to be a part of the conversation. Can you blame them? Who wants to engage when all signs indicate that the one who shouts loudest wins, that the one who refuses to respect the other is applauded and rewarded with more sound bites? Ultimately if we are not able to sit down at the table and discuss together; engage with one another in civil discourse, the alternative of war, bloodshed and brokenness prevails. We have what the rabbis taught as Sinat Chinam, war and destruction: Baseless hatred. The second Temple in Jerusalem was thought to be destroyed because of how the Jews treated one another at the time and how they spoke to each other. Rav Kook, teaches that the only way to repair and build this world is through the opposite of baseless hatred; through baseless love. He teaches, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. 
How might Ahavat Chinam, building the world with love look today? Civil Discourse must be at the helm and it requires humility, self-restraint and love.
Many of you know about the first century schools of Jewish learning named after the rabbis that led them. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai are well-known for their many disputes in Jewish law. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinions between the House of Hillel and of Shammai and in nearly every case, the ruling was in favor of Beit Hillel. Hillel was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity. The Talmud further explains that the disciples of Hillel were gentle and modest and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own. Their arguments were not attacks of one another or personal, they were about differences of opinion in the realm of a greater good.
Humility is a critical component of civil discourse. Inherent in humility is an understanding that we are all part of the universe and we are owed nothing in this world; with humility we are able to be open hearted enough to recognize we are all equal—not less than, not greater than and when we understand this, discourse will be about issues rather than personalities, concerns and problems discussed for a greater good. A beloved teacher of mine at HUC, the reform rabbinical school, once got so frustrated with me when I kept dismissing compliments. She said Lisa, the thing about a compliment is just say Thank you, and if you can’t take the compliment at that time, or you don’t feel it is true for you at that moment, just say, thank You. For whether a compliment or critique, what is important is that we are aware that each of us is placed in this world to be of service. Humility is required! Humility: it helps us get out of the way and listen. Humility: it helps us get out of the way and be our best selves.
Along with humility, the use of self-restraint is critical if we are to advance civil discourse and heal society. It is too easy to take pot shots and low blows at your opponent. It serves no purpose other than to anger and elicit a similar response resulting in a ceaseless cycle of demeaning someone else and forgetting about the real issue and the greater good.
Parker Palmer, Founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal notes that we’ve fallen into the trop of not just disagreeing with another, but demonizing one another. He teaches, “it is more important to be in right relationship that it is to be right. We say more important to be in right relationship not because I’ve stopped believing in my position, but because the truth is complicated and if I’m not in right relationship with those with whom I disagree, we can’t hold the space long enough to work through those complications.” 
Many of us know the story about the town gossip who had the tables turned on her and was distraught. She went to her rabbi and asked for help. The rabbi, knowing the trouble she caused with her careless speech, looked at her and asked, “Do you have any feather pillows in your house?” “Rabbi, I am not poor; I have a whole bunch of them. But what do you want me to do, sell them?”
“No, just bring me one.”
The woman was mystified, but she returned a bit later to the rabbi’s study with a nice fluffy pillow under her arm. The rabbi opened the window and handed her a knife. “Cut it open!”
“But Rabbi, here in your study? It will make a mess!”
“Do as I say!”
She cut the pillow. A cloud of feathers came out and blew out of the office window in a big swirling, whirling trail.
The rabbi waited ten minutes. Then she ordered the woman: “Now bring me back all the feathers, and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them, mind you. Not one may be missing!”
The woman stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That is impossible, rabbi. I can’t get the feathers back, you know that!” The rabbi said. Yes. I know the feathers are just like your words…. You can not get them back.
We are in the midst of a Presidential election campaign that has reached new lows with slander, meanness, and candidate commentaries that have taken us far from the real issues needing to be discussed. Self-restraint would eliminate comments that have no purpose other than to hurt and take us away from becoming a country that is putting the welfare of its citizens first. Self-restraint does not come easily. We need determination and thoughtfulness to be civil, asking ourselves is what we are about to say, really necessary before it is uttered. For we know all to well, we cannot take words back, we say them and they are out there and they can either cause pain and debilitation or they can raise us up towards serving with purpose and help us heal.
Along with humility and self-restraint, love is required for a civil discourse that leads to healing and reconciliation. What does Love got to do with civil Discourse? The most basic and fundamental teaching in Judaism is to Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18) It does not say we need to agree with our neighbor, but rather to love our neighbor. Dialogue and disagreement are expected in a relationship for certain, but at the core of each relationship is a shared humanity that might only advance if we offer love and not hate. Love here is not an in-love, or even a liking of another person. It is a basic recognition that other people with different views exist and may have different truths then we do. In order for us to move forward toward healing and also well-being we must admit and act on the idea there is something far more important than our disagreement and that is that we share a planet, it is ours to take care of and we will only succeed if we have a greater good, the well-fare and healing of society as our goal. Though love we heal. Through hate we destroy.
Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in forty years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on one of the brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a contractor’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor. In fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a wall – an 8-foot wall – so I won’t need to see his place anymore, that would give me some peace of mind.”
The contractor said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.” The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the contractor get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.
The contractor worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, and nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the contractor had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no wall there at all. It was a bridge – a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work – handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.
They turned to see the contractor hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother. “I’d love to stay on,” the contractor said, ” but I have many more bridges to build.”
Everyday we have the choice of building walls or bridges. One leads to isolation and the other to openness, productivity and healing.
The Talmud tells us that once, approximately two thousand years ago, the peaceful and constructive conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai erupted into a violent and destructive battle over a vote on eighteen matters of law.
According to later rabbinic sources, these tragic events took place on the 9th of Adar and as many as 3,000 students died that day.
We do not know if this story is historically accurate or if it is a myth or moral tale to teach us the value of civil discourse. Nonetheless, we understand that whether there was grave aggression between the two schools on the 9th of Adar or it marked their first disagreement, we will take its lesson to heart. Congregation Beth Am will be joining with synagogues, schools, campuses, and Jewish organizations around the world in the fifth annual worldwide Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, February 19-25, 2017. We will engage in activities that help us learn about and act with the Jewish values of constructive and sacred disagreement. I hope you will join us for this special programming. Please look for information on our FaceBook page and email update.
With humility, self-restraint, and love we will walk with open minds and open hearts and affect a lasting, healing peace in our families and in the world.
With humility, self restraint, and love we will seek out both those who agree with us and those who don’t because when we engage in civil discourse we might find workable solutions to all of our problems.
With humility, self –restraint and love we will ask to hear the story of the other and listen not because we want to prove ourselves right, but because when we see the story of another we are brought closer together in our humanity.
May we be blessed this coming year with increased civility in all areas of our lives. May our civil discourse bring healing and peace to our world may we build it together with Ahavat Chinam, baseless love.
May this be God’s will….
 http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Quotes/JewsLoveToArgue. Based on BT Baba Matzia 59a-b
 Bridging the Political Divide: https://www.churchnext.tv/library/bridging-the-political-divide/37618/about/
 Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324
Bridging the Political Divide: https://www.churchnext.tv/library/bridging-the-political-divide/37618/about/