With many thanks to Jill Jacobs Cohen, for her beautiful teaching as we continue our counting towards revelation and receiving the Torah. — Hazzan Harold

by Jill Jacobs Cohen

We reflect this week, in our counting of the Omer, on the aspect of self, Gevurah, or discipline. Often described as the balancing arm of lovingkindness, discipline ideally restrains us from giving too much. Loving our children, for instance, without posing limitations and boundaries, or giving so much of ourselves in a relationship that we don’t receive enough in return. Discipline is the structuring of our desires so they are channeled in a way that allows for a balanced and productive existence. Without discipline, we are all impulse and no control.

I was reminded of how essential gevurah is when I engaged, yesterday, in an unpleasant ritual: reading the comments below a political piece on the internet. A glutton for punishment, I witnessed the invective that poisons our discourse, staring in its face the reality of our fissured society. While I’ve experienced this countless times, it never ceases to shock me – the naked hostility, the crass ad hominem attacks, the emotional eruptions melded with barely detectable ideas or substantive points. All id, no ego. All impulse, no control.

It’s easy to lament the vitriol on “the other side” but this war of words is universal these days, infecting just as deeply many I consider compatriots – those like-minded in the desire to pursue social justice; those who cannot rest with themselves or the world in the midst of enduring human degradation. I feel an extra pinch of discomfort when I see it among my allies.

The verbal sparring is captured succinctly in the term “social justice warrior” – a term suggesting a soldier on a battlefield, sword and shield in hand, fighting to destroy the opponent. Admittedly, I identify with the inclination, but I see its limitations.

Shouldn’t our knowledge of how people really think compel us to reconsider the metaphor? We know from mounting evidence, for instance, that people tend to maintain preconceived attitudes or beliefs when confronted with counter-information, and to cling to them even more strongly when personally threatened or vilified. Our political beliefs are not compartmentalized in our minds but bound up inextricably with our sense of ourselves and the world. Attacking our political beliefs, then, is an attack on who we are. When we’re attacked in this way, we hold on for dear life.

So why is it that we often descend into a duel that cuts right to the heart of our opponent’s identity? It’s an approach that feels good momentarily, that gives us a “gotcha!” satisfaction, but does nothing to actually alter the ways of thinking and being that we claim we want to change.

The futility of our current discourse has weighed on me recently. I’ve often wondered if we’ve arrived at an unscalable impasse destined to splinter us permanently into two Americas. In these symbolic days of journeying from slavery to freedom, it strikes me that the way we talk to each other in these fraught political times is a form of bondage. Gevurah is a necessary antidote.

Pursuing justice, indeed, requires discipline. It demands that we restrain our proclivity to pounce on and defeat our foe and to instead determine the embattled identity staring back at us. What is at stake for this person? What aspect of the self is on the line? How can I frame my point in a way that problematizes the idea and not the person?

This kind of discipline doesn’t come easy. To be sure, the moments demanding the most discipline often produce the least. At just the time when effectiveness requires restraint, we emotionally erupt, letting rationality slip away, pushing each party further into their respective corners. We make a mockery of the word “progressive” when we descend into this tribal dance. Progress demands altering how we engage the other – a disarming of our discourse.

Why is discipline in our dialogue often elusive? For one, I think, the pursuit of social justice is grounded in love of others – in the refusal to withstand their mistreatment or degradation. When the lives or dignity of people we love are on the line we feel, rightfully, emotional. Yet acting on that emotion without discipline does not serve ultimately to reduce those conditions and may actually exacerbate them. What we know of the human psyche suggests that we need to balance that love with another love much harder to find within ourselves: love of the object of our argument – the opponent on the other side into whom we feel compelled to plunge the verbal sword.

Paulo Freire, in his writing on education, suggests we practice a “pedagogy of love” – truly believing in the capacity of all people to learn and grow; to remove layers of socialization to see with new eyes. This outcome requires a patient, methodical teacher, but most of all, a teacher who truly loves the individual standing before her. A teacher – who in the face of attitudes and beliefs that break her heart – can pursue the justice of a changed mind through disciplined practice.

The story of Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter who grew up within and later fled the Westboro Baptist Church – is illustrative. Recounting her journey from spewing hate alongside church members toward the many “others” her church taught her to revile to completely rejecting their ideology, she described the critical importance of “strangers on Twitter who showed me the power of engaging the other.” One such stranger was the editor of a  Jewish culture blog, David Abitbol, who befriended her first through their social media exchanges and later by approaching her at rallies. As he recounts, he “brought her middle eastern desserts while she held an ‘I hate Jews’ sign.” In the face of this hate, he held steady, maintaining a friendly demeanor coupled with diligently rational argumentation that gradually exposed fundamental contradictions in her belief system. Through an expression of care for her as a human being, he disarmed her, leaving her open to listening and receiving the message. She eventually experienced an internal crisis that moved her to leave the church and dramatically alter her life’s course.

Reflecting on the commentary she received by David and some others who approached her similarly, she shared, “The care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that the people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe.”

When we witness or stand on the receiving end of viscious words, can we apply this pedagogy of love? Can we embody David’s discipline and diligence in humanizing those with whom we engage, even when their words are biting? Do we want to? There is, after all, comfort in staying in familiar territory, even if that territory damages us, because leaving it takes us to an unknown place. We might think of the war of words as a sort of golden calf, attractive in its offering of immediate gratification, yet ultimately defeating as it detracts us from our broader goals.

Are we so addicted to the self-soothing of verbal battle that we don’t even stop to think anymore of what those broader goals are? Can we envision what civility really looks and feels like? What would it mean to truly transcend divisions of ideology and stay in the room with those with whom we fundamentally disagree? How do we balance our desire for justice with the discipline of careful communication, of a dialogue that is not just emotive but transformative?

As we reflect on these days between Passover and Shavuot on the journey from slavery to freedom, let us challenge ourselves to work with intention to embody this discipline as we engage “others”. Let us take a deep breath when our inclination to strike arises and pursue not the salve of momentary catharsis but actual change of thought and action. Let’s embody gevurah by disarming our dialogue.