A Response to Shammai

A Response to Shammai

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer and I have shared a column in the Jewish Standard for approximately eight years, each appearing in alternating weeks. For the first few years, we never met and knew next to nothing about one another.

TRUTH REGARDLESS OF CONSEQUENCES About two years ago, we were introduced by an acquaintance. Although our relationship got off to a rocky start, we became fast friends, with Shammai offering me advice that I cherished, and serving as a welcome moral and spiritual guide. We come from very different religious and political perspectives, but this was especially true of my run for Congress, where Shammai constantly encouraged me to remain true to my values and never hit below the belt.

Over a month ago, Shammai did something astonishing, publicly renouncing his column by saying he had become arrogant and too opinionated (“Conceding conceit,” January 24). He claimed that he had been dismissive of other people’s views and had violated his own idea of there being more than one truth. He apologized to anyone he had offended and announced that he was signing off.

Consider this column to be a rebuttal to his sentiments, and a call that he return to sharing this space with me as we have for so many years.

The job of a columnist is to offer an opinion and provoke thought. So long as it is well-reasoned, well-argued, and factual, the views expressed are fair game. If people take umbrage, if they are infuriated or incensed, so be it. They can disagree, write a letter to the editor, or tell their guests at Shabbes dinner what a jerk the columnist is.

When columnists are wishy-washy and unopinionated, when they fail to provoke a response, they have done a disservice to their readership, whose time is valuable. Truth be told, they will not last long as columnists anyway.

To be sure, I believe in forceful columnists who retain an open mind to counterarguments. I especially appreciate those who, faced with the overwhelming facts and logic of the other side, are prepared to admit defeat. But not only is there nothing wrong with having an ideology, those who are bereft of one are empty bores. They waste trees and paper and are best skipped.

Shammai is correct. There is more than one truth. But truth is discerned through the amalgamation of various truths that are passionately argued by their adherents.

I believe, for example, that there is, of course, truth in Christianity and Islam. In my writings and talks, I have sought to demonstrate how much of Christianity is borrowed from Jewish teachings and how anti-Semitism is not only a sin against the Jewish Jesus, but demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the teachings of Christ. I am a rabbi, not a priest, and my job is to champion Judaism while always respecting Christianity.

I believe passionately that the Republican Party is far more reliable on Israel today and that its fiscal policies can save the United States from financial ruin. But the Democrats are ahead in some areas as well, unencumbered with malignant religious extremists who believe that bashing gays and obsessing over abortion will right all of America’s ills. I am a Republican, but I take the best from my Democratic brothers.

The same is true with being a passionately Orthodox Jew. I believe that altering Judaism based on modern convenience and whim will seriously erode its vibrancy and essence, leaving it a hollow shell of its robust past. But that does not mean that I do not embrace Reform and Conservative Judaism’s more universal and outward-looking social conscience.

The person who expressed it best was the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, who said that a bird requires two wings to fly, a right wing and a left wing. If it had both on the same side of its body, it would merely flop around endlessly. But because it has antithetical propulsion, with both sides pushing from opposite ends, it takes flight.

Offending one’s audience is the least of a columnist’s sins, the greatest of which is being a dull windbag, a cowardly chatterbox, someone afraid to take a stand, and patronizing their audience to win popularity rather than make them think. The greatest men and women of the age are always those who pursue the courage of their convictions, even if they are hated for it in their lifetime.

No American president has ever been as despised as Abraham Lincoln, who was arguably even more reviled in the North than in the South. Today, we remember him as our greatest president.

No statesman was loathed more in the 20th Century than Sir Winston Churchill, who in the 1930s was considered a belligerent drunk and irresponsible crank by his peers. Today, we remember him as the greatest leader of the past 100 years.

To be sure, there are columns that Shammai has penned that offended even me, most notably his erroneous argument that the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, believed in the Shoah as divine punishment, an argument I refute in my new book, “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Still, Shammai had every right to write it, just as I had every right to refute it.

Come back to us, Shammai. We miss you. Yours is a brilliant pen. Moral, just, eloquent, upstanding, and righteous. As well as wrong, misguided, inflammatory, and divisive.

Just what a great columnist ought to be.