How Jews should argue — Part II

How Jews should argue — Part II

I wasn’t surprised that my recent column in the Jewish Standard on L’Affaire RCBC was not the final word on that topic (“When our leaders fail us,” February 15). In the very next issue there was a column by a regular contributor who took a very different approach and came to very different conclusions, with which I disagree strongly for the reasons set forth not only in my original column but also in two astute letters to the editor appearing last week. In addition, a friend (and cousin of my wife) with whom I often debate matters such as these wrote a detailed and lengthy letter to the editor, which was an almost point-by-point response to and attempted refutation of the major ideas of my column.

Were I still the commercial litigator that I was for decades, I know exactly what I would have done in this situation: sit down and write a reply brief, poking holes in the opposition while further supporting the arguments I originally made. But with one small exception (see below), that’s not what I plan to do here (though I have what to write), because, thank God (and social security, IRAs, and some Apple stock), I’ve retired.

When I wore a litigator’s hat, I had one basic job — to win the case for my client, within the ethical and professional rules under which I practiced. And in court, the way to achieve that goal was to convince those deciding the case — usually judge(s) — that my client’s cause was just and my arguments solid and correct. Thus, it often was necessary to get in the last word if possible, to make sure that no argument was left unanswered. I had to win. (Not that I always did, of course, but that was the goal.)

As a columnist, though, I’m not here to win. As I see it, my job (unpaid though it is) is to raise issues, give (and support) my opinions on those issues, hope that some readers truly will care about what I care about, and pray that some will agree — even, every once in a while, a few who did not do so originally. I try to be an advocate of ideas, who works hard to raise concerns and possibly to convince. But with no client, I have no compelling need to win.

So if someone disagrees with me in writing, and if, as was the case here, there are no egregious factual errors in the response à la our president that require fact checking, I feel no urge to reply. Readers have both sides before them, and those interested enough can decide for themselves. And if I’m able to touch someone enough to make him lift (virtual) pen to paper, even in disagreement, it means that I’ve accomplished much of what lies at the heart of my writing a regular column.

(The single substantive point on the RCBC issue that I will reply to is the statement, made in the letter as well as in a number of personal emails and comments to my column on Facebook, that the RCBC was within its rights to pass the women rabbis bylaw. Indeed it was. But the issue that members and leaders of a religious community driven by Torah, ethics, morals, and values need be concerned with is not whether they had the right to do what they did but whether it was the right thing to do. My answer still is an unequivocal no.)

I therefore continue to find the RCBC controversy, unless corrected as I proposed, depressing and a sad commentary on our community and especially its leadership. Nonetheless, I believe there is a (small) silver lining; that the discussion of this dispute in the Jewish Standard has been a model of how Jews should argue — forcefully, openly, and civilly, sans ad hominem attacks and overheated rhetoric. (See “How Jews should argue,” February 15, 2018.)

This thought struck me particularly hard because I had a recent experience of how Jews should not argue.

I’ll be blunt. I was kicked out of a private Facebook group called Torah Trumps Hate. I can’t tell you exactly why, because I was never told why, nor did I even have the courtesy of being told that I had been thrown out. Rather, one day I suddenly was unable to enter the group’s page as before, because, the page I could get to told me, posts were available only to members. Which, apparently, I no longer was.

As best as I can reconstruct it, the reason probably was comments I made in response to a post advising the group not to discuss whether wearing blackface was racist, because the discussion was disturbing to members who are Jews of Color. I certainly had made no such comments and agree that wearing blackface is, and was, racist.

What I had suggested and commented on, though, was that it was important for a group strongly opposed to Trump and Trumpism (as am I) to discuss the issue of how Democrats should treat leaders who had worn blackface decades ago and since that time had admirable records on race relations. I didn’t even give an opinion on that issue — just proposed that we should discuss it. But even that suggestion was, I guess, deemed offensive enough to get me booted out without warning or notice.

No one likes to be excluded. I certainly don’t. And there’s just so much comfort you can take from the statement of that great 20th century philosopher (no, not Yogi; this time it’s Groucho) who said “I don’t care to belong to any group that will have me as a member.” Nor have I found this rejection much easier to accept because the numerous posts on my news feed from TTH have been replaced by more diverse and often more interesting ones from other groups and individuals. Rejection hurts.

But beyond rejection, what bothered me most of all is that the only way the group could find a way to deal with how to discuss a critical issue was not to discuss it at all. And to ban anyone who thought otherwise.

At its core, TTH is devoted to an idea that I deeply believe in, even if on certain issues it was sometimes far to the left of me. (Yes, though some of my good friends may gasp, there are those who are to the left of me.) How sad it is, therefore, that it could deal with disagreement from supporters only by silencing and exclusion. And how much more productive is the open disagreement I was part of in these pages with those who, while friends or colleagues, are often, as here, on the other side of the table.

It’s a grave mistake to exchange a vibrant marketplace of ideas for closed intellectual bubbles. That’s not how Jews should argue.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.