Progressively Speaking: We should be courteous to each other, even if MPs aren’t
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Progressively Speaking: We should be courteous to each other, even if MPs aren’t

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild looks at Jewish texts to find out how we should treat one another, especially against the backdrop of a tense political atmosphere

Boris Johnson addresses a tense House of Commons (UK Parliament/PA Wire)
Boris Johnson addresses a tense House of Commons (UK Parliament/PA Wire)

Jewish tradition is no stranger to robust debate. Talmud reveals “the scholars of the land of Israel treat each other graciously when engaged in debate, but the scholars of Babylon injure each other”, and more controversy is recorded in the Babylonian than the Jerusalem Talmud.

Another story tells of a three-year dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, ended only when a Divine voice emerged, proclaiming: “These and These (Elu’v’Elu) are the words of the living God. But the halacha is with Beit Hillel.”

The Talmud asks: “If both are valid, why is the halacha with Hillel?” And answers: “Because they were agreeable, showed restraint when insulted, and taught both sides of the issue.”

Our tradition is replete with injunctions towards civility in discourse. Avot tells that arguments for the sake of heaven (for general benefit) – like those between Hillel and Shammai – will endure. But selfish arguments – such as Korach’s – will not. The process also matters even more than the content – Shabbat 17a tells of a day when Beit Shammai, realising they had a majority, prevented anyone from leaving or entering and passed 18 laws without listening to any minority opinion.

This day is described as a tragedy as great as the golden calf, the violent overturning of respectful discourse.   

We are repeatedly reminded about courteous dialogue, about listening to the other, being open to their opinions. Tradition teaches that sinat chinam, baseless hatred, led to the destruction of the Temple.

Within the Jewish world, different Batei Din must respect each other’s judgments, and different streams of Judaism should respect each other’s integrity.

Within the wider world, we have been watching the breakdown of civil discourse in the past three years, as people label the other side as “stupid”, “conspiratorial” or “evil”.

There is a deliberate attempt to create divisions in society, fracture communities and families, set people against each other, and at the root of it is the failure to adhere to the rules of civil discourse.

We Jews know words matter. The world is created with speech, and can be destroyed with it. Words enter the mind, changing thought, engendering love or hatred, creating suspicion. Life and death are in the power of the tongue – we cannot be silent.

  •  Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years
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