If you went to Oberlin back in the 1990s then you would know that mild February weather would bring a special visitor to Tappan Square. Brother Jed. Who was Brother Jed? We never got his full name, but he was a part of a Christian religious organization where clearly part of the mission was to go to places of so-called godlessness and hedonism and bring the Gospel. So he would stand there in dress shirt and slacks with a sign quoting the Bible to justify some hostility to homosexuality (usually) and a Bible and would proclaim his values in a calm but loud voice. This being Oberlin there would be all kinds of shenanigans as a result: gay couples would frolic behind him, an Orthodox buddy from Hillel once stood about 15 feet away and countered his statements with quotes from the Talmud, a lot of people just ignored him. But a number of us would gather, listen, and debate and discuss with him. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour. This was a liberal arts college, after all, and at liberal arts colleges you engaged in discourse. One time, as Brother Jed was packing up for the day, he made an off-hand comment about how he loved coming to Oberlin. It was hard to tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic so someone asked him why that was. He said it was because we actually engaged with him and listened to him. We talked to him. At the other colleges and universities he went to, they would throw beer bottles, yell obscenities at him and one time even chased him. They were hostile, they were cruel. To be sure our discussions could get heated and no one ceded any ground, but at no point were we cruel.
We weren’t cruel. This week we read parashat mishpatim, the portion of laws. It follows right after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and it always feels, narratively, like such a downer. After this amazing transformational moment Israel gets to listen about personal injury law, property management, criminal justice, witches, sexual morality, how to care for a slave, animal husbandry, holidays, a whole potpourri of regulations that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Except they do. Taken together, they are all an exhortation against cruelty. How you treat the slave, the widow, the orphan, your neighbor, the stranger, the animal in the field, how you participate in communal life--all pointing to a life that minimizes cruelty to others. That to be God’s people, to live by God’s light, to receive God’s blessing, we simply cannot treat others as obstacles, as things, as objects, as enemies. As Monsters. But people. And people are deserving of respect and love. Again and again, exhaustively, as my friend Josh Garroway wrote this week in Voices and Values, our portion exhorts us to care for the least of us, to protect the least of us, to see them not as strangers but as neighbors, as brothers and sisters.
We don’t have to be cruel. I have been thinking about the idea of cruelty more and more this last month, seeing families separated by religious bans, headstones overturned in Jewish cemeteries, as ICE agents take parents from their children at their kids’ football practices, and guidance come down reminding vulnerable transgender kids of their vulnerability. I’ve heard from teachers in the Christina school district that parents won’t come to conferences because they’re afraid it’s a trap set by ICE to take them away. The liberal thinker Richard Rorty often wrote that the choice before us wasn’t one of conservative versus liberal, but of solidarity versus cruelty. Were we going to, in policy, in behavior, in our the expression of our values, act out of cruelty, or were we going to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, the most exposed to harm. Is it possible to disagree about values and beliefs without resorting to open hostility and cruelty? Well, we did it with Brother Jed. Why couldn’t we do the rest of the time?
Our Torah declares: You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; nor shall you speak in a cause to incline a multitude to pervert justice. That text speaks volumes today. Our age is presenting us Richard Rorty’s question, his choice, which is also God’s choice, though I doubt he would have thought of it that way. Will we act out of cruelty, hate, anger, hostility? Or will we act in solidarity, recognizing the humanity in the other, refusing to make the other ‘Other’ at all? The desecration of Jewish graves in St. Louis was met by a Muslim organization raising over $100,000. The Muslim Ban and Refugee restrictions have been met by Jews and Christians, including in our own community, saying loudly and proudly you are welcome here. Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, has said “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression & denial of my humanity and right to exist.”. We can disagree and still love each other. We can choose solidarity. We don’t have to be cruel. We can choose solidarity. We don’t have to agree, we can hold onto our beliefs and cede no ground, but we can do it with respect and compassion for the other. But only if we choose. May we choose wisely, amen.