Civility (Derekh Eretz), Now More Than Ever
Shanah Tovah. You may or may not like it, but I promise this day I am not going to speak about the current presidential campaign; I mean, hasn’t enough been said already? And yet, I do want to wax nostalgic for a moment about a previous campaign, not that long ago.
These days past presidential campaigns seem like from a classier, more aristocratic era. You may not remember that, in the midst of the hard-fought presidential battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, there was a remarkable moment of grace. The night Senator Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator McCain ran a television commercial that was not the typical campaign fare.
Senator McCain reminded the nation of the historical nature of his opponent’s nomination as the first person of African ancestry nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party. Not only that, the nomination took place on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here’s what Senator McCain had to say:
“Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to stop and say ‘Congratulations.’ How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it. But tonight, senator, a job well done.”
Now, television advertising isn’t cheap. Surely there were some in the McCain camp who thought the commercial was a waste of money, that he should have stayed relentlessly on the attack. In fact, the commercial was much-celebrated as a rare moment of civility — a brief and much-appreciated vacation from the barroom brawl that is the modern political landscape.
I said I won’t speak of the current campaign and I won’t. But let’s not fool ourselves: the current campaign is not only about politics. It is ultimately about us. And whether or not we think America is already great or can be great again, the tenor of our national conversation is worrisome.
Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal this past July (7/19/16), asks this question:
When did the decline of American character begin? Maybe it was between July 1969, when two Americans walked on the moon, and a Saturday that August, when 400,000 Americans rolled in the mud at Woodstock.
Or maybe the date came later, when American culture sanctioned the idea that self-actualization should count for more than your children’s emotional health. Or when bragging ceased to be considered uncouth, and ignorance ceased to be embarrassing, and lying ceased to be shameful, and the habits of understatement gave way to ever more conspicuous displays of wealth, desire, feelings, skin.
Whenever. Whatever. Pick your date and trend. Not everything that happened to the American character in the past 50 years is bad—we are more tolerant, more empathetic and more relaxed—but much of it undoubtedly is.
Bret Stephens writes as a conservative and we may disagree with his negative reaction to what is happening today. But it would be hard to take issue with the fact that civility is on the wane.
Last year I spoke at this time about keeping the conversation going in spite of strong feelings of antipathy for each other, or at least our respective political opinions. But I’ve come to learn the problem is actually much worse. It’s not about continuing the conversation. It’s about reclaiming the conversation, that is the power of talk in a digital age.
Writing in her recent book on this topic, Sherry Turkle observes that this new digital life has gotten us into a lot of trouble. Face-to-face conversation is the most humanizing thing we do. These days we avoid such face-to-face conversation whenever possible. Unfortunately, such behavior is only an extreme example of a growing trend in our country: rude, uncivil attitudes. The world in which we live is suffering from more and more vulgar speech, indecent behavior and selfish living. We see it in our entertainment, in our streets, and in the newspaper accounts of hate crimes and vandalism. And we even see it closer to home, in the way we all too often behave.
A perfect example is the cell phone. Witness the behavior of people with cell phones these days. It is no rare thing for a dinner companion to wait fifteen minutes while the other chats into the phone. Important business meetings are put on hold because someone whips out a phone the second it starts ringing. Cell phones also are heard in this sanctuary during services. Even during a funeral.
A couple of weeks ago someone pick pocketed my phone when I was riding home from Temple on the bus. I am not happy with this theft and would not want to thank the culprit, but not having a smart phone for a week did make me see how much people are zoned out on their phones. A visitor from another planet, watching how people obsessively are on their phones and ignore each other might well conclude the human race was being ruled by small, flat-screened robots. It’s kind of sad.
And we all know how cell phones have managed to make driving in Chicago even more dangerous than it was before.
Speaking of bad driving, we should know that the problem is not unique to our area. I recently read of a Colorado funeral director complaining about the impatient drivers who dart in and out of funeral processions instead of waiting for them to pass.
There was a time when, if nothing else, at least a funeral procession received a little respect. But this time is over. Uncivil drivers are not only rude. They bear a great responsibility for the fact that cars kill far more people each year in our country than handguns.
Then there is this: A mother was driving with her young daughter. Traffic was heavy, the weather was terrible and mom got just a bit frazzled and began commenting on the habits and flaws of all the other drivers on the road, and not favorably, either.
As they pulled into their driveway, the daughter spoke up.
“I have a question, Mom. When you’re driving,” she asked, “are you ever the idiot?”
These days, things aren’t any better up in the sky. Airlines have seen a steady rise in hostile passengers. There was the angry man who threw his suitcase at an eight-month pregnant airline employee, all because he missed a flight connection. Or consider the woman who punched a flight attendant because there were no more sandwiches.
It’s also true that some airline employees themselves have become far less polite in recent years. It’s gotten so bad that American Air Lines has begun a civility campaign.
Then there is also a growing incivility in Washington, a phenomenon that will surprise none of us.
The growing incivility naturally has trickled down to our children. According to one survey, almost ninety percent of grade school teachers and principals report that they often face abusive language from students. We have seen the rise of violence in our schools. Guns are easy to be had and tempers are easily flared.
Now, it is important to point out that, when I use the term civility, I mean far more than good manners. Manners are cultural and therefore relative. Good manners in The Midwest may be somewhat different than good manners in Manhattan.
Civility is a broader, more absolute term. Stephen Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”
I like this definition because it reminds us that the goal of civility is not to know which knife to use with our butter. The goal is to get along together. And the means to reach this goal can only be through sacrifice. It can only be achieved by giving people the respect they may not deserve but is ours to bestow anyway. Now, such people may not have earned our civility, but we are not civil because the world is fair or because it gives us pleasure. We are civil because, in the end, it is only such respectful behavior that binds us together as a community. Without such behavior, we have nothing to hold us together.
In Judaism we have a Hebrew expression for this kind of civility: derekh eretz. Literally meaning “the way of the land,” the term refers to common decency and civility. Our heritage even proclaims that the Torah itself means nothing if people don’t practice derekh eretz, if people aren’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to live together.
Derekh eretz is not just a quaint Hebrew term. Nor should it be considered a cliché. Derekh eretz is a significant Jewish value. It was so important to the ancient rabbis that they developed two tractates of the Talmud to describe how we should govern our lives by the principles of derekh eretz. Here are some of their teachings:
Let the honor of another person be as dear to you as your own.
Show respect to all persons.
It is better that you be ashamed of yourself than be put to shame by others. Let not your teeth bring shame upon you, nor your mouth bring you to abuse (Derekh Eretz Zuta 2:8).
Temple Sholom and our wider community are summoned to act by a set of values associated with “derekh eretz.” Our behavior is guided by these principles of respect, honor, honesty, integrity, dignity, and humility. These patterns of behavior are literally “the way of the land.” They are the foundations of our relationship as a community and with one another. And even when holiness hides from us, we still act with derekh eretz because such actions fan the holy sparks within us.
As we as a congregation prepare for our hundred and fiftieth birthday next September, it is so important we remember that a sacred community is measured by its kindness and welcoming spirit, not merely by its historic significance.
And now, this year, as we gather to consider how we might improve our lives, and the life of our community, I would like to imagine what a more civil world might be like. To consider what we should be doing to make such civility a greater part of who we are and what we do.
The baseness of this current political cycle aside, I want to believe we can reverse the slide towards more vulgarity and rudeness. I would like us to see how derekh eretz might help us refine our society and give us more hope for a future of kindness and class, instead of the mean and cold climate too prevalent on our streets and in our world today.
A crucial point: When it comes to civility, we should first understand that genuine civility requires that we make sacrifices, even for strangers. The essence of civility is giving up something for the sake of someone else. In some contexts, this logic of self-sacrifice is easy to grasp. For instance, in the 19th century, as railroad travel became common, it was natural that so many people in tight spaces needed to sacrifice some of their independence for the common good. To help such people practice civility, Isaac Peebles wrote a bestseller, entitled Politeness on Railroads. Here was some of the advice: “[W]hispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger. Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way.” In addition, conductors cracked down on passengers who “indulg[ed] personal preferences at the expense of other passengers.”
Unfortunately, these days, we travel under the illusion that we are no longer sharing tight spaces and therefore such sacrifices are no longer necessary. We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.
To put it another way, when we travel on a train together it’s easy to remember that we are sharing a journey. When people are driving alone in their cars, facing traffic from the other direction, it’s harder to remember that all of us are still sharing a journey. And like travelers in a fourth-class railway car, the journey will be impossible if we aren’t prepared to make sacrifices for the comfort of others.
Those of us who take public transportation in Chicago know that, ironically, a big problem with public transit these days is, er, the public. This despite the fact we actually quite often are on a train. Not all the public. Just the seat hoggers, loud talkers, music blasters, door blockers, smelly eaters, backpack bludgeoners, litterers and boors who won’t give their seats to pregnant or disabled passengers. And of course the manspreaders!
Trying to improve the ride, Metra this summer launched its first courtesy campaign with reminders to “Ride Nice.” The five-poster campaign features images contained within the frame of a mobile phone, reflecting what most riders are staring at these days. One shows a 1960s pop art-style cartoon lady, gasping in horror over people clipping their nails and grooming their beards.
Some CTA ads are startling as well — one has a picture of people on an “L” car waist-deep in garbage, with the slogan “Your Maid Doesn’t Work Here.” An ad reminding people to “Stand Right, Walk Left” on escalators prompted a tweet from a grateful customer saying the poster had taken more time off his commute than anything else the CTA had done.
In the end, it’s not just about nice manners. It’s about thinking about other people. In other words, our society will continue to decline if we are unable to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.
Paradoxically derekh eretz even means at times putting up with the bad behavior of others. We need to be better at tolerating the poor driver who makes us late; we need to keep our mouths closed when some foolish person’s banter invites a stinging comeback; we need to become less self-absorbed and more aware of the people around us. We need to remember their needs and feelings, not only because it will make us in the end feel better. It is also simply the right thing to do. It is derekh eretz.
When the people around us do not behave with derekh eretz we might want to exercise the Jewish virtue – of Erech Apayim – of being slow to anger. In the Torah, this virtue is first mentioned as one of the attributes of God – the ability to show self restraint in the face of repeated Israelite provocation. The Book of Proverbs repeatedly cautions against losing self-control. It is better to be slow to anger, it suggests, than to be mighty, better to have self control than to conquer a city. What it really means is our ability to experience things which are deeply annoying without letting them frustrate or anger us. To quote the 19th Century Mussar leader Rabbi Mendel of Satanov: When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, why aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief?
We cannot control how others treat us but we can control how we respond. Here’s an experiment: the next time you find yourself getting angry at someone or something, ask yourself to find five red things – it can be in the room or on your device, wherever. By the time you find and enumerate them, it is quite possible you will have settled down. Try it!
Of course, the willingness to make sacrifices does not mean there won’t be occasions when we will need to criticize others. Silent tolerance is not always the right response. Twentieth century author Oliver Herford, known as the American Oscar Wilde, may have had this in mind when he observed that “a gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.” In other words, there will be times when we need to confront another human being. Nevertheless, we should understand that our criticism should always be civil. Any genuine civility must allow us to criticize others but not by jettisoning the respect we owe all of God’s creatures.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to offer criticism, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives the following advice. First, we should ask ourselves how offering the criticism makes us feel. Does it give us pleasure or pain? If a part of us relishes the idea of rebuking the person, we probably shouldn’t do it. But if we truly don’t want to offer the criticism and yet feel morally obligated to do so, then chances are we are doing the right thing.
It’s also important that our criticism be non-threatening and useful to the person. The medieval philosopher Maimonides puts it like this: “He who rebukes another…should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good….” I personally have also found that, when admonishing someone, it’s important to avoid judgmental words like “bad” or “unprofessional” that immediately put someone on the defensive.
This year Temple Sholom will join four other Reform congregations in the country to meet together and study how to practice responsible conflict resolution. Make no mistake: derekh eretz is NOT about avoiding conflict. It is about dealing with conflict in the right way.
In general criticism should never be used to push people down while raising us up. Such words should never be said in haste, nor without humanity. And never should our goal be to make the other person feel bad. Think about how much more civil life would be if we remembered to always care about the person whom we are addressing.
My yoga teacher puts it like this: “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” Not a bad way to get through the day.
Indeed, when it comes to civility, the sacrifices we make and the sensitivity we observe all boil down to one golden rule: remember the divinity in each other. This is our greatest challenge and our greatest hope. In an age of increasing violence in our entertainment and everyday speech, not to mention the vicious personal attacks in politics, civility means restoring a sense of awe for all human beings.
For a moment, travel back in your mind to this summer in Rio. It was one of the big races. New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin was lying on the track, dazed after a heavy fall and with her hopes of an Olympic medal seemingly over. Suddenly, there was a hand on her shoulder and a voice in her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.”
It was American Abbey D’Agostino, offering to help. This after the two had collided.
Hamblin had fallen heavily on her right shoulder. D’Agostino got up, but Hamblin was just lying there. She appeared to be crying. Instead of running in pursuit of the others, D’Agostino crouched down and put her hand on the New Zealander’s shoulder, then under her arms to help her up, and softly urged her not to quit.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said of D’Agostino. “I’ve never met her before…And isn’t that just so amazing. Such an amazing woman.”
In an Olympics that had seen a few unsavory incidents — the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent, the booing of a French pole vaulter by the Brazilian crowd, the lying Ryan Lochte — Hamblin and D’Agostino provided a memory that captured the Olympic spirit.
Olympic officials also decided that both runners, and Austria’s Jennifer Wenth, who was also affected by the collision, would have places in that Friday’s final.
“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Hamblin said. “When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story … That girl shaking my shoulder, (saying) ‘come on, get up’.”
Moving forward I suggest this is the image we conjure up as we head out the door each morning. We are not judged by who gets there first in the race of life. The greater goal is whom we bring with us. And just imagine: if we treat others as noble people, as people with souls, then we are being civil and courteous, and just maybe we are helping them to grow into civil and courteous people, and we’ll be making a more humane society for us all.
This is not always easy, of course. If someone cuts us off in traffic, I can think of a more gratifying response than pleasantly waving to them. It’s also more enjoyable to yell at an incompetent sales person instead of patiently smiling at them. But when we act with civility despite our more natural instincts, we are giving ourselves a gift. For although in the short term showing our anger may feel wonderful, down the road we will most likely feel bad for our behavior and we will have contributed to the growing incivility around us. And who knows? Maybe our one kind act will tip the balance towards a better world?
Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
May this New Year be a herald of such a newer world, whose appearance is so sorely awaited. And may the days, months and years ahead be blessed with more kindness, more understanding, more derekh eretz and more peace. Amen.