Gerson: We must return to civil debate in this country – Online Athens

Posted By on December 27, 2019

During this time, we Jews have been enjoying our holiday of Chanukah, the festival of lights.

As most people know (indeed the public schools tell the children about it now), the menorah candelabra is lit with one additional candle each night, culminating with eight candles burning on the last, eighth evening. It harks back to 165 B.C., when, after the Maccabean victory over the Greek Syrians, the small jar of oil in the Jerusalem Temple miraculously burned for eight days.

However, few know that in the Talmud, one of our holy books filled with laws and history, there is recorded a debate among two famous rabbis on how the menorah should be kindled over the eight nights. Rabbi Shammai said start with eight candles lit, and proceed down to one; Rabbi Hillel said the opposite: increase from one burning to eight. Of course, Hillel"s view increasing the light, a powerful image was accepted by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court.

Actually, Hillel and Shammai had many debates in the Talmud, as did other rabbis, about ritual, religious law, laws of living, and other subjects. The debates are conducted in a totally civil and dignified manner, with the prevailing view accepted by the others with kindness and respect. This is how debate should be.

Influenced somewhat by this, our country also has a tradition of lofty civil debate. The founders of our nation, seen in the Federalist Papers, reflected this in developing the Constitution.

Later, in 1858, the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates proceeded in a high, basically respectful, intellectual level.

I recall as a young student watching the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates in l960 and later the tapes. While they strongly disagreed on issues, they treated each other with civility.

And, we might remember the presidential debate of 2008. When an attendee from the audience meanly questioned Barack Obama's lineage and patriotism, the late JohnMcCain politely stood up for his opponent: "No, ma-am, that is NOT true."

So, our nation having a tradition of civil debate, what has happened to us now? The whole tenor of debate has descended into downright rudeness and hostility. Recently, I was watching a political exchange on television, when one official said to the other: "Shut up, moron!" Then, in another instance, also on TV, I heard an elected official, referring to an opponent, say: "It must suck to be so stupid!" How on Earth did we come to this?

In the Talmud it says: "Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows (in speaking). In this New Year 2020, let us pray for a return to civil discussion in our country. Let us urge our elected officials to do this, in any way we can. We can do no less.

Rabbi Ronald Gerson is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Children of Israel in Athens.


Gerson: We must return to civil debate in this country - Online Athens

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