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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Yom Kippur 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon or read it below:

I should be honest here that the sermon I am about to give is not the sermon I originally wrote. I spent, as many rabbis do, my spare time over the summer reading and learning, I spent my weekends talking with study partners and writing, and on Saturday I finished my sermon and sent it to some friends to proof read. 

The responses that came back:

“If I were you I’d also think, if I'm totally honest, whether you really want to say this”
“It’s not my favourite thing you’ve written”
“I don’t think your heart is in this”
“You always say you think people shouldn’t speak if they don’t genuinely feel what they are saying, and I’m not sure you genuinely care about this”

Right then...

I suppose you might say, what’s the point of asking if only for affirmation, but I think that’s also often exactly what we look to those around us for. After a moment of initial frustration, I realised that this was a much more precious kind of response. It’s so much easier to say ‘oh that's nice’ or ‘lovely’ or ‘it's great’, certainly it's less socially messy than it is to tell someone a potentially difficult truth. 

But that’s why it's so precious, it’s way easier to be a cheerleader in a friendship, workplace relationship, even a synagogue, than it is to be the one who risks making waves with your words.

When I think of Jewish models of friendship, I think particularly of the relationship between two talmudic sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Shimon ben Lakish, known as Reish Lakish. Their friendship is one of those passionately intense ones with strong emotion, love, and a magnetic attraction from the moment they meet. Reish Lakish even married Rabbi Yochanan's sister!

They studied together with ferocious intensity, covering vast sums of material, and then one day they were in discussion and something went terribly wrong. The story is told in the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Bava Metzia.

To understand what happened, you need some background on our characters.

There’s Rabbi Yochanan, an established scholar from a scholarly family. He is known for his wisdom, but also his poise and beauty. Reish Lakish has a very different background and is often cited as an example of someone who has truly undergone teshuva. 

His life before he became Rabbi Yochanan’s study partner was that he was a gladiator and a bandit. But, he made amends, and when someone makes amends for their actions, we are told that we should not remind them of who they were in the past for if they have truly repented and done teshuva then there is nothing to remind them of.

Here’s how it all unfolded. They’re in the middle of a heated discussion about Jewish law, particularly about at what point the manufacture of a weapon is complete, Reish Lakish offers an answer and Rabbi Yochanan quips, ‘a bandit knows his tools’. 

Reish Lakish is heartbroken, he says to Rabbi Yochanan, ‘I can't believe you would say this, everywhere else they treat me as the person I am, but you of all people call me a bandit.’

Yochanan replies with incredulity and defensiveness, ‘don't have a go at me, I've done so much for you’. And at that moment their relationship is shattered. Yochanan sinks into depression and Reish Lakish becomes ill, and eventually he dies. The students in the beit midrash try to soothe Rabbi Yochanan’s sadness and so they find him another study partner. 

They say to each other, ‘let's bring in this rabbi for Yochanan to learn with, he's super smart.’ So they do, and they learn together and after everything Rabbi Yohanan said, he would say to him: ‘There is a tradition that supports you.’

This happens again and again until eventually Rabbi Yochanan loses it…

He says “You are supposed to be like Ben Lakish!? Whenever I said anything, he would pose twenty-four difficulties, and I would give him twenty-four solutions, and through this the traditions became clearer. And all you can say is: ‘There is a tradition that supports you’? Don’t I already know that what I said was correct?”

R. Yohanan would go out, ripping his clothes, crying and saying: “Ben Lakish, where are you! Ben Lakish, where are you?!”

And he would scream so until he lost his mind. The scholars prayed for mercy for him and he too died. It’s a real romantic tragedy. 

It was only when Reish Lakish died that Rabbi Yochanan was able to understand what was so particularly special about their partnership. Yes, they had a lot in common, but more than that, they sparred, they disagreed, they held up a mirror to each other, and they pushed each other. 

Rabbi Yochanan points out that most of the time when we speak an opinion we do it because we think we are right. The reason we need that other person is to help us see more, learn more, be told otherwise. The lifeblood of their relationship was difference- their different histories, their different views- and Rabbi Yochanan didn’t grasp the precious value of that kind of relationship, and he stepped beyond its bounds, causing hurt, destroying it.

Inside this story, we are reminded of the value of encountering differences, and constructive rather than destructive meetings between ideas. We need spaces to hold those encounters. 

As an educator, I hear a lot, and I have also myself talked a lot, about classrooms, and community spaces, as safe spaces. 

People want to know that they will be ok when they enter a place, come to learn, or to just sit and be. At FRS we talk a lot about being a safe place to share or to explore. In our story, we can see in the words ‘a bandit knows his tools’ the moment when Reish Lakish became unsafe in his space, where he was harmed by what Rabbi Yochanan said. 

But what about before? It sounds like their learning together, their beit midrash, wasn’t always a comfortable conversation, but it was a loving one. It was, what we might call, a brave space.

The language of safe spaces and brave spaces comes from the researchers Kristi Clemens and Brian Arao. They started with a question: what does it mean to talk about safe spaces? Who are they safe for? And what are we promising when we say that? 

They were tasked with developing training for a university department about social justice, and they engaged people in an activity where they were encouraged to explore a situation from someone else's perspective. People with different life experiences to them. 

It didn’t work, instead of becoming empathetic people became defensive. People were upset and felt attacked. Some were angry that they had to listen to people say discriminatory or hurtful things, others felt judged or accused of being bad people for their different views. They realised the experience was particularly hard for people from minority communities.

So Clemens and Arao found themselves questioning the idea of safety entirely. Safety is defined in the dictionary as “free from harm or risk, affording safety or security from danger, risk or difficulty… unlikely to produce controversy or contradiction”. 

They argued that any learning that seeks to be transformative by definition involves risk, difficulty, and controversy. When a space was defined as safe, what it often meant was that people were told they could say anything and not be judged, but, and maybe this is a particularly good question for us to all explore this Yom Kippur, what about the things that require accountability?

And so, they developed an alternative way of defining space, not as safe space but instead as brave space. They explained that telling people a space is brave, signals to them that they might be uncomfortable, and raises the idea that there is a real difference between safety and comfort. We all have a right to be safe, but do we all have a right to be comfortable?

And so we get an alternative set of principles, principles that I realise when reading them feel much more akin to the culture of the beit midrash of old than to many of our communal spaces today. And these are they...

Rather than asking people to agree to disagree, they encourage dialogue that doesn't push controversy away but tries to understand where it takes root. They suggest that people need to listen to and understand differences, and to sit with them to find common solutions that don’t flatten our different perspectives. 

Strong emotions are natural and expected, but shouting and threatening people are not. They suggest that not all perspectives are morally equivalent, but all people are equally valuable.

Rather than telling people to try not to take things personally as you might do in a safe space setting, they instead ask people to own their intentions and their impact. This one in particular reminds me of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. 

Rather than a safe space mindset that says to Reish Lakish don't be so sensitive, the ask is on all parties to consider how someone might feel when they hear their words, then decide if they are prepared to have that impact before speaking. They ask outright- are you prepared to cause harm? And if so, why?

Rather than a blanket language of respect, they encourage people to learn to distinguish between challenge and aggression. Challenge is not disrespectful, aggression is.

And finally, they remind people that it is vital to be able to understand what is an opposing view, and what is an attack. Sometimes opposing views represent existential threats to people, which is why things like neo-nazi discourse must be taken so seriously. But sometimes they don’t, they’re just uncomfortable to hear, but our safety is not compromised.

I wonder how many of us find ourselves regularly in brave spaces, or places that encourage us to be brave; to listen past our discomfort or, as Cantor Zoe often reminds us, turn our discomfort into enquiry. Spaces that seek to do a better job of taking care of those within them by raising their aspirations for what is possible when in a relationship with other people.

If research published this week by civitas is anything to go by, if we once did, the pandemic and its impact on the size of our social circles means that many of us are increasingly surrounded by the people we like most, and think most like. 

Our current fraught public discourse is driven by echo chambers, and we all do it, we all curate our twitter feeds, choose our newspapers, and decide whether we can stomach going to that dinner with that person who is always on about that thing.

I want to return to the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, because I wonder if it might represent an aspiration for what we might do in community. I wonder if it is time to be clearer and more ambitious for ourselves, not to expect synagogue community to be a safe space in the way it was once understood, but rather a brave one. 

A place where, because we are in community together, we actively try to deeply understand each other too. That means seeking to go deeper than replicating the disagreements of the public sphere in synagogue life, seeking to hear someone’s story, entertaining the idea that we might be uncomfortable, we might change our minds.

In a public dialogue with with Laverne Cox, who she had previously been in significant ideological conflict with, the feminist author Bell Hooks said this:

“‘I’m very interested in what does it mean for us to cultivate together community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside your own boundaries, the risk that is love. There is no love that does not involve risk.”

The rabbis said ‘O chavruta o metutah’ literally translated as study partnership or death. I would translate it more simply as dialogue or death. 

This yom kippur I’m asking myself, am I ready, are you ready, are we ready to consider ourselves, this community, a brave space? A space where we seek to find love, where we risk what we might discover, about others and about ourselves, if we take the chance to really listen, really hear, and allow ourselves, like Rabbi Yochanan, to experience the blessing of those who challenge us and how they might help us grow?

Thu, 21 October 2021 15 Cheshvan 5782