Building a Tower of Dignity

By Rabbi Ben Berger

This past summer, a participant in the Wexner Foundation’s Wexner Heritage Program reflected on her recent experience as a congressional candidate: “I was surrounded by people 24/7, but it was actually very lonely.” She shared this poignant comment standing next to her co-presenter, another member of her Wexner cohort also running for political office, but from the opposite political party.

“Having him to talk to was one of the ways I stayed grounded during my campaign. In fact, he was among the very few who could really understand what I was going through,” she reflected. This odd couple, both Jewish community volunteer leaders with deeply divergent political opinions, spent two years learning Jewish text, history and leadership with each other and their cohort of fellow volunteer leaders. Here they were, on opposite sides of the aisle expressing gratitude for each other’s presence in their lives. At our summer institute in August, the two candidates did not debate policy or demean the other’s party; instead, they encouraged the rest of us to find ways to deepen our relationships with people of divergent opinions. It was a rare glimpse of civility in our hyper-partisan era.

Watching the two of them support and even cheer each other on was deeply moving and inspiring. And anyone who has been paying attention and who laments the state of political discourse, appreciated this as a reminder that we can disagree and still see the dignity in each other. In this case, the friendship was developed around the study of Torah, the investment in a classroom community and commitments to honoring difference and listening. Remember listening?

Perhaps it’s on my mind because of the time of year, but I can’t help but feel that this moment in the civic and communal conversation reminds me of this most painful midrash about the building of the Tower of Babel: If a person fell and died, they wouldnt pay any attention to him, but if a brick fell, they would sit down and cry and say, “How will another take its place?! (Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer 24) In this depressing image, people were expendable, while the goal of conquering heaven was paramount. It seems that without too much effort we can find daily examples of people who are willing to sacrifice the other for their own cause. And the Jewish community as it reflects the world we live in is certainly not immune from this tragic state of affairs.

There’s another image though from the tower of Babel that might also speak to this moment. I was reminded of the commentary of Rabbi David Kasher, who just completed five years of stunning writing on the parsha on his blog, Parshanut.com. The 11th century commentator, Ibn Ezra, teaches a surprising lesson by identifying none other than Abraham as one of the builders of the tower. What was Abraham, the founder of our faith, doing amongst the marauding masses seeking fame and glory as they built toward the heavens? He, who epitomized an unvarnished belief in God, was amongst the greatest revolt against God in human history?

Kasher suggests that unlike the idealized images of Abraham’s call to leadership, as the one who rebels against his idolatrous surroundings, perhaps he was not always such a good boy. Maybe he too was a rebel, fighting God like those around him in the wake of the flood that destroyed the world. And out of this destructive debacle, where God and his fellow human beings were degraded, Abraham emerged with a new view of God and in turn, his fellow human beings. The one God he came to know required a system of belief and behavior that honored the dignity of all human life regardless of language or beliefs. Surely there were some beliefs that were beyond the pale, but difference did not deny their humanity. It was by going through the fire of disagreement and dissent, as it were, that Abraham was able to become the founding father of our people. At The Wexner Foundation, we have sought to influence Jewish leadership, to create a kinder, more inclusive and yet equally engaged communal discourse. Our work in training our members, fellows and alumni in civil discourse is one essential area that we have taken up and will continue to work on. We believe that in this time, there may be no more important leadership skill than the ability to speak to those with differing views.

To meet this challenge, we must, as we have for more than three decades, bring together uniquely diverse cohorts, individuals who represent the full spectrum of Jewish expression and come from very different political perspectives. We are as committed to diversity as ever, but we worry that it is increasingly difficult to fulfill this vision because our communities have become more and more polarized. While we may seek to include the broadest spectrum of participants in our programs, we are limited by who we can find, by who our communities see as their leaders and by who is willing to sit down and patiently engage even when the conversations are tough. Our alumni who boldly stood on the stage to share the unique power of forging a friendship across difference, are exemplars of what’s possible when good people with radically different perspectives are brought together with Jewish learning and community at the center.

Let us all work to create spaces where we invite people of diverse and even passionate difference to sit together over text and food, debate and dialogue. Let us create spaces where people can disagree, even argue, but emerge committed to honoring the dignity in each other. As we open our application season for three new Wexner Heritage classes in Cincinnati, Seattle and Rochester, NY, my sincere hope is that we can find ways to invite leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish life to do just that.

To learn more about the Wexner Heritage Program and to nominate candidates in those communities, please click here.

As part of The Wexner Foundation, Rabbi Ben Berger is the Director of the Wexner Heritage Program, dedicated to expanding the vision of Jewish volunteer leaders, deepening their Jewish knowledge and confidence, and inspiring them to exercise transformative leadership in the Jewish community.