Jon Stewart's well attended "Rally to Restore Sanity" took place a month ago on the Mall in Washington D.C. The fact that it took place on Shabbat afternoon kept many rabbis and other Jewish leaders from encouraging attendance, but by all accounts it was still heavily attended by Jewish people. Of the estimated 250,000 in the crowd, many Jews held signs in Hebrew and proclaiming such biblical verses as "Only Justice Shall Thou Pursue." Supporters of organizations like the New Israel Fund, Jewish Funds for Justice and the ultra-liberal group J-Street were at the rally in full force. The rally even had a faux religious element to it when former Saturday Night Live character "Father Guido Sarducci" delivered the invocation at the beginning.
Before addressing whether Judaism has a path for achieving sanity, let's try to determine if Jon Stewart's rally actually achieved this goal? Staged right before the midterm elections, the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and his crew used their typical wit and satire to lambaste the "mainstream media" for being overly partisan in their rhetoric. That is a fair claim, but as many point out Jon Stewart does not shy from partisan politics on his own show. I am a long-time fan of Jon Stewart, who turned 48 earlier this week, and I appreciate his comedic wit. Admittedly, I am part of an age demographic that, according to studies, gets our news from Jon Stewart, who labels his own show a "fake news show." I am not sure if his rally, in which he was joined by Stephen Colbert in character, actually restored any sanity in our nation's political arena.
In fact, I'm not sure that our nation is "insane" when it comes to politics. I believe that many Americans have become extremists when it comes to a whole host of issues -- political, economic, social, religious, etc. Perhaps Stewart's message should have been to encourage Americans not to be so extremely partisan on all issues, but to make judgments using sechel (Yiddish for common sense). Whether all Americans possess a level of sechel is for a different discussion.
An additional aim of the Rally to Restore Sanity was Stewart's message to treat each other with civility. And that is certainly a Jewish value. The opposite of sane is insane. And that strikes me as more of a clinical condition (think of an insane asylum). However, preaching civility and levelheadedness makes a lot of sense -- especially in an election year. It might just be a chicken/egg situation as to where the lack of civility began -- with the politicians campaigning for elected office or with the talking heads of the 24/7 news cycle. Either way, both camps need to change their tune. When I see the mudslinging campaign ads, I think of the message it sends to our nation's children. And when I hear the extremist messages coming from the cable news shows, it makes sense to me that our nation's young adults resort to a satirical late-night faux news show to get their news. We need a dose of comedic relief with the mishegas (Yiddish for craziness) of political reality.
So, does Judaism provide a path to achieving civility? There are actually several pathways our faith offers toward this goal. The Jewish discipline of ethical character development is called Mussar. The middot, or character traits Mussar focuses on certainly help individuals follow an upright path of civility. Pirkei Avot, or the Ethics of the Sages, a collection of mishnayot, features what I like to describe as the rabbis' greatest hits. Many of the teachings in this collection focus on human dignity and how one should act throughout the day. Justice is most certainly a strong Jewish ideal that has its roots in the Torah. All of these teachings encourage us to act civilly to each other and this should be no different when it comes to the political issues that so often divide us.
When Jon Stewart used the term "sanity" to describe his rally's objective, he was drawing a distinction between his aspirations and those of Fox News' Glenn Beck's earlier "Rally Restoring Honor." Yes, the way in which we talk to each other, treat each other, and draw misguided perceptions about each other's political views are insane -- it's crazy. But if we try to be more civil to each other and listen to each other's views without going to extremes (comparing politicians to Hitler is an extreme), we will undoubtedly restore some sanity. Judaism's many recipes for this can certainly help in the process toward tikkun -- restoring the civil discourse that has been broken.
Question: Jon Stewart called for sanity at his rally in Washington. Does Judaism provide a path for achieving this?
Jon Stewart’s call for the ‘restoration of sanity’ in our national discourse is a warning against extremism and excessive rhetoric in politics. The degree of ‘violence in speech’ of our national debates has increased in the past twenty or so years, and in our day, politicians and pundits have employed pure bullying tactics to assert their points of view. The tendency of the extreme sides of our political parties and interest groups to substitute volume for rational thought is something that we need to guard against.
It is absolutely appropriate – from the standpoint of Judaism – to ask tough questions and engage in serious and lively debate about any subject; honest inquiry is certainly part of the Jewish intellectual ethos. But we must accomplish this goal without reverting to ad hominem attacks . As has been said, one can disagree without being disagreeable.
Moses Maimonides – the Rambam – writes about the need to achieve the ‘golden mean’, that is, to avoid extremes and strive toward the position of moderation in all that we do. Whether feeding the various human appetites that we have, or participating in the intercourse of everyday life, our lives are best led when we are modest in our needs and sensible in achieving them.
We can learn much from Jon Stewart’s tongue-in-cheek approach to toning down violent speech in politics. I would hope that we strive toward the same end in all that we do in life.
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