Consider and Converse: A Guide to Sinat Chinam

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to “Sinat Chinam / Gratuitous Hatred”

Introduction

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of “sinat chinam/gratuitous hatred.” Sinat chinam is a term found in the Talmud (Yoma 9b), and it is how the talmudic rabbis described the behavior of a generation. According to the Talmud, the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. as a result of the baseless hatred that filled communal life. I was drawn to the topic for obvious reasons: our American landscape is more polarized than it’s been in generations. And the language has become ugly. Antisemitic incidents have risen, and incivility is becoming the new norm. This seemed like just the right moment to examine what Jewish wisdom teaches us about such hate-filled times.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabba Dina Brawer, the producer of YourTorah podcast, introduces readers to some of the primary sources that address sinat chinam, including the writing of Rabbi Eliezer Papo, who wrote a 19th-century guide to ethical living, Pele Yoetz. He wrote that sinat chinam — and all forms of hate — are self-delusional. Brawer brings into the discussion the role of moral judgment and turns to the work of contemporary psychologists to clarify the role that cognition — intuition and reasoning — plays in making judgments. Brawer wonders about how we — as individuals and society — can move beyond hatred. She writes: “Learning to pause after an initial judgment, reflect, and (re)consider our opinions in light of other perspectives is essential. Listening to others, reassessing our claims of certainty, and developing empathy are initial steps to healing sinat chinam.” When have you managed to move from a hate-filled conversation to a more accepting and tolerant stance? What factors led this change? How do you understand the talmudic story about a generation that was filled with hatred leading to the destruction of the Second Temple? Why do you think the rabbis included this story in the Talmud?
  • Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University and Dartmouth College and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of America, provides a concise history of the idea of “civility.” Rather than a way of discussing agreed-upon collective behavior, civility has a troubled history, associated with “power, policing and colonialism.” He writes, “Today, ‘civility’ is largely a term that those in power — including but not limited to liberals — use to express a style of privileged discourse on matters of dire concern. Its usage implies that cultural and political behavior coheres to a set of principles. Civility is a policing tool that determines what can and cannot be said.” He goes on: “Civility supports not tolerance but control. And control is often a way to maintain power by determining the rules of the debate that will almost always seek to benefit those already in power.” How do you understand the metamorphosis and multiple uses of the notion of “civility”? How has “civility” been used in the Jewish community to regulate dissent? How is “civility” used in gendered ways?
  • Mik Moore, the founder of Moore+Associates, a strategic consulting firm focusing on policy and electoral politics, writes about the new wave of antisemitism in the United States. He writes, “Trump has radically shifted the ‘normal discourse’ on a wide range of issues and behaviors, including antisemitism and other forms of bigotry. The new normal for American Jews is to witness or experience antisemitism and see it tolerated or even sanctioned by the most powerful people in the U.S.” Are you worried about antisemitism? How do you understand the Trump administration’s relationship to Jews and antisemitic acts? Can someone — especially in a leadership role — love some Jews and also be antisemitic? What roles do the “left” and the “right” play in speaking up against antisemitism?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Ariel Evan Mayse, an assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford University, examines what the Hasidic masters thought about cultivating a disposition of joy — even in dark times. “This optimistic posture is described by the Hasidic masters as a matter of choice rather than circumstance. Joy, or simkhah, represents a conviction that the cosmos shimmers with God’s vitality and that this sacred life-force is present in all things — including obstacles. Sadness cuts our ties to the people around us, becoming a heavy stone upon our religious life. Joy, on the other hand, fosters connectivity and enables meaningful encounters with others.” The masters urge us to resist “baseless hatred through offering kindness; one must subvert it by transforming it into something different.” How do you understand the notion of transforming hatred into kindness? What would help you in this process, and what would hinder the possibility of such transformation? In what circumstances would you be stymied in your opposition to elevating hate-filled thoughts to a stance of kindness and joy?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, four commentators address a line from Martin Buber’s book, The Way of Man According to Hasidism: “The origin of conflict between me and my fellowman is that I do not say what I mean, and that I do not do what I say.” Buber’s writing in general, and this line in particular, challenge us to turn from blaming others to seeking a clearer understanding of our own behaviors and culpabilities. Jay Rothman, president of the ARIA Group, a U.S.-based international association of conflict engagement and community development practitioners and action researchers, and research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he spends half of each year, writes: “The common approach to conflict, and difference, is to distance and blame the other side. An alternative approach would have us ask: What does this conflict most essentially have to do with me? What does it mean for me? Buber answers: ‘everything’.” Zoe Jick, the associate director of Jewish Content at the Palo Alto JCC, writes about the difficulty in turning one’s gaze inward to locate the essence of the conflict. And while that might be difficult, she stresses the importance of strengthening our practice of apology. She writes, “This too is difficult; a good apology can be exposing. But when we are exposed, we cannot hide what we mean, and then we can be held accountable to do what we say.” Under what circumstances do you not say what you mean and mean what you say? What are the factors that pull you from that honesty? What might nurture more honesty in our relationships with others?
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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Sinat Chinam

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