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Thought for the Day: Rosh Hashana 2019

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Ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Chief Rabbi spoke of the importance of behaving like mensch in these troubled times.

“Toxic” – that was how Speaker John Bercow, yesterday described the culture in the House of Commons.

Reflecting on how passions were inflamed on both sides, the Speaker stated that the atmosphere had been worse than any he has known and he urged MPs to “disagree agreeably”.”

When it comes to our politics today, civility is often left at the door and people define so much of their identity by what and whom they are standing against, as opposed to what they stand for.

An aversion to complexity and the demise of nuance has made compromise harder than ever to achieve and, most worryingly, when tribalism inspires hate speech, hate crime is only one step away.

For millennia, Jewish tradition has treasured healthy disagreement – it has been the lifeblood of our religious practice. The best-known Talmudic adversaries were the great Sages, Hillel and Shammai. They disagreed on virtually everything – but they engaged in what we call a ‘machloket l’shem Shamayim’ – an argument for the sake of Heaven. This was because neither of them ever allowed their disagreements to become debased or personal.

And why does our religious practice today follow the view of Hillel and not Shamai? It’s because Hillel and his students would always respectfully present the differing perspective of Shammai before teaching their own strongly held view.

This coming Monday and Tuesday, Jewish communities around the world will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, our New Year. It is the anniversary of the creation of humanity. The Yiddish word for a human being is ‘mensch’. Colloquially, to call someone a mensch is to pay them the ultimate compliment – conveying the highest attributes of decency and dignity.

I believe that now, more than ever before, our challenged world needs to understand and internalise what it means to be a mensch.

A mensch passionately fights for what they believe is right without ever compromising on courtesy.

A mensch debates the substance of an issue without seeking to destroy the opposition.

A mensch is slow to anger and quick to learn from others – including those with whom they may profoundly disagree.

And a mensch puts humility and responsibility before their own reputation.

It was nearly 55 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr said: “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together.”

When will we learn?