Sermon: Kol Nidre 5783 – on meeting and speaking with each other
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 October 2022
Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud contains one of the more puzzling legal traditions in our rich textual inheritance.
Discussing the laws of the court system, a tradition is brought in the name of Rav Kahana: ‘Sanhedrin she-ra’u kulan l’chovah’ – a court in which all the members unanimously find someone guilty, it states, ‘potrin oto’ – the defendant is set free.
It is a strange and counterintuitive statement. The Talmud rules that if all the judges of a court agree that someone is guilty of an offence, that defendant should be allowed to walk away.
So strange is this tradition that some of the medieval commentators argue that it cannot possibly mean what it seems to say.
The 12th-13th Century Spanish authority, the RaMah, for example, subverts the meaning entirely. Translating the word potrin not as ‘set free’ but as ‘sent away’ – he states that it means that following a unanimous verdict, the defendant is not set free, but punished immediately – exactly the opposite of what it seems to be telling us.
Meanwhile others subvert not the text, but the rabbinic idea of punishment, attempting to reframe the very nature of a justice system in an attempt to reconcile it with the meaning of this text. The Kotzker Rebbe for example, suggests that in its unanimity, the court will already have done its job, by forcing the defendant to understand that they have sinned. In such a case, he argues, punishment is unnecessary, and the defendant, now transformed by the unanimous nature of the judgement alone, should be set free.
Short of this kind of wishful thinking about human nature, or a complete subversion of the text, how else might we respond to this odd idea?
If we take it seriously, if we understand that the Talmud is genuinely telling us that, in the case of a unanimous guilty verdict, the result should be an acquittal – what deeper idea might this be articulating?
The most straightforward explanation is that the Talmud is uncomfortable with unanimity; is wary of a place where everyone agrees; of the risk of collective subjective judgement, without other perspectives in the room.
The text is telling us that the court hasn’t done its job if it has not contained diverse voices.
Disagreement, it is stating, is good, is necessary, and this is true even where something appears to be straightforward.
Another tradition about the court, found on the same page of the Talmud, sheds some extra light on our text.
“One may appoint to a Sanhedrin”, we are told, “Only someone who knows how to purify a sheretz using reasoning from the Torah.”
This might need a little unpacking.
The sheretz is a swarming thing – among the creatures listed in Leviticus 11 as unkosher, and explicitly according to the biblical text, something that, when dead, transfers ritual impurity.
The Talmud is suggesting that to be on the court, someone must be intellectually open enough to make an argument against an explicit legal statement of Torah. In order that a court can truly do its job, its members must be able to recognise alternative views – even if the outcome seems obvious, even if the dominant view comes directly from God.
To quote the scholar Rabbi David Hartman: “The test of excellence of the Torah scholar was the ability to… explain and defend both sides of a disagreement by offering imaginative and compelling reasons for both positions”.
The intellectual ideal that the Talmud presents is one in which we make ourselves open to a different view, engage with it, take it seriously.
Understood in this way, our text reflects a core value in Rabbinic Judaism – that diversity of view, disagreement, is not only inevitable but desirable.
The primary form of our intellectual life is dialogical: speaking to someone else with a different view. The midrashic exercise produced a multiplicity of interpretations. Our texts – at least until the Middle Ages – speak with a number of different, often contradictory voices. And where peers did not disagree, our texts create disagreement across generations in order to probe and explore issues, because if we start from a place only of agreement, there is something missing.
A text from the earliest layer of Rabbinic Judaism, the Tosefta, addresses this issue head on. It recognises the challenge of disagreement: “The house of Shammai declares something unclean, the House of Hillel declares it clean. This one prohibits, that one permits”, the text tells us, “How then can I learn Torah?”
Surely, it asks, the purpose of discussion is to reach a firm conclusion – one of them must be right?
The answer is extraordinary: “All the words have been given by a single Shepherd… make yourself a heart of many rooms. Bring into it the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.”
That is, the ideal is not resolution, not unanimity, not agreement, but the conversation itself. To be a Jew, the text says, is to inherit a tradition which is not just comfortable with disagreement, but which embraces it. Our task is to be open to the other voice – and if there is no other voice, to ask where we have gone wrong.
A parallel version of this text in the Talmud gives us a clue how we can do this. It states: “Make your ears like an aparkeset – a grain-catcher in a mill – and acquire for yourself an understanding heart.”
In its rejection of unanimity, its demand that we make ourselves open to other voices, our tradition speaks directly to one of the intellectual and societal challenges of our time. Increasingly, we hear only voices that are like our own.
In the language of our times, Judaism calls for ‘Viewpoint diversity’ in the face of the ‘echo chamber’ of modern life.
In so many areas of our lives, in academia, in civil discourse, who we meet with, socialise with, it is possible – likely even – that we hear only voices that agree with us.
We have experienced what the American journalist Bill Bishop termed the “Big Sort” – the process by which we are clustered into like-minded communities.
When he coined the phrase, Bishop’s primary concern was clustering by geography in the United States – something that is evident in the UK also. Bishop wrote almost 20 years ago. Now we are increasingly sorted also by technology, the way in which we consume media – our choice of social media platform, the curation of our lives by media companies, the radio programme we listen to – or, more likely, don’t, in a world where you can choose the podcast you want to listen to where no alternative voice will trouble you.
No aspect of the Big Sort has been more significant than that by age: affecting where we live, how we socialise, our opinions. The clearest single predictor of voting behaviour is how old we are. The most profound impact of the digital age has been to divide us in this way.
We are increasingly unlikely to know people who are significantly older, or younger than us, to whom we are not related. All of which, of course, was exacerbated by the isolating impact of the two years of pandemic.
Interestingly, one of the institutions that bucks this trend is places of worship.
To quote political analyst James Kanagasoorian: “Britain’s civic organisations — its places of worship, unions, charities, voluntary groups, community organisations — [these] are the institutions that stop demography and geography from becoming destiny”.
Now, I don’t want to claim Alyth as a model of diversity – we are in some very important ways most definitely not diverse, most significantly, of course, when it comes to race. But in other ways we are far from homogeneous. More so than most synagogues in the UK.
We are diverse professionally – across sectors, types of work, income bands.
Diverse politically – from left to right, if that means anything anymore, on almost every issue – as I sometimes find out unexpectedly over kiddush.
Increasingly geographically – with members who attend aspects of our programme regularly from as far away as 25 miles north of here, in to near the centre of London; from Northwood in the west to Shoreditch in the east and everything in between, because of the unique nature of what we offer. And maybe a little bit because of how difficult it is to buy a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Diverse in the nature of our households – single and in couples, with and without children, Jewish-only and dual heritage, home-owners and renters.
Diverse in our abilities and disabilities, in our health and ill-health, physical and mental.
We are extraordinarily diverse in age – there are very few communities that are as evenly spread by age – over 1000 under 30s, over 1000 30- to 60-year-olds, over 1000 over 60s.
We are diverse in how we experience the world, how we experienced the trauma of the pandemic, how we will encounter the cost of living crisis in the coming months.
And we are diverse in how we experience our Judaism and our synagogue: diverse in the style of services, of liturgical music, that we love; in our theologies; in whether we value community as place of worship, adult learning, learning for our children; as a source of connection in a time of isolation; as an arena for our social action, cycling, rambling, drama, singing.
In this respect, we resemble – perhaps inevitably given our size – a community of communities.
And therein lies the challenge.
Because, within this diversity, it is easy for us, too, only to hear the voice of the person whose experience of Alyth, whose experience of the world, is like ours.
Our Alyth life is also curated.
It is easy to start from the place of the unanimous court – from that place of already being in agreement about what is most important.
Judaism demands of us that we approach this differently. That we find a way to hear the voice not only of those in community who agree with us, not only those who have the same needs, preferences, beliefs, theologies. To see the importance of the person who attends a different part of the life of the shul. To recognise that we are moved by and privilege different things. To create a heart of many rooms, in which the needs and priorities of the other is also central.
As we come out of this extraordinary period of pandemic, this is one of our priorities as a community.
To find new ways to speak with each other and to speak about Alyth. To create new spaces in which we can hear each other’s experiences of community and the world, to know what is important to one another in our Jewish lives, and beyond.
This exercise will start over the coming months with new spaces in which we can meet, new moments in our communal life, and into our Weekend Away – the rare space in which we have real time to get to know one another.
In the modern world, there are very few places where you might start a conversation with someone of a different generation, different profession, different socio-economic status, different politics, different theology; someone who you don’t already know, to whom you are not related.
An encounter rich in potential – where you might agree or disagree, maybe learn from each other perhaps come to see the world in a different way because of your interaction.
There are very few places like this.
Alyth should be one of them.
A community that reflects this fundamental Jewish ideal of hearing one another.
‘Sanhedrin she-ra’u kulan l’chovah potrin oto’ – a court in which all the members unanimously find someone guilty, the defendant is set free.
Who knows if the Sages really meant this in practice. Commentators in the past certainly thought so, and as a result attempted to reimagine or subvert this counterintuitive legal statement.
But we should take it seriously in a different way, value it for the idea that it represents. For it reflects a core value in our tradition – a discomfort with unanimity, a demand that we should embrace diversity, seek out other viewpoints, ensure that we speak to those who are not like us, who do not agree with us, as well as those who are. That we should build ourselves a heart of many rooms – privileging the conversation over the certainty of outcome.
It is a demand that has never been more important than in today’s world, more divided than ever by geography, age, culture, media; exacerbated by the effects of a pandemic in which we were physically kept apart.
As we return to our new normal this is one of our communal tasks – one that falls upon all of us:
To reach out to those who are not like us,
To delight in our disagreements when we have them.
To discover and embrace the richness in our diversity,
To do so – as the Talmud asks us – with open ears and with understanding hearts.
On the Talmudic objection to unanimity, I am indebted to the following article by Ephraim Glatt in the Pace International Law Review:
On our divided nation, two excellent recent articles from the Times that helped to shape that section of the sermon: