On Sinat Chinam, Language, and Bridge-building

As I write this, it is erev Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, on which we commemorate a host of tragedies that have befallen us throughout history, primarily the destructions of both Temples (the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE). Our rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of baseless hatred (Sinat Chinam) between Jews.

Often at this time of year, Jews hear much about Sinat Chinam in our world, and how we ought to work to mend what is broken. Sadly, sinat chinam is still something with which we must grapple internally. I can think of no more deeply saddening example of this than what occurred to Women of the Wall this past Rosh Chodesh Av (first of the Jewish month of Av) when they met for prayers at the Kotel just as they have done every Rosh Chodesh for over twenty years. This Tisha b’Av, I mourn not only the numerous tragedies that have occurred on or around this date, but also the fact that our world is far from being redeemed. Sinat Chinam is seemingly omnipresent. In a culture more focused on soundbites than dialogue and introspection, it is far too easy to make pronouncements than it is to listen to the other, far easier to allow fear, distrust, and dare I say hatred to rule the day than grounded, empathetic, holistic dialogue. It is far easier to believe that, as has been noted in the aftermath of this past Rosh Chodesh, the other is out to destroy you or your way of life by virtue of the fact that they practice differently than it is to sit down with the other and understand the deep-seated religious devotion and values of equality and pluralism that are absolutely foundational for them. In a time in which society is increasingly fragmented, and when people of all religious and political stripes spend more time in their own echo chamber than intentionally seeking to engage with the other constructively, Sinat Chinam can continue to spread uninhibited.

Though Tisha b’Av’s traditional framework and observances – a 25-hour fast, sitting on low stools or the floor and reciting the Book of Lamentations and kinnot – may serve as stumbling blocks for many modern Jews who find it difficult to relate to such a somber day, I think that Tisha b’Av is an incredibly powerful day that can be used towards self-reflection and introspection, in addition to its somber and mournful character.

This Tisha b’Av, I will be reflecting upon the many ways in which Sinat Chinam fractures our world. Human beings deeply fear the different, the other, the unknown, and such fear too often and too easily can lead to dehumanization and hatred of those whom we fear or distrust. Sinat Chinam is made manifest in a number of ways—it is as much about the linguistic choices we make as is it about the ways in which we act towards one another in public as well as in private.

The linguistic choices we make about ourselves and others say a lot about how we subconsciously view that about which we are speaking, no more so than when we speak about other groups. Misinformation about the other far too often leads to people acting in ways that are congruent with the fear or hatred they may feel, and I believe that if we’re ever going to get at the root of Sinat Chinam, we must do the difficult work of unpacking that fear and hatred, so that we might begin the healing process. Though the work will not be completed overnight, and though there are going to be tremendous bumps and blockages along the way, we must begin somewhere, and what better place than with ourselves?

In the aftermath of Rosh Chodesh Av, I, along with countless others, felt incredible sadness and frustration that at this particularly difficult period for the Jewish people, one group of Jews acted so terribly towards another. Despite the progress that has been made, and the many strides that women have made in the religious sphere, so much work lies ahead of us. It sometimes feels as though there is no way we will ever be able to change the minds and hearts of those whose minds are seemingly made up against us. Although I have often heard that a person’s encounter with someone from a group about whom they held prejudicial views can go a long way towards changing their preconceived notions, at our moments of greatest sadness and despair, it can feel as though no matter how many positive encounters one may have, no positive movement is made. This Tisha b’Av, let us reflect not only upon the state of our world and of our community, but upon the ways in which we can individually make the world a place in which the inalienable dignity and humanity of all, regardless of worldview, class, ability, racial, ethnic, or religious background is absolutely respected.

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One thought on “On Sinat Chinam, Language, and Bridge-building

  1. Thank you for your very thoughtful article. I too feel great frustration and sadness at the situation with the Women of the Wall. I hope sincerely that Jews of all convictions can one day find common ground and make peace with one another. I am interested in hearing more on your thoughts about how our linguistic choices can shape our views and actions. Were you referring to the names we choose to call other groups, or how we try and explain away or discount their beliefs and actions? How do you suggest we make better linguistic choices? Looking forward to hearing your response.

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