I learned much of what I need to know from preschool, Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Mr. Rogers, and Ted Lasso. From the first, I learned to use my words and take turns. From Charlie Brown I learned life is fun, dogs are smart, you can get fooled again, the doctor is in and children are wise.

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask myself, ‘Why isn’t the world perfect?’ Then a voice comes to me that says, ‘We admit it…There are still a few kinks that need working out.’
Charlie Brown.
I love the kind of hugs where you can physically feel the sadness leaving your body.
Charlie Brown to Snoopy.

Snoopy said: ‘Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Then we would have to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I know what I need… I need more hellos.”


From Mr. Rogers I learned:

• “It’s good to be curious about many things.”
• “Listening is where love begins – listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.”

These lessons will be with me for the rest of my life. Although my experience with the fictional characters in the TV series, Ted Lasso. is more recent, I hope the wisdom the actors impart via brilliant scripts will be lifelong principles as well. Ted is a high school football coach hired to coach a professional British soccer team, a sport about which he knows almost nothing. Yet, in the course of the series, what Ted teaches has tremendous impact on the lives he touches, in ways that involve much more than sports.

For example, after Ted tells the story of how he overcame his fear of dogs, he concludes:
It’s funny to think about the things in your life… that can make you cry just knowing that they existed, can then become the same thing that make you cry knowing that they’re now gone. I think those things come into our lives… to help us get from one place to a better one.

In our best moments, I believe that is the way of most human beings. We have our struggles. We hurt others and we hurt ourselves. Hopefully, we try to learn from our mistakes. We try to nuance difficulties that come our way into lenses through which to view similar situations so that we can respond better when they occur. We want to believe in ourselves, one another, and, the possibility that we can always do better.

Let’s accept these premises for a moment and juxtapose them against two questions posed by David Brooks in a recent Atlantic Magazine article: “Why have American’s become so sad?” and “Why have Americans become so mean?” Brooks cites several troubling statistics about the first question that help us understand the second. Among them are:

• The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. 

• More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well.
• The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.

As to the follow up question, “Why have Americans become so mean?”, Mr. Brooks notes several theories that many of us I’m sure have already discussed with friends or colleagues. There’s the social media theory – it’s TV shows, especially reality TV and those programs that masquerade as journalism but are really partisan attack machines, and unmuzzled opinions posted as facts on the internet. Then there’s our sociology: We don’t know how to be communal and we’ve stopped participating in entities that stimulate the formation of community, like synagogues, churches, mosques, temples or organizations that engender moral and ethical questioning, growth, and tolerance. Brook’s article also mentions the deep well of America’s white supremacist underpinnings and the poisonous streams that continue to flow from it. These waters of hate and fear fuel present-day violence in word and action. In addition, he also looks at economic challenges experienced by too many, but notes that while this is a worldwide phenomenon, violence and hostility are not the prevalent responses in most other countries. 

While Brooks acknowledges all these as valid perspectives that explain why American society acts out in such a mean and aggressive manner, he sees the major cause as something more systemic. Brooks says we are horrible at moral formation. Moral formation keeps at bay what he calls “our evolutionarily conferred egotism.” He asks, how do we generate an agreed upon manner for constructive conversation and disagreement, welcoming strangers and teaching morality and ethics in a way that is non-dogmatic, creating a social fiber within which we can all thrive? In addition, how do we reflect upon American values and spread discussion that is constructive rather than combative?

Some of us may say we already constructed a vehicle to produce all of these: the Constitution. Brooks points out that for about 150 years after the ratification of the Constitution, America and Americans actively and assertively supplemented that document’s ideology with morality training in all of our basic institutions, especially our schools. As late as the year I was born, 1951, a commission of the National Education Association, a major teacher’s union of the time, published a brief in which they maintained that American schools must have “an unremitting concern for moral and spiritual values.”
However, “a concern for moral and spiritual values” is different than teaching specific morals and ethics. The American founders tended to accentuate the Jewish attitude of “you’re right and you’re right, too” among the “Judeo-Christian” ideas utilized to form the bases of this nation. To this day, when the Supreme Court renders a decision, the minority opinion is always keenly articulated by one or more of the Justices and it has an honored and respected place in the chronicles of the Court. Why does the American system do that? Actually, it’s quite Talmudic. Our Talmud as you may know is a compendium of commentaries, opinions, and discussions of the first six to seven centuries of rabbinic thought. Just like in Supreme Court records, what each rabbi said during debate is preserved. If a rabbi cited something he learned from a colleague, even if the second rabbi disagreed with his teacher, the first rabbi and his teaching are appropriately respected and attributed. Such an ethic developed in rabbinic circles in order to preserve structure, dignity, and decorum among a group who ordained one another. They “self-conferred” their egotism. They knew the Talmudic process would implode unless there was some regulation and restriction on their egos. No one told them to do that. There was no commission that promulgated a deep concern for moral development. That’s what the rabbis were all about – the development of mores and behaviors that would hold Jewish society together as we began living throughout the globe after the destruction of the Temple, a Diaspora that would last for two-thousand years. And now, for the vast majority of us, despite the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism, the worldwide Jewish people are comfortable being a peoplehood among the nations.
As we developed our American brand of Judaism, especially among Reform Jews, even though it takes a little chutzpah to say it, we’ve kept the Talmudic process going. For most Jewish Americans, our Judaism is about values, ethics, and morals much more than about rituals, customs, and ceremonies. The problem is, it’s difficult to maintain and reenforce values, ethics, and morals without rituals, customs, and ceremonies. 

One of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, described his perspective about Judaism in a recent podcast: “We have so many different kinds of people coming in [to the Jewish community] even the old definitions of who’s Jewish and who isn’t, will have to go. We should rather be thinking about a [ ] fluid state, whereby people are differently involved and at different levels and in different ways, in what I like to call the Jewish conversation. I think we should conceive of Judaism as a conversation in the making, in which we inherit a conversation of the past. And one is Jewish to the extent that one is involved in that conversation. The [prayer] service becomes, therefore, a training ground for the Jewish conversation. Now the question then is, how can we involve people in the Jewish conversation? And how can that training ground, the service, provide an experience that is so positive, that they say, ‘This is a deep conversation!’?” Indeed! Perhaps a “service” should be a gathering of Jews at significant occasions on the Jewish weekly, monthly and yearly calendar to experience music, meditation, and conversation. As Rabbi Hoffman encourages, “services” should be a coming together that includes discussions of individual and group perspectives on values, morals and ethics. What are our values? How do we form them? How do we hold on to them? How do we express them? How do we ensure that the conversation is fluid? How can we keep the conversation inspiring, deep, meaningful, and respectful? How do we bring creativity and innovation into the conversation? How do we bring our conversation as paradigm for the American conversation? 

My longtime metaphor for Judaism has long been a building, in which each generation builds a floor. My metaphor is a cousin to Rabbi Hoffman’s. Every floor is different and every floor stands on all the levels created before. In order to build a floor with integrity every new generation must travel down to the first floor, Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Beginning there and at each ensuing level, we must study and understand the architecture, design, and construction. Even though we may vehemently disagree with pieces of framework and bricks laid in previous generations, we cannot discard anything because the integrity of the structure depends on them. Our job is to use what we consider to be flaws in the previous structure, to create improvements and nuances that reenforce and expand the building. 

We should view America like that. Despite those who attempt to petrify American values or those who prefer that we harken back to previous standards, the American way has been, from its outset, malleable and amendable. Just as we preserve the minority opinion in both the Talmud and the Supreme Court help to support the majority, we build America via deep discussion, a thorough thought process, regular review, and accountability. Jews can give the example of our Jewish conversation and building process to a divided America. At the core of the American building is a flexibility that enabled us to admit, sometimes reluctantly, our past mistakes and create more inclusive and adaptable values, morals and ethics, engaging everyone in the process. We needn’t go too many floors down to see where we missed the mark of our finest American selves when we thought that it was perfectly moral to own other humans, prevent women and blacks from voting, put young children to work, to generate and then ignore unequal access to education, quality food, healthcare, and jobs with a living wage. As we continue to build the next floor up, we need to ask ourselves, “What components of our moral matrix must be reexamined and reconstructed now and for the future? How can we live up to the voting and housing rights to which we already committed? How do prepare for a future for our children and grandchildren that will minimize the effects of climate change we already catalyzed? How do we address previous design flaws in the American architecture and fix them without tearing down the building? How do we ensure that everyone has a seat at the table? How do we enable everyone to have an opinion without repeatedly freezing into partisan deadlock? How do we have decent and productive discussions?” 

That last question seems to me to be at the root of American meanness. Several years ago, our then Cantor, David Shukiar, and I wrote a setting for some words in the prayer book from Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba, (Ch. 21): L’olam y’hei adam y’rei Sha-mayim b’seiter u’v’galui, modeh al ha-emet, v’do-veir emet bil’va-vo, “Each person should constantly revere Heaven in private and in public, acknowledge the truth, and speak it in one’s heart.”

This philosophy goes far beyond the contemporary notion of “transparency. Tanna D’vei Eliyahu digs deeper, assuming we know what the truth is in our own lives and struggle to learn it in the lives of others. Unfortunateley, this source declares that we should be motivated to speak and seek the truth out of fear, specifically the fear of Heaven. That’s an awful reason to be truthful. Not from fear – fear of punishment, embarrassment, and certainly not fear of Heaven! We should fearlessly and purposefully share our feelings about what is true, or what we believe to be true and working toward a shared truth, reconciliation, and peace. 

Recently I began reading posts by Steve Schmidt, the former moderate Republican and party strategist who became disillusioned with the direction of his party and co-founded the Lincoln Project. In some posts over the last few weeks, Schmidt writes about unexpected encounters on the road trip he took as he drove his son to college. Here’s one such episode on the journey:

We began yesterday in Williston, North Dakota, an oil town in “Trump country.” While waiting outside the hotel for my son, I struck up a conversation with Fred, a retired Marine Corps staff sergeant, who supervises 20 oil wells for a global energy company. He was dressed in Trump regalia from head to toe — hat, shirt, belt buckle. Atop his truck were both a Trump 2020 and 2024 flag.
Fred asked where I was from. I told him we were traveling through the country from California.
He said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I said, “C’mon, it’s Reagan country…”
Fred asked me what I did. I told him that I had spent a career working in Republican politics, and had founded the Lincoln Project. I listened to him. I asked him what we were going to do about the country. Before we took off, Fred shook my hand, wished us well on our trip, and said he’d pray for our safety.
I was reminded of these words contained in Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all…
I made clear to Fred that I have no place to compromise — and no room to find any —with a faction that refuses to accept the results of an election. He acknowledged that Trump had lost the 2020 election.
Schmidt concludes: The point of the story isn’t about a conversation. It’s about the good wishes at the end of the conversation, which was civil, dignified and normal on a Wednesday morning out in America.

Actually, I think the point of the story IS about a conversation. I’m glad their talk ended with a handshake and “good wishes,” but it was the reality that their dialogue was civil and dignified that allowed for a conclusion and send off that was similar in tone. THAT is what America needs – conversations.

Social commentator Van Jones recounts a meeting with the singer Bono. Speaking of their national identities, Bono, said, “I’m very proud to be Irish. And, Ireland is a country. America…is an idea.” I’ve always thought about Judaism as an idea. On the other hand, I never thought about America as an idea – and it is! How do we build maintain and grow an idea? – with conversations! That’s what Steve Schmidt had with Fred and that’s what we need to have with other Americas, especially those with whom we probably won’t agree. Steve Schmidt commented that his conversation with Fred reminded him of Abraham Lincoln’s words – “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” Can we do that? I learned in preschool that we must use our words. That’s a conversation. Charlie Brown says we need more hello’s. “Hello,” is how conversations begin. Mr. Rogers wrote a song about it:

It’s good to talk
It’s good to say the things we feel
It’s good to talk
We’re much more real without the lock
Let’s see now…
I like you.
I’m angry.
I’m happy.
I’m sad.
You see that’s not bad.
It’s good. Not bad.

Ted Lasso said we must keep going to a better place. Moving to a better a better place is how ideas grow. Fearlessly speaking the truth in private and in public is how we center ourselves in conversation. I need to hear what those who disagree with me say in their most private moments and they should hear what I say in mine. Only then will we create a nurturing conversation about the American idea – so strong, and so fragile. We’d better say “Hello,” start talking, listen to the “other,” and speak the truth together before it’s too late. The American idea began as a conversation. The American idea ends when the conversation ends.

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