Civil Discourse in a Kehillah Kedoshah

by Sarrae Crane

This year, Women's League for Conservative Judaism chose as its programmatic theme the concept of kehillah kedoshah. Inscribed on the Women’s League Torah Fund campaign patrons’ pin, it appropriately also was the focus of last December’s Women’s League biennial convention.

While the traditional translation of kehillah kedoshah is “sacred community,” in Eastern Europe it was the term used to describe the Jewish community as a whole because the community saw itself as more than a group bonded together by religion and ethnicity. It viewed itself as answering to a higher authority. Intriguingly, a number of congregations in North America preface their Hebrew names with the letters kuf kuf, the abbreviation for kehillah kedoshah, indicating that the concept, as well as the term, was important enough to make it to these shores.

What values define a kehillah kedoshah? Certainly behavior, morality, the observance of mitzvot, and personal conduct all are determined by community norms. We focus so much attention on the commandments that relate to God – how we observe Shabbat or Passover or kashrut – that we tend to forget that there is a vast corpus of Jewish law that deals with interpersonal obligations, the ways in which we interact with one another, as well. The observance of these mitzvot is pivotal in shaping a kehillah kedoshah.

One of the key factors in defining a society is the expectations set by its choice of language. Proverbs 18: 20-21 teaches: “A man’s belly shall be filled with the fruit of his mouth, with the increase of his lips shall he be satisfied. Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that indulge it shall eat the fruit thereof.” The passage is particularly compelling because it inverts the usual flow from life to death; death precedes life as a consequence of the power of speech. Words do have consequences. The childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” simply is not true. Words can do incredible harm. Reputations can be demolished. I write this in the wake of Richard Goldstone’s renunciation of part of his report on the Gaza campaign, too late to undo the harm generated by his false accusation that the IDF targeted Palestinian civilians. This is but one glaring example of the power of words.

We live in a world where civil discourse is being eroded. How do we listen, how do we respond to those who disagree with us? Do we do anything other than just fire back? We are challenged to listen patiently rather than respond quickly by saying no. We have to be able to say “I may not agree with you, but help me understand your position.”

This lack of civility in public and political discourse has spilled over into Jewish life. Those to our right we say are fanatics and those to our left we call heretics. By branding, we exclude and close our ears. We no longer are a kehillah kedoshah because we have lost our sense of community. We have circled the wagons and become exclusionary. As much as we may disagree with one another on crucial issues, to define ourselves as a kehillah, as a community, we must be willing to hear other perspectives, no matter how disparate or unappealing.

More than two millennia ago, in the generation before the Maccabees, Ben Sira wrote: “Four manner of things appear: good and evil, life and death, but the tongue rules over them continually.” To be part of a kehillah kedoshah we have to engage in life affirming deeds, ever mindful of the power of the tongue to separate us from one another or to bring us together. Let us move forward in fashioning kehillot kedoshot, communities made sacred through our civil conduct as much as by our religious behavior.

Sarrae Crane is executive director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

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