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How not to cancel each other

One of the most unusual Jewish friendships teaches us some real lessons.

Gershom Scholem in 1947, left, and Hannah Arendt in 1958. (Scholem photo courtesy of the National Library of Israel, Abraham Schwadron Collection. Arendt photo by Barbara Niggl Radloff/Münchner Stadtmuseum/Wikimedia)

(RNS) — I am getting phobic-phobic.

It seems everywhere you look, people attack certain opinions on certain subjects as “________ phobic.”

Some of those opinions are, in fact, hateful and hate-filled.

Others are simply different opinions, which bring in different sets of data, different life perspectives, different historical interpretations and different solutions to recognized problems and social challenges.

(Though I am amused and/or concerned that, when people criticize the mere existence of the state of Israel, there seems to be no category for “Zion-phobic.”)

I wrote about this aerobic cultivation of opprobrium, the fad of the short fuse, recently when I reviewed the movie “Tar” and conductor Lydia Tar’s acerbic quip: “Don’t be so eager to be offended.”

I wondered if there was any way out of this morass.

There is.

It is called friendship.

Consider one of the most unusual relationships in modern Jewish history. It was the relationship between two of the foremost Jewish intellectuals of our time — Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, and the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. They maintained a correspondence that went on for decades — of the sort that rarely, if ever, exists nowadays.

The correspondence reached its climax exactly 60 years ago, in 1963. Hannah Arendt had written a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the Final Solution — on Feb. 8, 1963.

Those articles ultimately became her famous book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”

The book remains (in)famous for two reasons.

First, Arendt portrayed the Nazi monster, Adolf Eichmann, as a lackluster bureaucrat — the epitome of “the banality of evil.”

Second, Arendt displayed a snarky attitude toward the Jews who served on the Judenrat, the Jewish councils in the ghettos, that were compelled to work with the Nazis.

Both of these depictions infuriated Scholem. He wrote to Arendt:

There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete — what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.

Arendt hit back. “How right you are that I have no such love. I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective.”

Arendt was making a deft philosophical move here. She could not love an entity as large and as faceless as the Jewish people, especially because she did not believe there could possibly be a way for the Jewish people to love her back.

Gershom Scholem was, essentially, accusing Hannah Arendt of that overused designation — that she was a self-hating Jew. (That she had engaged in an affair with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was a member of the Nazi party, is another story.)

Such an accusation, and such a vitriolic exchange of words, should have ended the friendship.

And yet, how does Hannah end her letter of Sept. 14, 1963, to Scholem, in which she accuses him of misunderstanding the notion of the “banality of evil”?

“With best wishes for your trip to Europe.”

I take two lessons from the Scholem-Arendt correspondence.

First, there was its intellectual depth and vigor. Arendt and Scholem differed, in profound and fundamental ways, on the nature of evil and the emotional responsibilities Jews have for each other. Scholem had a raw love for his people; Arendt, while always identifying as a Jew, was hypercritical of them in ways that could be mean.

And yet, they engaged each other’s ideas, and probably grew from those ideas.

I have made this my own practice — to regularly read books written by those with whom I disagree. This is natively Jewish.

Second, there was the sense that the relationship could endure the profound and tough disagreements. Perhaps those disagreements even strengthened the relationship.

Christine Hayes retells the story in the Talmud about the friendship between Rabbi Yohanan and his intellectual sparring partner, Resh Lakish, and about Yohanan’s grief when Resh Lakish died. The sages sought to console Yohanan by bringing him a “new friend,” Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat:

They brought Elazar and seated him before him. For every issue that Yohanan mentioned Elazar said, “There is a teaching that supports you.” Yohanan said to him, “Do I need this? When I made a statement, Resh Lakish would object with twenty-four objections and I would solve them with twenty-four solutions, and thus our traditions expanded. But you say, ‘There is a teaching that supports you.’ Don’t I know I speak well?” He tore his clothes and went crying at the gates, “Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish?” until he lost his mind. The sages prayed for him and he died.

What a beautiful, sad story! Yohanan needed Resh Lakish — not only for his friendship, but because their relationship kept him intellectually and spiritually alive. Without his friend, he sank into a morbid depression.

I keep returning to Hannah Arendt’s signature line: “With best wishes for your trip to Europe.”

This — sadly, maddeningly and tragically — is not the way these sorts of conversations work today. Instead, people freeze each other out, shut down communication totally and treat each other in rather medieval ways — through public shaming, the abandoning of friendships and the severing of professional ties.

But it also makes me think of the enduring nature of friendship.

Here, I turn to the Hebrew word for friend: chaver.

Its root shows up in the Hebrew word for “notebook”: machberet. This makes me think of two kinds of notebooks.

There is the loose-leaf notebook, in which you can take pages out at will, and then put them back. Some friendships are like that; we open up the metal rings of our book of life; we take people out; occasionally, we put them back — albeit, perhaps in a different order and a different place.

But, then, there is that other kind of notebook — the old-fashioned marble covered black and white bound notebooks we wrote in as children, that are stitched together with thread.

With that kind of notebook, if you tear one page out, another page falls out — and soon enough, the entire notebook disintegrates.

I prefer those kinds of friendships, in which someone is bound together so tightly in your book of life that you cannot imagine life without them.

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