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Do manners make the mentsch

09/08/17 14:52:37


It may sound nerdy, but I agree with writer Alexander McCall Smith when he says: “Manners are the basic building blocks of civil society”. Manners - respectful, restrained and thoughtful behaviour towards others doesn't have much traction today. We prefer the direct hit, saying it straight and tough, taking no prisoners.

There's a vulgar and ugly spirit that characterizes our public debate, our civil discourse and our communal discussion. At the present time it's being spearheaded globally from the White House in Washington. This past week has seen the ‘whiteness’ of this house even further blackened. I’m referring to the spectacular rise and fall of White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci, “The Mooch”. Even in an administration with a record for crudity (and quick departures) Scaramucci was too scurrilous and scandalous. His foul-mouth rants about fellow White-House Chief of Staff, Rience Priebus and chief strategist, Steve Bannon are a shameful indictment of public discourse.

And it starts from the top. It has been suggested that Trump’s calling card should be: Make America crass again. For his first TV interview as president elect he appeared imperiously sitting on a gold throne behind sheets of mirrored glass and huge paintings. One can forgive him, his poor taste, but it's harder to forgive his coarse comments and tweets about women, world leaders and anyone else who challenges his supremacy. He sets the tone not only for his office, but as leader of the Western world, for civil society in general. Catering for and appealing to the lowest common denominator lowers everyone and highlights the flaws of democracy itself.

With Rosh Hashanah on the way we begin to think about what is to be a "Rosh" ראש a head and what it is to have a "Rosh". One of the symbolic foods for Rosh Hashanah is the head of the fish as a reminder that we should be like a head, a leader rather than a tail that follows. (The Mishnah in Avot does however state that it is preferable to be a tail to a lion rather that the head of a fox). There is a colourful proverb which tells us that a fish rots or stinks from the head down.

Leadership, as we are reminded in The Book of Devarim or Deuteronomy which we are currently reading, is not just about power, it’s about influence and example. It’s about being not only well-known but a superlative mentsch, ‘distinguished and wise’ (Deut 1:15)

Wisdom is, of course, the best use of a head; it doesn’t come easily or automatically. It needs to be cultivated and worked on constantly. In our daily Amidah prayer, first we pray for knowledge and understanding for “without these it is as if we travel blind” (Sacks). While emotion is vital, it needs to be instructed by the mind. We look to our leaders to be strong of heart and clear of mind. We look to them to be not only people of knowledge but also individuals of “understanding and discernment”. To me these are the essential qualities of a civil and “mannerly” discourse – deep thoughtfulness, incisive insightfulness.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a place for straight and direct talk. Good manners shouldn’t be confused with wimping out. You can be respectful and straight forward, direct and decent. The Torah speaks of being “ישר”, upright and straight (eg Ecclesiastes 7:29) and it is very often associated with being “טוב”, being a person of goodness.

The shocking Australian University sexual assault report this week, highlights a toxic (mainly male) culture of power and harassment. This kind of culture doesn’t develop in a vacuum; it often begins with locker-talk, the disparagement of women, the distortion of male sexuality and identity, the glorification of a gross power-driven masculinity: It may well start with thoughtless, crude references and words. The Talmud is disdainful of ‘nivul peh’ vulgar talk and encourages us to be refined in our language and careful in our behaviour. It’s something that is missing, not only in politics and the media but has also filtered down into our communal dialogue. The tone of our arguments is often ugly, the tenor of our debates disrespectful. And this is not confined to the young; in fact I often find Gen Y more respectful than their elders. They may use expletives more freely but their caring is just as often expressed more deeply!

It has been observed that respect for ourselves guides our morals and respect for others guides our manners. Solomon Ibn Gabriel noted that the test of good manners is to be patient with the worst ones! So let’s walk and talk more humbly, let’s dig into our best selves and recognise that refined manners open doors and make the world a better place for us all.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780