The BEST: Civility

Jonny Lipczer Tradition Online | December 31, 2020

The BEST: Civility by Stephen L. Carter
Reviewed by Jonny Lipczer

Summary: Stephen L. Carter argues that civility is disintegrating because we have forgotten the obligations we owe to one other. He proposes to rebuild our public and private lives around the fundamental rule that we must love our neighbors, a tenet of all the world’s great religions. Drawing on such diverse disciplines as law, theology, and psychology, he investigates many of the fundamental institutions of society and illustrates how each one must do more to promote the virtue of civility.

Why this is The BEST:  In Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (Harper, 1999), Stephen L. Carter describes a moment that changed his life. As a young child, in the 1960s, his family moved to Cleveland Park, a neighborhood in the middle of northwest Washington, DC. They were the first black family living in this all-white neighborhood.

Carter and his two brothers and two sisters sat on the steps of their house in this new area, and everyone passed by without giving them a look, without saying a word to them. “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here,” he writes.

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the street. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a large tray of drinks and sandwiches, making them feel at home. That was the moment that changed his life. 

This story was retold by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (2005), a book exploring the traditional Jewish values that teach us the responsibility we have for our fellow human beings. In this volume, R. Sacks raised awareness about these values and encouraged more acts of charity and kindness.

To Heal a Fractured World made a deep impact on me personally, and Civility became the first book (of many) that I added to my own library having seen it referenced by R. Sacks.

Stephen Carter eventually became a law professor at Yale. He identifies the woman in his story as Sara Kestenbaum, and adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good. In the Jewish tradition, this duty is captured in the requirement of chesed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God… Civility itself may be seen as part of chesed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.”

R. Sacks wrote: “What is chesed? It is usually translated as ‘kindness’ but is also means ‘love’ – not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed.”

One such deed changed Stephen Carter’s life, and started the journey that led him to recognize the importance of civility. No book can change the world – but the people who read it can.

Jonny Lipczer is Director of Communications at World Mizrachi.

Read more about The BEST or about the R. Sacks Bookshelves ProjectSign up here to receive an automated notice when each essay in this series posts.

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