If you want to ruin a Shabbat meal in my neighborhood of Pico-Robertson these days, just say one word: Obama. Within minutes, one of two things is likely to happen. If everyone around the table is anti-Obama, you'll get a grown-up version of a verbal piñata, with people taking turns bopping the man who is "selling America and Israel down the river."
But if some of the guests happen to be pro-Obama and they're not afraid to speak up, you're likely to get a mini-bloodbath.
How do I know this? I've seen it happen -- more than once.
In fact, it happened at my home, on a recent Friday night, when we had some wonderful out-of-town guests over for Shabbat dinner. The conversation at the table was joyful and friendly, and my daughter Mia's cooking was a hit. The Shabbat drug of choice -- really good kosher wine -- helped us all float in a state of Shabbat bliss.
Then someone said the word -- "Obama."
For the next 30 minutes or so, the conversation progressively got more unpleasant. My out-of-town guests were rabid Obama supporters, while my other guests were anything but. I tried to steer the conversation back to the parasha of the week or to the Lakers, but it was too late. The forest fire had already been lit.
I made a blunder when the "fire" spread to the subject of Israel. I shared what I hoped would be seen as an unarguable fact (a Jerusalem Post poll this summer reported that 4 percent of Israeli Jews polled believe Obama is pro-Israel), but when the reaction from an Obama supporter was, "Are you crazy? There's no way!" I lost my cool. I got angry and raised my voice ("How can you just blab away like that? I study this stuff!") My anger lasted only a few seconds, but the damage was done. I hated myself for it. I still do.
I should have resisted the urge to take things personally. I should have realized that at the precise moment when I lost my cool, there was something a lot more important in my life than showing that I was right. There was my role as the host of a Shabbat dinner.
And there was the example I was setting for my kids and for everyone else within earshot of my outburst.
Since that episode, I've been paying more attention to how we argue -- to what we should do when we're in the company of people whose views make us want to toss an eggplant salad in their direction.
Why do we find it so hard to argue without fighting? Why do polite people become impolite, cool people become agitated, witty people become humorless, loving people become hateful, holy people become ungodly and peaceful people become potentially violent when they're confronted with views that deeply offend them?
I took my questions to someone who's well-versed in contentious debates, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea Congregation. Over the years, Kanefsky has weighed in on some of the more controversial issues in the Orthodox community, and despite the heat his debates have generated, he's always conducted them with the utmost dignity.
Why can't we all do the same?
"We live in challenging and dangerous times," Kanefsky told me, "Problems are extraordinarily complex. There are no easy answers. The only way some of us can find emotional security is to latch onto an idea about why things are the way they are and what is the solution. It gives us a sense of comfort."
"When someone challenges us," he went on, "we defend ourselves like we would defend our lives."
My friend Yossi Klein Halevi, a political analyst and author who lives in Jerusalem, elaborated on this view.
"One reason for our difficulty to manage civil discourse, especially in Israel, is because our issues really are life and death," he wrote in an e-mail. "The territorial issue is self-evident. But our other issues are also perceived as existential. Secular Israelis fear that a theocratic Israel would deepen our estrangement from the West and the Diaspora and leave us totally isolated, while Orthodox Israelis fear that an Israel totally divorced from Torah risks Divine retribution, another exile."
"So how can you maintain a live-and-let-live attitude when your ideological opponent threatens your existence?"
Halevi, who a few years ago wrote a spiritual book titled "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden" (Harper Perennial, 2002), then went back a few thousand years to shed some more light on the subject.
"Maybe it's so hard for Jews to argue rationally because we were imprinted in our formation as a people with the experience of revelation, and ever since we're looking for that Sinai moment to clarify the world for us. We treat our partial insights -- political and religious -- as though they were revelations."
The problem, of course, is that when we give our individual insights the weight of revelation, we don't allow much room for different or conflicting insights, let alone the chance to have a debate about them.
This idea of looking at more than one "truth" is at the heart of the epic debate in the Talmud between the house of Shammai, which represents the strict, uncompromising voice of Jewish law, and the house of Hillel, which represents the more lenient voice.
Rabbi Moti Bar-Or, who runs Kolot, a bridge-building Torah study institution in Israel, explained to me that "the uniqueness of Hillel is that he truly believes there is validity in the Shammai approach, although he totally disagrees with him."
In Shammai's world, there's "no room for pluralism" because it's the world of "true or false." It is Hillel's ability to see the other side, Bar-Or says, that makes Judaism follow his approach today -- not the fact that he was "smarter or right."
As the Talmud explains in Tractate Eruvin 13b: "On what basis did the School of Hillel merit that the law should be determined in accordance with its positions? Because they were gentle and kind, and they studied their own rulings plus those of the School of Shammai. They were even so humble as to place the words of the School of Shammai before their own."
For many Jews, myself included, the overriding lesson in the Hillel-Shammai dispute is that despite their intense disagreements, they never split up.
Like the Talmud says in Tractate Yevamot 14b: "Beth Shammai did not abstain from marrying women of the families of Beth Hillel, nor did Beth Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beth Shammai, or eat with one another. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another."
Perhaps this love and friendship was rooted in the fact that they argued, as it says in Pirkei Avot, "for the sake of heaven."
But this "sake of heaven" idea can be a double-edged sword. When one is arguing over the word of God or anything else that feels supremely important, the stakes get pretty high. This makes us more emotional and more easily offended.
And as we know too well, when the stakes are high and the passions and disagreements run deep, it's a short road to anger and animosity.
An even worse result, in some ways, is that we simply tune each other out: I hate your views so much that I see no point in having any contact with you.
That's why so many of us prefer to hang out with like-minded people. It's a lot more comfortable and pleasant.
A few years ago, during the Second Intifada, I was invited to speak at a weekend conference organized by Tikkun, a leftist organization whose views are distinctly at odds with mine. My comrades on the right were shocked that I accepted the invitation. And to be honest, when it came time for me to speak, I really didn't know what to say.
Should I have fought back and represented the right-wing view in the middle of this liberal love-fest? The probability that I would change anyone's viewpoint was nil, so what would be the point of riling people up?
Luckily, on a whim, I found something to say. I asked the audience: "How many of you ever wake up in the morning and ask yourself: 'What if I'm wrong?' Raise your hands if you do." Nobody did.
Now that I had their attention, I explained that, initially, I was against the Oslo agreement, because I didn't feel it dealt with the fundamental issue of Palestinian and Arab rejection of Israel. But for the sake of peace, I asked myself "What if I'm wrong?" and I became an Oslo supporter.
I suggested to the Tikkun community that maybe it was now their turn to ask themselves that question, and that, in fact, we should all constantly be asking ourselves that question -- what if we're wrong? Compassion for the other is a Jewish virtue, I told them, but so is humility.
Being surrounded for two days by people with views opposed to mine was not comfortable, but it challenged me to refine and elevate my own thinking. For me, one of the benefits of having constant contact with the "opposition" is that it keeps me from becoming a one-note extremist.
My ongoing conversations with left-wing friends like Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller temper my passions. I get to hear another side of the story, one that I may not agree with but that is nevertheless highly knowledgeable and deeply loving of Israel.
Do we change each other's views? Not really, but so what? We're different people. We see things differently. How could it be any other way?
The truth is, if I'd had the same upbringing as my left-wing buddies, chances are I'd be just like them, and vice versa.
Once you see people that way, you stop seeing them as ideological opponents who must be bludgeoned into submission. You see yourself in the other and the other in you, and you hear better what the other has to say. You feel more secure inside, more curious, less threatened.
This moderation comes not from nullifying your own views, but from allowing space for others' views.
Unfortunately, in today's Jewish public space, the enormous pressure and competition to raise money seems to have suffocated the civil and pluralist voices of our community. Moderation is a boring brand. What sells is single-minded passion. Oversimplification. "Never again!" Another crisis!
Try raising money for an organization that promotes deep understanding of both sides of an issue.
In a recent piece in The New Yorker on the ideological battle between the Pentagon and the White House over what to do in Afghanistan, George Packer reports on the "battle of the books" -- how each side is reading only what nourishes their own argument -- and he concludes as follows:
"The rule for administration readers should be: no books that you already know will confirm the views you already hold. If that's asking too much, at least the advisers and officers should be required to exchange volumes and read what their policy opponents are reading, before the book group meets and decides the fate of the world."
I saw a good example of such a healthy exchange the other night at UCLA Hillel, when Rabbi David Wolpe and American Jewish University professor Michael Berenbaum sat on a panel with UCLA professor David N. Myers to discuss Myers' latest book, "Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz" (Brandeis, 2008).
This was no literary love-in. The two panelists, especially Wolpe, challenged Myers with some tough and incisive questions. The debate even got a little heated.
But here's the thing. There was no name-calling or offensive language of any kind. Not even close. The focus was strictly on the issues. Sure, there was plenty of conviction and passion, but there was also, as Myers himself pointed out, a "shocking degree of civility."
So this, in the end, might be the most useful model for our community. Instead of allowing our ideologies to split us apart, we ought to emulate Hillel and recognize other views, emulate Shammai and "still eat together," focus on the issues when we debate each other, and aim, no matter what, for a "shocking degree of civility."
By engaging each other in this fashion, the pain of ideological tolerance will be more than offset by the gains of deeper understanding and the creation of new relationships.
And, worse case scenario, if things ever get too hairy at the Shabbat table, we should agree to change the subject by talking about the Lakers or, better yet, the parasha of the week.