Recently I delivered the benediction at the Democratic National Convention. Rabbis should bless gatherings that represent roughly half the nation, and I would as willingly have offered a blessing to the Republican convention. But it soon became clear that how hard it is for some to think beyond politics. Immediately my participation was interpreted as a statement of allegiance. Some were delighted and others scandalized. Both the approval and the disapproval were wedded to the idea that religion is never above politics but always enmeshed in it. Bless a bunch of people and you must agree with them. This is strange because as a rabbi I have offered blessings in churches as well as conventions, colleges and interfaith gatherings. No one assumed that when I gave a benediction at a prison I must share the convictions of those who were, well, convicted. But our political discourse is so magnetized that it keeps pushing apart those who would see merit in both sides. The Jewish tradition offers a useful model. A famous discussion in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) relates that the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed about a great deal. A voice came from the heavens and said "elu v'elu divrei elohim chayim -- These and also those are the words of the living God ... But the law is according to the school of Hillel." If both are the words of the living God, and therefore both sides have merit, why does the law go according to Hillel? The Talmud answers that Hillel's disciples taught Shammai's views before their own, according respect to their antagonists, and were nochin -- humble or kindly. Humility and kindness matter in argument, the rabbis remind us, even if one is sure one is right. Opposing points of view are likely each to contain some truth. The vilification that has become part of political discourse is the antithesis of this ideal. After the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner published a series of essays by traditional rabbis in Israel exploring the roots of the hatred that led to murder. Rabbi Gil Student on his blog Hirhurim summarizes the conclusions of the book:
- We are all in this together, as one people. There is no "us" and "them." We must recognize that if we hurt someone else, another political faction, we are damaging ourselves.
- Our disputants also think they are doing what is best for the country. Even if we disagree vehemently, we are battling ideas and not people. Yes, protest and debate the ideas but never the people.
- Respect the office (of Prime Minister) regardless of who holds it. He is a symbol of the people, which always commands respect. If you don't like who holds the office, campaign for one of his opponents.
- The Redemption takes time, with surges and halts. Don't despair because the historical drama which we are experiencing needs to play out at its own pace.