09/10/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Benediction at the DNC: Making God Small

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
These words are easily transferable to the United States. Each day my inbox is stuffed with the confident assertions of people who believe one side or the other is heartless, or wicked, or subversive, or anti-Semitic. Sublimely indifferent to the half of the country that disagrees, these omniscient denigrators brook no dissent. Hillel and Shammai would be ashamed. So should we. Elections are choices. Choices in life, as in politics, are generally about better and worse, not about light and darkness. I understand that there is no better way to mobilize one's troops than to hate the enemy. Unlike a vanquished nation however, the losing side will still have a say and sway. To pour rhetorical salt on leveled earth is to ensure that nothing useful will grow. It is foolish, arrogant, short-sighted and ultimately unproductive. God is bigger than anyone's ideas. We diminish God when we suppose that the Divine can only bless my football team or my political party. To paraphrase "Sunset Boulevard," God is still big; it's people that have gotten small.