I don’t think you need me to tell you that we live in divided times. The divisiveness is compounded by an inundation of endless news/media sources that make verifying the facts virtually impossible without taking considerable time out of your day. On top of all of this, politics have become increasingly personal with “the other side” being characterized as corrupt, crazy, or outright evil. Politics have always been contentious, but I don’t believe our ability to communicate with our fellow Americans has ever been so impenetrable.
So I am writing this post not to condemn or blame a side, an industry, or even any particular agenda. It’s to focus and review, what I believe, are some of our most fundamental elements necessary for public discourse from a Torah perspective. If you read this blog regularly, some of these may read familiar. But review is just as important as learning new ideas.
Peace as an active Verb
We’re all familiar with the V hand symbol for peace. My understanding (from very shallow research) is that the gesture was tied to Winston Churchill’s sign for victory, which over time was “annexed” by American youth as the peace sign. The idea that peace comes from victory over your enemies is, sadly, counter to the Jewish idea of peace.
Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, comes from another word, shalem, meaning whole or complete. From that association, we can recognize that the Jewish notion of peace is far more concerned that everyone’s needs are being met and that the world is in a proper order. In the colloquial concept, peace is what happens in the absence of conflict, similar to how cold and darkness are the absence of heat and light. Judaism says different. In Pirkei Avos 1:12 Hillel says, Be of the students of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.
From this we understand that Oseh Shalom, to make peace, is an active process. Peace must be sought after, cultivated, maintained, and most importantly our victories shouldn’t be about winning, but creating an environment of not only truth but also good. In an American court, we have a winner-take-all system which produces a victor and a loser. In a Jewish court (known as a Beis Din) the judges do their best to maintain shalom in the community, so the judgments more resemble compromises.
The Truth of The Matter
A couple of months ago, two issues bothered me intensely. One was a complaint from the right, that the drug hydroxychloroquine was very effective in treating Covid-19 and that that information was being unfairly blocked. The other was from the left, that the United States Postal Service was being gutted by the Trump administration in an effort to impede mail-in voting.
If either of those statements were true, in my mind, they were significant enough of a threat for me to stop what I was doing and dedicate my life to ending such tyranny. But I needed clarity.
For the first one, I posted on Facebook, “Has anyone actually read any studies that confirms hydroxychloroquine is effective or not for Covid?” For the second one, I called the American Postal Worker’s Union and spoke to a representative asking what their specific complaints were with the administration.
On the Facebook post I received 76 comments, some from ranging conspiracy theories and accusations of fake news, to specific studies with data. But what was far more important is that I developed a criteria by which the drug might be effective and what those conditions would need to be. With the APWU call, I found that the representative wasn’t concern about missing mailboxes or even being worried about delivering 250,000 pieces of mail on November 3rd. He was far more troubled by restricted overtime when package delivery was at constant holiday levels due to the pandemic.
In Torah this is known as arguing L’Shem Sh’mayim, for the sake of Heaven. As Pirkei Avos 5:20 says, “An argument that is for the sake of Heaven will have a lasting, constructive outcome, and any argument that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a lasting, constructive outcome.”
I went into both issues divorced from agenda to find the truth. Though I didn’t find that truth concretely in either case, I was able to develop a far more informed lens to process the information that was being thrown at me. I also made some good friends on both sides that understood I could be partial and wouldn’t jump to conclusions based on bias. When we argue, are we getting closer to the truth or are we just trying to make sure the other party agrees we are right?
You’re wrong! And everyone needs to know it!
People wearing masks under their nose, talking in shul, barely slowing down at a stop sign… There are a litany of offenses we witness on a regular basis that not only bother us, but we view as being against the basis of civilized society. For most of those things we should get off our high horse and realize there’s about a dozen things we ourselves are falling short on.
However, some of us find ourselves implored to make such offenses known to the other party. We really shouldn’t. Really. But if you are going to go there and give tochacha (rebuke) the Torah has some clear guidelines. One is specifically outlined in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilchos De’os Chapter 6).
“Anyone who gains honor through the degradation of a colleague doesn’t have a share in the world to come.” There are plenty of movies where the hero shows up a bully, a rival, or an oppressive boss, by displaying their faults in spectacular fashion, humiliating them in the climax of the film. Judaism is emphatically against this. If you are able to gain at all (honor, standing, money, etc.) from the rebuke of another, that rebuke is forbidden. Later in the chapter, Rambam stresses that the rebuke must be in private, “He should speak to him patiently and gently… [he] should not speak to him harshly until be becomes embarrassed.”
On top of Rambam, the gemara in Yevamos (65a) instructs, “Just as it is a Mitzvah… so too is it to not say something that won’t be heard.” Meaning that if you know that the person won’t hear the advice, it is a mitzvah to hold back. So if you can’t embarrass them, you can’t gain from the rebuke, and you aren’t so sure the person is going to listen, what do you do? (Aside from keeping your mouth shut.) Well, as a rabbi I learn with likes to say, “If they don’t know that you care, they don’t care what you know!”
Once again, we have the dichotomy of being right vs understanding what is right. If this person is a friend, you know them, and you care for them, expressing your concern after making sure you understand where they’re coming from should help things. However if you don’t really know them all that well, perhaps the better solution is to establish that connection first.
Stopping the Cycle
I would hope that with the new presidential term this country might be able to cool down and find an opportunity for civilized discourse. But even though the election was over a week ago, tensions continue to remain militantly high. However, one thing has become very clear. Both sides will use the faults of the other to justify less than sterling behavior. In Judaism we have a concept known as meedah kineged meedah, (measure for measure). Think of it like Jewish karma.
The point is, you will always be able to point to bad behavior on the other side. If you use that bad behavior to justify your own, it will come back on you. But I do believe change is possible. Break the cycle. Care about the other person (i.e. love them like yourself), and always care more about the truth than being right. We’re far stronger together than we are divided and we have more in common than we may be willing to admit. The people on the other side aren’t crazy, evil, or idiots. They have real concerns. Try to understand what they’re so concerned about rather than trying to get them to believe you’re right. If you do, we might just be able to turn this thing around.