"Reckless incivility." That’s how one religious leader describes our public discourse. Politics in America has become a blood sport in which vanquishing rivals seems more important than serving the people. And this poisonous partisan rhetoric is spreading from the halls of Congress to the media, our schoolyards, and our homes.
How do we restore civility to our public life?
The answer, some suggest, is for us to become more tolerant and accepting of different views. The problem with this approach is that some things are, and should be, intolerable to us. We should be passionately outspoken about the causes we believe in. The question is, can we learn to disagree in ways that don’t lead to aggression? Can we learn—as John Dickson notes in his book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership— “how to flex two mental muscles at the same time: the muscle of moral conviction and the muscle of compassion…?”
Dickson explains that our challenge today is “to learn to respect and care even for those with whom we profoundly disagree…to maintain our convictions but choose never to allow them to become justification for thinking ourselves better than those [with whom we differ]….”
To their great credit, U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the late Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) succeeded in living this ideal, even though they were leaders of opposing political camps. As Senator Hatch described it, “We did not agree on much and, more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted….Disagreements over policy, however, were never personal with Ted.” When Kennedy died, Hatch wrote of his dear friend: “We can all take a lesson from Ted’s 47 years of service and accomplishment. I hope that America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side.”
The Talmud relates the story of a great rivalry that ended peacefully—the competition between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, disciples of two of the greatest rabbis of the 1st century. The school of Hillel tended to be lenient and the school of Shammai strict. At one point, the Talmud says, they were contesting 316 different issues.
And yet, the Talmud reports, the two rival camps always treated each other with kindness and affection, and their children never stopped marrying one another (Talmud Yevamot 14b). That was because their arguments were limited to the matters at hand and never became personal. In other words, they did not equate those on the other side of the divide with their points of view.
One argument between Beit Hillel (House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (House of Shammai) lasted three years. Each side insisted: “The law is according to our view.” Finally, a bat kol (heavenly voice) declared: “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim —These and these are both the words of the living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b).
How could two diametrically opposing sides both be right? Because both contained truth. The heavenly voice was teaching that no human being has a monopoly on truth. When we are embroiled in a dispute we tend to assume that “in order for me to be right, you must be wrong.” But that is not always the case.
Then the Talmud goes on to say that while both sides are right, “the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel” (Eruvin 13b).
Why does the law follow Beit Hillel if both sides are right? Because their scholars “were kind and modest; they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the opinions of Beit Shammai before their own….”
They deserved to lead, the text teaches, because of their conduct—they demonstrated respect for the opinions of their adversaries. They did not demonize or cast aspersions on the character of those with whom they disagreed. They tried to faithfully represent the opposing view and stand up to its challenge with integrity. To do this they had to listen well and sincerely try to understand the others’ perspective They demonstrated the mark of true leadership: secure in their own convictions, yet humble enough to make room for opposing opinions. This is civility at its best.
But are there not some disagreements that are so great and so intense that one cannot help but take them personally? Should we have expected the abolitionists to conduct a civil conversation with those who practiced human slavery? Should we ask a gay couple that longs to be parents to listen politely to the views of those who would deny them what they believe are their human rights?
It is precisely in such circumstances that the effort to practice restraint is critical. The failure to manage differences over slavery led in part to the Civil War, which cost hundreds of thousands of American lives and nearly destroyed the U.S. And if that gay couple were to sit down and exchange perspectives with a Christian fundamentalist, they just might be moved by each other’s humanity. It is hard, but possible.
There are many examples of virulent enemies who have come together in this way. Former Knesset member Eleazar Granot sought reconciliation with the Palestinians despite his wife’s murder in a terror attack. Real, fruitful dialogue ensued because he resisted the temptationto see all Palestinians through this lens, expressed willingness to share his pain and his truth, and listened to the stories of his enemies. Most Israelis and Palestinians will never agree to the other’s version of the truth, but hearing each other can help lead to peaceful coexistence. It is amazing what can happen when we meet our adversaries on a human level.
The midrash says that “Derech eretz, the commandment to act with common decency, preceded the giving of the Torah” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:3). As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains, “God could imagine humankind existing for thousands of years without the Torah, but [God] could not imagine human beings existing without…civility” (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1).
So, raise your voice and cry out like a shofar. Speak your truth with courage and conviction. But open your heart to the humanity of all people, be open to their truths, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we do these things, we have the right to demand them of our leaders, and reason to hope we will see them in our children. And when we do, we will put the civil back in our civilization.
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. He serves on the URJ/CCAR Joint Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community and the CCAR Responsa Committee, and chairs the CCAR Israel Committee.