Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
We all feel it in our bones. There is a deep sense of unease. A disturbing sense of anxiety. A gnawing feeling that something is desperately wrong. But we can’t quite put our finger on it. We think it’s the deep partisanship that has gripped our nation and the abominable hatred between left and right.
But these are merely symptoms of a much more serious disease.
First, we Americans bore witness to the death of decency, as public political life became about both parties bludgeoning each other with embarrassing insults and degrading put-downs.
But what has died in America is truth itself. Not, as some writers have argued, because President Donald Trump believes in “alternative facts” or because the Democrats hate him so much that they will never give him his due. No, the death of truth has come about because we have forgotten that no one party or individual ever owns the truth.
Truth is not monolithic but complex. It is not singular but multifaceted. It is not masculine or feminine but it is created through the synergy of both. Truth is comprised of right and left joining together and enriching one another to create a higher, more colorful whole.
China has no truth because it is controlled by one party who makes it up. Russia has no truth because it is determined by the whims of a dictator’s daily distortions. But America has truth because it has two parties representing differing views which — even when they disagree — coalesce into the vibrant harmony of democracy. I am shocked that we have reached the stage where we wish the other party would simply disappear.
Jews have known this verity — that no one party or person has the absolute truth and that truth is comprised of different pieces that cohere — better than any nation on earth, which is why we have never been a proselytizing faith. We have always known that Judaism is a truth, but not the truth.
We have never sought to impose our views upon the rest of the world, save one: The belief that God created every human equally in His image and, therefore, every human’s input and viewpoint matters. Jews hate totalitarianism because it imposes one viewpoint on all mankind. Find a dictator — from the extreme right, like Hitler, or the extreme left, like Stalin — and you will see that they identified the Jews as their foremost enemies.
We Jews know, as Maimonides said 900 years ago, that while we categorically reject Jesus as the Messiah, we accept that his followers have brought the knowledge of God and the Bible to people around the world; and that while we reject the prophecy of Muhammad we embrace Islam’s emphasis on the one true God. We do not seek to have Christians or Muslims become Jewish but rather to practice their own faiths peacefully and harmoniously.
Perhaps the greatest proof of modern American soullessness is the right’s and left’s insistence that they alone have the truth and their wish that the other side would be swallowed by the earth like Korach. That there is nothing to be gained by political opposition. That conservatives are brain-dead, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals and that liberals are smug, arrogant, out-of-touch elitists.
Underlying the conflict in America is something much more profound and of far greater consequence than political partisanship. America is facing a crisis of barren intellectual complexity and a void of spiritual depth.
In our partisanship, we fail to see the humanity in one another. In our self-absorption, we fail to see the blessing of otherness. And in our hatred for views that differ from our own, we are becoming intellectually impoverished and emotionally warped. Our anger and our need to demonize one another betrays a stunning lack of vision. We can no longer see God’s countenance in a Republican or the spark of God in a Democrat. What we see instead is a demon.
Is this the America that Democrats and Republicans wish to inhabit? Will we be uplifted by the blessings of the world’s greatest economy or corrupted with a feeling that 50 percent of America is superfluous?
I will not take sides on the Brett Kavanaugh battle, not only because he has been confirmed and the matter decided, but because it would immediately put me into a box where I would lose half my readership when my essential message of American unity is critical to both right and left. Republicans see a good man wrongfully accused without evidence. Democrats see someone accused of sexual assault who displayed behavior unbecoming a federal judge elevated to the nation’s highest court.
But one side’s need to demonize the other is an affront to decency and ethics. To understand just how far we’ve taken our political differences, one need only scan the titles of the op-eds being written in America’s most prestigious news publications. Editorials covering the affair seemed to show little interest in offering a cool-headed, holistic take on the topic, opting instead to breathe fire into the minds of their readers. The New York Times ran columns calling Kavanaugh’s confirmation “A Complete National Disgrace,” along with another asserting that “The Jocks Will Inherit the Earth.” Another column was given the all-too telling headline: “Liberals, This Is War.” The commentator who wrote that piece summed up Kavanaugh’s confirmation with the simple, if not a bit hyperbolic, instruction to readers to “rend your garments.”
When Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, my friend of 25 years and now my senator from New Jersey, called Kavanaugh evil and said that it did not much matter whether he was innocent or guilty, he was not trampling on due process or the presumption of innocence alone. Rather, he was trespassing on his own stellar resume as a Stanford — and Yale-educated Rhodes scholar (who served as my student president at Oxford University), and on the Torah we’ve studied together and love.
For surely it is a man’s innocence or guilt that will determine his righteousness before God and fellow man.
Conversely, those Republicans who could not hear the aggrieved dignity and sense of violated humanity in Christine Blasey Ford’s soul-searing and heart-wrenching testimony have allowed partisanship to stifle their souls.
And how do the two co-exist? How could Kavanaugh and Ford both be telling the truth when one had to be wrong? How can we embrace competing narratives that contradict? How can antagonistic stories cohere?
Sometimes we frail and mortal human beings must admit, we just don’t know. Unlike God, we are not all-knowing. Unlike our Creator, we are not all-seeing. We just don’t know. And at such times we must fall back on the rules, law, and customs — some God-given, others mandated by the framers of our Constitution — that govern our democracy and move forward. And, for the love of God, stop abusing and hating each other.
Some readers may remember that I ran for Congress in 2012. I loved campaigning and meeting people of different ethnicities and faiths. I loved the heated debates with my opponent. And I wished that I had won. If you were to ask me, what was the most pivotal part of the campaign, it was, ironically, the night I lost. I remember how glorious it was to surrender to the majesty of the democratic system. I was living in a country that decided results by the will of the people. I had been allowed to passionately express my opinions. But when the people chose a different candidate, I felt not dejected but liberated. My God, my God, America the beautiful. A country that trusts its people enough to be able to govern themselves.
For 11 years I lived in the United Kingdom, and this November will mark 30 years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me to serve as Rabbi to the students at Oxford University.
When I first arrived I knew I would have many challenges, but I never expected that one of the greatest would be bringing together liberal and conservative political views. Oxford, like most bastions of academia, was very liberal. But there were many conservative students. How would I bridge the divide between people that were rent asunder by the politics of left and right?
This was especially acute in light of the fact that a lot of the liberal students felt that Orthodox Judaism was too conservative in many areas, like the public position of women in a synagogue or the fact that women couldn’t be rabbis. Then there was Israel, where there was a deep divide between those on the left who believed that Israel should trade land for peace and those on the right who believed the left’s position showed irreversible weakness and invited further aggression.
So, I searched for an understanding and a metaphor that would capture the idea of the need for two opposing, even conflicting, perspectives in our search for a higher unity. How we all had to go beyond tolerance. Not just stomaching one another’s differences on some humanitarian or First Amendment basis, but understanding that we can be who we are only by including those who have opposing views.
I listened to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s eloquent Rainbow Coalition speech — delivered at the 1984 Democratic Convention — in which he famously coined the metaphor of America being a land of many colors that hew into one spectrum. But, that wasn’t good enough, since it didn’t explain why orange needed purple in order to be orange.
Then, I saw how David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, used the example of an American quilt, which couldn’t be called such without the varying patchwork of different threads and fabrics. But that too fell short. Why, we might ask, do we need a multi-colored quilt, and not a simple uniform blanket?
It was then that I alighted on the brilliant metaphor of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, in his Chassidic masterpiece, “Tanya.” There, he uses the metaphor of the two wings of a bird.
It’s not enough for the bird to have two wings. For if the wings were on the same side of its body, it would just flop around endlessly and never fly. The emphasis is not on the number of wings, but on their placement. They have to be positioned on opposite sides and against each other. There has to be antithetical propulsion. In other words, you can’t be right-wing without a left-wing, nor left-wing without the right-wing. Two sides pushing against each other is what gives the bird flight.
America today is guilty of believing in tolerance — that you have to endure someone else’s opinion because it is their human right to express it. And what’s happening is, because we believe in tolerance, we now are becoming intolerant since we believe the other side is damaging democracy. If we believe in the other side only for the sake of democracy, then when we believe the other side threatens democracy, we will seek to silence it. That’s why we see these large gatherings trying to silence members of Congress, or right-wing bloggers calling liberals “devils.” We have to go beyond tolerance to actually understand that truth is comprised of different parts that cohere, even when they conflict.
We have to go beyond tolerance to actually understand that truth is comprised of different parts — that I cannot hold my position or be complete in my viewpoint unless there is someone who pushes up against the bulwark of my understanding and challenges me.
Isn’t this the idea of marriage? In last week’s Torah reading, God creates Eve to serve as Adam’s “helpmate who is against him.” It is a fascinating phrase. Eve is not meant to be Adam’s doppelganger. She is not meant to be subservient. Being so is said to be cursed. Rather, she is his equal who sometimes works together with him and sometimes opposes him — even when doing so is always as his helpmate.
Which is more correct, being a man or being a woman? It’s a stupid question, isn’t it, predicated on the fraudulent belief that one is complete without the other.
And this does not apply only to marriage but to the entirety of the masculine and feminine energies in our world, competing dualities that ultimately cohere. They are essential for one another, one balances the other, softens the other. A man does not tolerate a woman, nor a woman a man. Rather, they look forward to joining together with each other to create a greater whole, all in the belief that each side has its virtues and through togetherness they are enriched.
The pain we are now witnessing in the explosion of the #MeToo movement was created, ultimately, by the practice of the masculine having insufficient appreciation for, or respect toward, the feminine; the masculine seeing the feminine not as something equal to be acknowledged but as something less — to be used, exploited, and objectified, as opposed to respected, admired, and appreciated.
In the realm of politics, liberals’ demonization of conservatives and vice versa comes from the fake belief that one is superfluous, even damaging, to democracy. Conservatives might be right that when it comes to immigration, in an age of terrorism we need to be a bit more circumspect, due to potential infiltration by terrorists, as we saw tragically in San Bernardino and across the European continent. But if they didn’t have the voice of liberals saying that America must always be open to asylum-seekers and refugees, is it not possible that America might cease to be the “land of the free and the home of brave”?
Conversely, if Democrats were to practice the policies that were embraced by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel — a complete open-door policy that lets anybody in — it might lead to the backlash against immigration that is shoring up the extreme right in Europe. Both voices are necessary to have balance. (And this is aside from the fact that Merkel’s policy, which is in response to the Holocaust, is ironically now backfiring against German Jews who are now experiencing a rising wave of anti-Semitic attacks. Still, being a sanctuary to refugees is vital to a nation’s values and balance is what is key.)
For an appreciation of the other side to happen, you need each side to appreciate not only that the other must be tolerant, but that truth comes not in one form, but broken into parts. Truth is not a singularity but is rather multifaceted and complex.
Democrats are convinced that they have the whole truth and that there’s nothing to learn from Republicans. Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. Each condemns and demonizes the other, holding on to their ultimate copyright to truth.
I don’t accept the doomsayers who believe there might be a second American civil war, God forbid.
I do believe, however, that if there were a plebiscite today where Democrats and Republicans could agree to divide the country, and we could somehow peacefully rid ourselves of political rivals, most people would vote in the affirmative.
In a similar vein, we’re seeing the balkanization of media, where CNN, MSNBC and Fox News viewers wouldn’t dare to cross sides, each believing that the other lacks even a modicum of truth. Sure, they’ll tolerate one another being on the air. There won’t be calls for a ban. But, how often will someone of one viewpoint watch a rival station for any other reason than to be fired up with anger, even hate?
This week’s Torah reading is about Parshas Noach and the destiny of the world.
God says that every species lends itself to a more complete whole. God doesn’t just choose the larger, more robust animals in Noah’s time. He says that they must all come along in the ark, for each and every one of them is, in its own way, essential.
The same is true of why Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people. The midrash relates that he was a shepherd who took his flock out to pasture. A small sheep went missing. Moses would not return without finding the little critter. Not because he believed in the individual sheep, but because the flock would have been imperfect without it.
The Bible says that every man and woman is a tree in the field. It’s a telling metaphor. A tree is rooted in its own soil but grows out and helps oxygenate the air. It represents the individual who is passionate about their culture and identity, but is not limited by it, participating instead in a wider multi-ethnic society. Together, these healthy individuals comprise a colorful orchard, each contributing its own shade. The orchard is a garden of all different plants, flowers, shrubs and trees. Each plant draws upon its own root, but comprises an essential part of a larger garden.
There’s nothing wrong with political parties. George Washington, for all his greatness, was wrong when he counseled against them. We don’t want to live in a one- party state. There is, rather, a problem with partisanship and the hatred and demonization of the other that comprises modern-day America.
To be sure, not everything fits into the garden and not everything would be accepted in Noah’s Ark. If there is a predator that wants to devour, then you fence it out of the garden. You leave it off the ship. It has no positive contribution to make. If one seeks to discriminate against or silence another, they should be kept out.
In the same way that I am arguing that we must go beyond tolerance toward mutual enrichment, I also believe that we must have no tolerance for intolerance. There are some issues where it’s black and white. No one disputes that terrorism is black and white, or that Iranian threats against the Jewish state are evil, just as no one disputes that white supremacists and neo-Nazis are vile and wretched and must be condemned outright.
While I absolutely believe we must be enriched by the legitimate contribution of all who practice decency, I also believe that tolerating the intolerable is the liberalism of fools. And if stoning women to death and hanging gays from cranes is not evil, then the word has no meaning.
I don’t expect the political differences between us Americans to disappear overnight. I am realistic about the depth of the chasm. I do wish, however, that we wake up to how bad it has gotten and begin discussing remedies.
This week, synagogues across the world will recount the story of Noah. They will read of a man who watched his world crumble amid the corruption that had infected the hearts of its inhabitants. Rather than guide his brethren toward a kinder future, however, Noah chose instead to seal himself off behind the tar that girded his wooden ark. And with none to tell them better, humankind’s fate would also be sealed — not behind the walls of a boat but beneath the waves of an all-destroying flood.
The holy Zohar, the most fundamental book of Jewish mysticism, recounts how God, upon the completion of the rains, sharply chastises Noah for his unwillingness to better his contemporaries. “As soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark,” God tells Noah, “the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved only yourself.”
As we read this story, we ought to take from it this vital lesson: As bad as things may be, we cannot just seclude ourselves within our own temperate and peaceful homes. Rather, we must raise our own voices, not to divide but to unite, not to assail but to heal, highlighting not our political differences but our shared American dreams and our shared human truths.
This is our country. It is the greatest country. We must act now to heal our beloved home and finally draw its warring factions together as one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of The World Values Network. His latest book is “Lust for Love,” co-authored with Pamela Anderson.