One of the more famous rabbinic arguments in the Talmud is about the kosher status of a particular oven, called the oven of Akhnai. All the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, except for one, agreed the halachah (Jewish law) went a certain way. The exception, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, disagreed, holding out against the majority.
To prove his point, he performed several miracles, the pinnacle of which was when a voice from heaven called out that he was right. Rabbi Joshua, representing the rest of the rabbis, quoted the Torah in parashat Nitzavim saying, “Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens,” meaning that God had given us Jewish law to interpret, and therefore the voice from heaven was irrelevant.
Rabbi Eliezer stormed off. Sometime later, Rabbi Natan ran into the prophet Elijah and asked him how God had reacted to this ruling. He was told that God had said, “My children have bested me.” The story, however, ends on a tragic note: Rabbi Eliezer remained separate from the community, and one day the bitter force of his prayers killed Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sandhedrin and his brother-in-law.
We think we may have difficult or awkward Passover seders or Thanksgiving dinners? Imagine how hard Ima Shalom, the wife of Eliezer and brother of Gamliel, had to work to live up to her name – “mother of peace” – when her family came together.
Sometimes we think we’re much better at trying to persuade others of our opinions than listening to theirs. When both sides persist in this intellectual egotism, the end is either shouting or the end of the conversation. I heard about one congregation where the rabbi used her Temple bulletin article to declare a moratorium on all political conversations in the Temple, because they were too divisive.
I’d like to go in the other direction.
A few years ago, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs looked at the Jewish community’s difficulty in having conversations about Israel – especially between those with differing opinions – and launched a civility campaign, not only for discussion of Israel, but for all the contentious issues in current conversation. The PARDES Institute in Israel created a campaign urging rabbis to be leaders as rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace, creating communities where makhlokets l’shem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of heaven) could be held in peace.
In that spirit, I invite you to join me in talking about politics in the lead-up to Election Day – but there are a few rules.
B’tzelem Elohim (In the Image of God)
The Torah teaches that all of us were created in the image of God. Therefore, please assume that the person you are speaking with is just as intelligent and thoughtful as you are, even if, to you, their conclusions seem to belie that fact.
L’shem Shamayim (For the Sake of Heaven)
The purpose of the conversation is not to convince the other person, but to understand where they are coming from. Only then can you find what you have in common, and where you both (and we all) can move forward together.
Remember to have respect for that other person, even if you do not share their beliefs, or they are not convinced by your arguments. They have had the courage to open themselves up to you, and have given you the courtesy of hearing what you have to say. Please give the same in return.
Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace)
Be of the disciples of Aaron, seeking peace. Peace is not the absence of disagreement. The word shalom is related to the word shalem, which means wholeness. To have peace, we must acknowledge everyone’s different opinions, whether or not we agree – otherwise, we are not whole and we are certainly not at peace. Infuriated silence is not peace.
Speak with humility. Remember to start statements with “I believe” and “I feel” rather than telling other people what they are thinking. You don’t know (yet), and you won’t find out if you tell them you already know.
I look forward to listening to you – and listening to you listen to each other – in the time between now and Election Day.