What shared values do we celebrate this July 4th weekend, as we mark our nation’s 241st birthday? In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asks: “Where did ‘We, the people’ go?” In a quest for answers, he turns to his friend Dov Seidman, the CEO of LRN, which helps leaders and businesses build ethical cultures in today’s acutely divided America.
Seidman’s anguished and honest response is heartbreaking. He notes: “What we’re experiencing is an assault on the very foundations of our society and democracy — the twin pillars of truth and trust. What makes us Americans is that we signed up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than us and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union — and of respectful disagreement along the way. We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the people.’ But when there is no ‘we’ anymore, because ‘we’ no longer share basic truths, then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association.”
Even a cursory glance at the headlines reveals deep fault lines running through our country. Americans have always disagreed with one another on pressing issues but we no longer even rely on common journalistic sources to frame them for us. As a result, we tend to see those on the opposite side of the political divide as not just misguided but evil.
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How do we talk across the partisan abyss when each party considers the other side’s facts “fake news?” Are there ways to debate respectfully and even reach consensus on core policy matters? What might we do to restore a sense of “we the people” that unifies political adversaries?
Ideological quarrels are not new. Over 2,000 years ago, the disciples of two of the greatest Jewish sages, Hillel and Shammai, disagreed on practically everything. The Talmud recounts the resolution of their disputes as follows: “A Divine Voice announced: ‘[The views of] both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of the school of Hillel.’ Since, however, ‘both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled the school of Hillel to have the law set in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the school of Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before theirs.”
The other side
There is much wisdom here. First, the text notes that truth is complicated. In most disagreements, differing sides may each have something significant to offer. Political adversaries can share good, sincere intentions. The schools of Hillel and Shammai argued fiercely against one another, yet each spoke the words of the living God.
So why does the law favor Hillel? Because they took the time to seriously weigh the words of their opponents and granted them honor even as they ardently rejected them. This lesson is so crucial for us, as Americans, in 2017. It teaches that tolerance and civility need not diminish political and ideological passion. We can fervently advocate our positions without smearing those whose views are in opposition to our own.
We the people need not — will not — agree with one another on many critical issues. But we must learn to live and listen to one another with respect.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.