Political debates

President Donald Trump is at the center of much political disagreement in the nation. 

In the year since the election, many members of my synagogue have come to speak with me. Aside from the more predictable reactions from both right and left, I see that perhaps more than ever, politics threatens friendships and strains family connections.

It is very sad.

One conservative-leaning grandmother wondered whether it would still be appropriate to set aside money for her grandson in her will. She explained: “He’ll probably waste it on that lunatic communist, Sanders!”

A short time later, a graduate student told me that he wasn’t sure if he could attend his grandfather’s birthday celebration, after all, he explained, “he voted for you know who.”

Part of our problem is captured by New York Times columnist, David Brooks. Brooks writes that we are facing a time of the miniaturization of identity. Miniaturization of identity is when we only identify someone by the part of their identity we least like.

The conservative grandmother who threatened to write her liberal grandson out of her will no longer saw a loving, caring, and intelligent young man. She only saw her grandson as a supporter of Bernie. And the grandson who threatened to miss his grandfather’s birthday no longer saw the loving man, who had always gone out of his way to always show love and support. He only saw someone who voted for Donald Trump.

When we miniaturize the identities of those around us, when we fail to see people with the full texture and complexity of their identity, and instead only see those with whom we disagree as a monochromatic manifestation of something we oppose, we are blinding ourselves to their humanity. That is a very dangerous place.

The Jewish people have a proud tradition of avoiding the miniaturization of identity. Perhaps because our tradition is so firmly rooted in dispute, we have remained dedicated to preserving an atmosphere that encourages disagreement without demonization.

In the Talmud, the two greatest rabbinic schools of thought are Beit Shammai, the House of Shammai, and Beit Hillel, the House of Hillel. These two rabbinic schools disagree on just about everything. Nevertheless, the Talmud teaches that children from these two different schools continued to marry one another.

It seems clear to me that in order for children from both Beit Shammai and Hillel to continue to meet under the wedding canopy with love and commitment to together building a home, there could be no miniaturization of identities. In order to marry, these two ideological schools were able to saw beyond their disagreements, and make meaningful connections with one another.

How can we find the spirit of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in our own disagreements? How can we fight passionately for that in which we believe without ever mistaking an opponent for an enemy?

The Talmud provides an answer that even 2,000 years later sets a virtuous example of how to engage in civic dialogue.

The Talmud teaches that when presenting a particular perspective, Beit Hillel would always present the teachings of Beit Shammai first, and then only after fully explaining his opponent’s position, would he then offer his own thoughts. In other words, Beit Hillel’s positions weren’t more cogent, logical, or intuitive.

But, since the students of Hillel went out of their way to learn the opinions of Shammai so well that they could and would even teach them, that is what made Hillel’s positions worthy to become the law.

I hope and pray that this spirit, the spirit of holy disagreement, finds its way into our own American political discourse (and soon).

Brian Schuldenfrei is the Rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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