According to our tradition, if a Jewish court unanimously finds a man guilty of a capital offense, the man is acquitted. Yes, you read that correctly: if a Jewish court unanimously finds a man guilty of a capital offense, the man is acquitted. If no one on the court was able to find something that would redeem the man on trial, rabbinic teaching insists that the court failed to do its job correctly. If there was no disagreement over something as important as capital punishment, the rabbis teach us that there is something very, very wrong.
Judaism teaches us that when we must make a serious decision, if there is no disagreement, we should be concerned. A lack of disagreement is a sign that we’ve missed something important. We must remember that we are descendants of Jacob, our patriarch who wrestled with God and earned the new name Israel, which means one who wrestles with God and prevails. As the children of Israel, wrestling with heavy issues is part of who we are. But, we are living during a time when disagreement is either something we run from or we use to divide us in dangerous ways.
The Presidential primary season has begun. In an attempt to keep the peace, many of us go out of our way to avoid entering into political conversations with family and friends. It’s not just that we’re afraid of getting into a disagreement with those closest to us, it’s that we’re living during a time when too many of us feel that someone who disagrees with us politically needs to be kept at arm’s length. This is one of the reasons why surveys show us that many folks on the right and the left say that it’s important for them to live in a place where most people share their political sentiments. Further, three-out-of-ten Republicans say that they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and almost a quarter of Democrats say that they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Republican. Making matters worse is the belief that those who don’t share our political beliefs are dangerous. Thirty-six percent of Republicans say the Democratic Party is a threat to the well-being of the country, while just over 25% of Democrats see the Republican party as a threat. And, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address last month, “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Like you, I experience the rancor and suspicion daily. I find it fascinating that the same folks who are outraged by the personal attacks against their party’s candidates and positions have no problem engaging in similar attacks against the other party’s candidates and positions. We’ve become very good at openly attacking, vilifying and seeing absolutely no value in the political “other” – even though we are, whether we realize it or not, in relationships with those who identify as the “other.” We either see no purpose in hearing those who feel differently than we do about extremely important political issues – or we are so afraid of what will happen if we engage those with different opinions than we do that we remain silent. Even within the political parties, those with opinions that might not fit neatly into the party platform are seen as dangerous, espousing “New York values” and, thus, earning a “special place in hell.” This rancor and suspicion is undermining the importance of disagreement that our Jewish tradition embraces.
As Judaism suggests, when there is no disagreement surrounding something as important as electing the next President of the United States, there is a real problem. Fortunately, in our country, there is disagreement. Unfortunately, we’ve learned to believe that disagreement is a bad thing. Judaism pushes us to appreciate that disagreement can bring about true justice and prevent us from making a terrible decision. The rabbis teach us that any disagreement for the sake of heaven is worthwhile. As Americans, I pray that each of us appreciates that electing the next President of the United States is an extremely important decision. As such, I also pray that we learn to embrace the importance that our tradition places on disagreement and learn to respectfully talk with those whom we disagree. I believe that this is how we will bring about true justice and gain the insight we need to elect our next President.