Conventions and Conversations

If you are like me you are probably a bit sleep deprived today, having stayed up far too late for most of the last two weeks watching the two party conventions, their speakers, floor drama, and subsequent analysis. Or, maybe you only watched one convention, or maybe some key moments, highlights, or possibly just followed some of the coverage without staying up for the speeches. Either way, most of us are alike in one aspect – by and large we watched with at least some pre-existing notions about who we’d be voting for in November, and by and large what we saw and heard reaffirmed our notions.

To be fair, national party conventions aren’t about the practice of speaking to those already affirmed in their loyalty across the partisan divide. They are intended to establish the candidates and their parties as clear alternatives to each other. The rhetoric is, quite naturally, a mix of inspiration to mobilize a political base and, when effective, to re-introduce candidates and make some headway with those who are on the fence. Frankly, in an election season, it is vitally important to articulate and make known the distinctions between the candidates. We must be clear about the consequences of the choices in front of us, and we must cast our votes with the solemnity of the power that is entrusted to us in doing so.

But we also need to have the conversations that bridge our divides – as a nation, and for that matter as a Jewish community; the conversations that enable us to understand those with whom we deeply disagree, to identify and define shared national aspirations, to dream as one people, and to determine how our leaders should govern for the whole nation. We haven’t been able to have those conversations in recent years when – as Pew has noted – our increasingly negative partisan feelings toward each other have pushed us further away from finding common ground with each other.

One might ask why we must (and even how we can possibly) make an effort to converse with people whose views are opposed to ours or perhaps deeply offensive to us? Reasons are abundant – including the importance of unity to counter the daunting challenges in these difficult times. It is worth evoking David Brooks’ proposition that in a deeply complex world, the better conversation is rooted in “a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process” which improves the mediocre idea or legislation. Brooks' writes that in this system, “others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.”

As smart, passionate, knowledgeable and experienced as each of us and any of our leaders may be, Brooks argues that people should be modest enough to acknowledge that “they are useless without the conversation.” That there is no greater wisdom than the one society acquires through a collective process of sharing, disputing and discussing ideas over time.

I’m reminded of a verse we’re all familiar with from Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are less familiar with the sentences leading up to this injunction:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

When read in full, the biblical text calls us not only to love our neighbor, and not only to rebuke them when necessary, but do both simultaneously, as equally important social duties. I read this text as a reminder that we need to disagree, and rebuke, but always with love. We can argue, but we must not have malice. We can debate, but we must not divide.

During the 2012 election cycle Rabbi Amy Eilberg, writing about polarized political communication, quoted Martin Buber:

“The human world is today, as never before, split into two camps, each of which understands the other as the embodiment of falsehood and itself as the embodiment of truth. . . . Each side has assumed monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into night, and each side demands that you decide between day and night. . . . ”

Noting that these words, written in 1952, could apply to our modern politics and to Jewish communal disputes, Rabbi Eilberg wrote:

“I can imagine how pained Buber would be to see the dynamics of polarization growing ever more violent with the passage of time, endangering the integrity and cohesiveness of Jewish communities and of democratic societies. But once we recognize the underlying dynamics of polarized communication, we may rediscover our ability to relate to others — even our ideological opponents — as persons created in the image of God, our neighbors and friends.”

Four years later, we are more polarized than ever.

As I head into the weekend ready to catch up on my sleep, I’m glad I watched both conventions. I like being an informed voter, knowing the messages of both parties and both candidates, and – frankly –I am thrilled at the experience of witnessing the historic breaking of a glass ceiling in real time. But I’m also yearning, maybe fantastically, for another convention; the one where we’ll all come together – every American - to listen respectfully and humbly, to rebuke with love, to find understanding, and to remind ourselves that all of us are created in the Divine image.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy