It seems trite at this point to observe that, lately, every challenge rapidly descends into bickering for partisan ideological gain. To cite just one example in the Jewish community: There are many forms of anti-Semitism that are on the rise, from both the left and from the right, driven by many factors including anti-Israelism and American nativism. These challenge and threaten us all. Can’t we agree that rather than diluting our efforts by demonizing other Jews with whom we differ ideologically, we are best served by working as one against anti-Semitism in all its forms? Sadly, apparently not.
This is part and parcel of the broader divisions that are fracturing our political and civic discourse. Polling and public surveys consistently identify increased ideological sorting and social separation.
There is less and less ideological overlap between those who identify as Democrat and those who identify as Republican. Intense partisan animosities have grown to the point where large numbers of Americans believe that those who identify with the party other than their own are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” We are more likely to choose our home communities and our closest friends based on shared political views. And, we’re becoming more predictable in our partisan divisions across multiple issues.
These behaviors, and others, make it increasingly impossible to find common ground. It becomes more inevitable by the day that every concern and challenge will devolve into ideological and partisan brow-beating.
This weekend Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, marking the experience at Mount Sinai. For me, this celebration reminds us of a Jewish way of thinking about our times – an approach that invites and challenges us to bridge the ideological gap between competing values and ideas.
Shavuot is a holiday that sits in direct relationship with Passover, some seven weeks earlier. They are connected in Jewish tradition by a period of time called the Omer with its own rituals for marking the connection between these two celebrations and their core themes.
Passover represents freedom, the individual liberty from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt. Shavuot is the establishment of law. This weekend we celebrate the presentation of a social contract between the Divine Being and the People, but also – and more importantly – among the people. And these holidays are connected because the gift of freedom is incomplete without the gift of law.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, explains it thus:
“If freedom means only that I can do what I want, then my freedom will inevitably conflict with yours. If I am free to steal, you are not free to own… That is why Judaism sees the exodus as the beginning, not the end, of the journey to freedom. The culmination came in the giving of the Law. The biblical vision is of a society in which no one will be at the mercy of others. Its rules and institutions aim at creating a social order of independent human beings linked by bonds of kinship and compassion….The freedom to do what we want creates individuals. It does not create a free society.”
This is our approach: Two values, freedom and order, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. Our competing values live in dynamic tension. Each may be of greater import to many of us – some or all of the time. But neither is fully developed without its relationship to the other.
So too, we may offer a different and deeply Jewish approach to our ideologically siloed and divided society: To resist the temptation to define competing values as necessarily opposing ones and to refuse to be bullied into rejecting the concerns and beliefs of those with whom we disagree solely because they identify elsewhere on the ideological spectrum.
Rather, we can insist that what are defined as ‘their’ values and ‘our’ values, ‘their’ ideas and ‘our’ ideas’, exist in dynamic tension and conversation with each other. We can promote a radical idea – to hold the center and honor the whole – by embracing the holy space between competing ideas, beliefs, and values.
Together, as the People did in the wilderness as they journeyed from the split sea to Sinai, we can begin the work of a renewed society, enriched by all our members, informed by all our ideas, walking together on a path to a greater future.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,