Being Jewish in this country is to be rooted in the ancient and the new, divided between what is profoundly mature and what is dynamically evolving. And maybe one can have no better foundation.
But it is challenging to honor core values and be open to fresh thinking. It means risking a cozy conviction that places one firmly in familiar company, reassured by the sense of us-versus-them. Are you a Democrat or a Republican, like your parents before you? Are you religious or secular? Are you pro two-state solution, or against it? Pro death penalty or against it? Pro gay marriage or opposed?
In mid-2016, it means embracing uncertainty, yielding our tight grip on labels, and risking accusations of disloyalty, stupidity, and worse. But to do otherwise might be the stupidest course of all.
At the Pride Parade in Manhattan on June 26, that kind of transcendence was evident. Though the crowd may surely have included many who support the BDS movement against Israel, the proud display of Israeli flags drew loud cheers of support for the change and tolerance they celebrated. Agreement and disagreement can coexist.
To take another example, consider the “Brexit” furor. While many commentators made it sound as if staying in the European Union was the sane and sensible thing to do, and anyone voting to leave had to be ignorant and xenophobic, it turns out there is a whole spectrum of views in the middle. Probably a sizeable majority of the British population likes much of what EU membership has brought while despising aspects of the autocratic way the union is run.
In the same way — and here comes the hail of rotten tomatoes — some of what Bernie Sanders says makes sense even to his fiercest detractors, and the same goes for Donald Trump, and for Hillary Clinton, who seems to arouse the most white-hot polarization of all. Anyone who dares to stick a toe into the roiling waters of Facebook commentary can see that. In fact, even “friends” these days are finding themselves bitterly opposed.
But hasn’t the Jewish way always been to acknowledge differences? There are other cultures that foster debate, like the Native Americans passing around a talking stick, or Xhosa elders, like those who taught Nelson Mandela, making decisions by consensus. But few have ever elevated the art of argument to the heights it reaches in Judaism, in the yeshiva and around the dinner table.
Honoring that tradition, would we go along with the polarization we’re seeing in public life both in America and in Israel? Certainly, there have been times of furious division before, and healthy debate is essential for progress, but the anger and vituperation now between supporters of this view or that seem to be rising to a crescendo that drowns out truth.
It has to be possible to rise above the fray, draw the best from both sides, and forge a better way.