Talking about politics is toxic for many of us right now. This concerns me. Some of our otherwise normal social interactions feel touchy and tense. Too many people I know are on edge. Many are themselves relatives and close friends who curtail conversations with one another. Truly close in life, their hearts beat as one. Their memories and hopes bind them. Yet, they steer clear of discussing politics and current events. They don’t want to yell at one another. They don’t want to lose their relationships with each other.
A very real and deep partisan political and emotional divide overwhelms our society. It’s not demographic or regional. It affects us all. On both sides of this divide, people who agree with one another speak about those who disagree, not always kindly, with a sense of bewilderment.
We are not listening to other people’s perspectives so we might learn, understand, differ, or debate respectfully. We are just hearing opinions different from our own and shutting out the people who express them. These days when we speak with each other, agree or disagree, instead of smiling and moving on we react. We grow anxious. We simply cannot agree to disagree. We’re just being disagreeable.
Maybe I’m overstating it. Maybe not. Reflect on your experience and decide for yourself. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
The noise, nasty words, and unruly clamor of opinion based media and a dishonorable election campaign sets the tone of our personal conversations and social relationships. This concerns me. Our instinctive, automatic, almost robotic, and overly sensitive responses to one another prevent us from having the conversations we need most.
It is important for us to talk about what’s happening around us. We ought to express our passions and priorities. But, our discussions need to be honest, safe, and respectful. If we can’t speak constructively with the people we love, with friends, neighbors, colleagues, or within our Jewish communities, we won’t discover or honor what binds us together as families, as a people, or a nation. We won’t recognize the values we do share and hope to promote. We won’t help to repair our breach. We’ll just drift farther apart.
It is time to try to bridge this gap. Especially at this time of social discord and debate. In the midst of this unusually strident political moment, we can advocate for the values of our Jewish tradition and historical heritage. We may disagree with one another. We may never disparage each other. In our interactions we must counter the crass culture surrounding us.
We can be to each other more than people locked in closed minded echo chambers of uniform thinking. We ought not to place on others our animus or appreciation for the President or members of his administration. Incumbent upon each of us who protests the President’s policies and decisions, or who supports his agenda, is to speak out from the imperative of our personal values and political beliefs by affirming higher standards of personal integrity and expecting the same of others.
Kindness is not a partisan idea. Neither are compassion and human dignity. Demanding honesty and transparency is not a partisan political position. It’s a moral one. Judaism teaches us to use words carefully and to act with integrity. Standing against bigotry and standing for the oppressed are core Jewish principles.
We are heirs to visions of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. For them, as moral voices, religious life is not about comfort but challenge. In his classic book The Prophets Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Justice is not an ancient custom…but a transcendent demand…it is inherent in God’s essence.” Let’s remember this religious truth and allow it to guide us. Let’s speak out less like political partisans and more like our people’s Prophets.
The Prophet Isaiah preaches, “Seek justice, undo oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Isaiah also exclaims, “And the Eternal God shall be exalted in justice, the Holy One of Israel sanctified in righteousness.” “When we do justice,” explains Rashi, “we exalt God’s name in the world.” Righteousness is the true worship of God.
So like the Prophets of old, let’s strive to layer this moral perspective onto our conversations. Let’s speak about ethics not politics. Judaism is not Democratic or Republican. Jews are both.
We cannot normalize the baser trends on display in our culture in our responses and relationships. Rather, we can celebrate diversity and demonstrate how best to live and talk with one another during contentious times. Tough times harden hearts. Talking respectfully together we may find refuge and respite.
Let’s renew our souls, calm our angers, and work to heal our emotional wounds. Let’s protect and sustain our relationships and the ideals toward which we all aspire as caring and concerned citizens. As crucial as it is to engage politically in the affairs of the day, it is also vital to pause and engage personally in the affairs of the heart, in empathy and hope, grace and love.