Civil discourse often proves elusive in our society, especially in the current moment. Jewish tradition has much to offer America at large as a tradition committed to honorable dissent and respectful, collaborative disagreement.
Rivals in Relationship
Parashat Chayyei Sarah
Three years ago last June, this was the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine:
The featured player is George Springer, then newly signed with the Houston Astros. The banner headline reads, “Your 2017 World Series Champs,” accompanying an article outlining how the Astros could go from being one of the worst baseball teams in the Major League to one of its best. Of course, the prediction proved prophetic, as last week the Astros won the World Series and George Springer was named its Most Valuable Player.
This past Sunday, just a few days after the Astros beat the Dodgers in Game 7, another prophetic image saw print, this time in the Astros’ home newspaper, the Houston Chronicle:
The full-page color ad reads, “The Lost Angeles Dodgers congratulate the Houston Astros on winning the 2017 World Series Championship.” I call this prophetic not because it predicts the future but rather because it reveals to us a moral truth: that rivalry does not nullify humanity and that contest suffused with honor ennobles all who partake of it.
Sadly, this model of respectful affirmation of “the other side” is rare.
Our country has since its earliest days suffered from a lack of civil discourse, our public debate poisoned by partisan slander and confounded by myopic obstinacy. In his farewell address to the nation, President George Washington warned America about the dangers of partisanship, arguing against the formation of political parties in the first place. He wrote:
"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge … is itself a frightful despotism."
In other words, a system designed to pit group against group will inevitably lead not to democracy but to domination. The “spirit of party,” as Washington called it, “kindles the animosity of one part against another.” In short, we’ve been conditioned not to debate but to argue.
George Washington argues that the inclination to separate into opposing parties rather than to collaborate together is “inseparable from our nature.” He might be right. But in this area as in so many others, Jewish tradition seeks to help us transcend our natural instincts. Our inherent reflex when someone disagrees with us may be to get defensive, to assume that something is wrong with the other person or that her motives are nefarious, to build ourselves up at the expense of tearing others down.
But Judaism has a different idea. From the first chapter of Genesis, we are reminded that every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore, we are taught, every human being deserves dignity and respect. Take the model of Abraham, whose death in this week’s Torah portion invites a review of his long life. Abraham was unique in his generation for his faith in God, yet he treated every person he met with respect. From Egypt’s Pharaoh to the king of Sodom, from the priest Malki-tzedek to Ephron the Hittite, from whom Abraham purchases an ancestral burial plot – Abraham honors them all.
Indeed, the rabbinic project at its core is one of constant dialogue and dispute but not for the purpose of the best idea triumphing over all inferior ideas. Rather, Rabbinic Judaism teaches us that we, as a group, progress together closer to truth through respectful and loving debate for the sake of Heaven or a higher purpose. No single person or even any single group can claim to know fully what is right and best. However, the gift of Torah teaches us that we as an entire human community have been given the ability through divine inspiration to better ourselves, one another, and the world.
Jews have something precious to offer to the world: a long and developed ethic of respectful debate and an appreciation—even a love—for those who disagree with us. As Rabbi Jay Henrey Moses puts it, “Part of the genius of our people is that our own ideas are deeper and sharper because they have been honed over the centuries by meaningful challenges from different Jewish perspectives.” In other words, diversity of opinion makes us better.
That’s why our sacred texts routinely include minority opinions even when the final ruling refutes them. So we read in the Mishnah, first written down about 1800 years ago:
"Why do we record the words of an individual among the majority, when the law is [according to] the words of the majority? Because a [later] court may see the words of the individual and may rely on them."
That is, even as we proclaim what we believe to be right, the Jewish way is to preserve the dissenting opinion. Because—who knows?—they might have been right after all, or their view may apply in some unforeseen circumstance. In other words, we can never claim to be absolutely right – we can only try to do our best while affirming others are doing the same. And sometimes, they may have done it better.
The classic case of respectful disagreement in Jewish tradition is the ongoing debates between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. These two schools of thought opposed one another for generations, taking many different positions on Jewish law. In one intense case, a divine voice asserted that both schools, though they disagreed, spoke “the words of the living God.” At the end of the day, though, you have to make a decision, so God sided with the House of Hillel. Why? Because whenever they presented their opinion, they always first presented the opinion of the House of Shammai. The House of Hillel was the ultimate model of respectful dispute, standing their ground while showing deference to their opponents.
This is the Jewish ideal. Heaven knows we in the Jewish community need to remind ourselves of this value time and again. Our own internal disputes are often rife with antagonism and blame, dismissal and distrust. But the core of our tradition inspires us to be better and offers a powerful model to the world on how to—as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor puts it—“disagree agreeably.”
Of course, the Jews aren’t the only ones who want to improve civil discourse in this country. Take the work of Meg Heubeck, the Director of Instruction at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. She leads the Youth Leadership Initiative, which provides lesson plans and instruction materials to teachers in order to help them foster meaningful dialogue in the classroom. She says of her work, “I hope to bring back a spirit of discourse, debate and compromise that I think is missing. We can do that through civic education and working with students. I think that makes our democracy a lot stronger.” To date, more than 70,000 teachers have made use of these materials, helping to prepare the next generation to think both nimbly and compassionately.
And to take just one other example, let me recommend a project I’ve personally found to be a source of rich learning. Intelligence Squared US is “a debate series working to restore civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse to today’s media landscape.” Every month or so, Intelligence Squared hosts a debate among four passionate and qualified individuals on a topic of public concern. I subscribe to the podcast, which has deepened my understanding of issues such as health care, a universal basic income, and charter schools. Ideas are expressed with both humor and erudition, and the mutual respect demonstrated time and again should serve as a model for public debate in the country more broadly.
Our country has been struggling for a long time to be a safe haven for intellectual diversity. Sometimes we’re better at it than others … and right now, our cultural is painfully and harmfully divisive. As journalist Katie Couric has put it, “We have to appreciate the fact that there are big philosophical differences in this country. … If we can’t have a civil conversation … and can’t discuss each position with an open mind and with respect, then we’re doomed as a country.” I think she may be right – our greatest threat is to ourselves.
The prophet Zechariah taught us, הָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ, “Truth and peace you shall love” (Zech. 8:19). How can you both stand up for what you think is right while also valuing peace among one another? By acting like Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud tells us that through all their disagreements—and they rarely gave ground to one another—“they [always] showed love and friendship towards one another.”
May this be our calling. May this essential Jewish value guide our own discussions and disagreements with friends and relatives and especially strangers. And may we summon the courage and the class to congratulate our opponents when, after an honorable contest, we concede that they, in the end, were right.
 Acknowledgement and gratitude are due to Rabbi Jay Henry Moses, whose FED Talk, “Civil Discourse: Our Jewish Roots, Our Jewish Future,” inspired this title and contributed to the organization and content of much of this sermon. Available: https://www.wexnerfoundation.org/news/civil-discourse-our-jewish-roots-our-jewish-future.
 Image from http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents_gw/farewell/fwa17.html.
 All quotes from Washington’s address taken from the “Our Documents Initiative” at https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=15&page=transcript.
 Mishnah Eduyot 1:5.
 BT Eruvin 13b.
 Cf. “Virginian works to elevate the American civic discourse, starting with children.” USA Today, Dec. 31, 2016. Available: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/12/31/virginian-works-elevate-american-civic-discourse-starting-children/95884304/.
 BT Yevamot 14b.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”