Eilu v’Eilu – These and These Are the Words of the Living God
In 2000, I was living in a very small dorm room with a good friend of mine who happened to be a staunch Republican. In the weeks leading up to the election, the atmosphere in our room was tense. It probably didn’t help that I put a poster on my side of the room that said “When women vote, Democrats win.” But that’s just a guess. After the election, we were still on edge. I can’t speak for my roommate, but I know that part of me wanted to talk about the election, to find out how on earth this person whom I really liked and respected could vote for a candidate I found so abhorrent. But the other part of me, the part that won, was the part that was afraid of what would happen if I brought up the subject. Would I get angry and say something I’d regret? Would she say hurtful things to me? Would I be disgusted by her beliefs and values or would she be disgusted by mine? Would our friendship be ruined and our living situation made unbearable? It seemed too risky. So we never talked about it. I took the poster down and suffered through the aftermath of the election in silence.
After the most recent election, I imagine that many of us have made similar decisions about discussing politics with family members, friends, or colleagues. While some of us relish a passionate debate, others find it just too painful to engage. We avoid the topic with those who have different political leanings. We avoid sources of media that represent the opposite political perspective and seek out sources that confirm our opinions. And we seek validation and comfort in commiserating with others who agree with us. It helps to know that we are not alone. Beth Am has been, and is meant to be, a place for comfort and fellowship, a safe place where we can voice our feelings of despair and anger and find strength in community.
There’s just one problem. Most Beth Am members are politically liberal, but there are a significant number of us who are not. And whenever the conversation turns political, whether in the form of a sermon given by a rabbi, a comment made at Torah study, or a Purim shpiel character with a distinctive wig and pattern of speech, we risk alienating or insulting our more conservative members. While many of these members are “in the closet,” so to speak, uncomfortable voicing their unpopular opinions in public, the clergy often hear from them. We hear that they feel disrespected and not valued, or invisible to the leadership. We hear that they would rather we leave politics out of synagogue activities and focus on specifically religious or spiritual topics. We hear that they are not sure they belong at Beth Am. So we ask: what about those in the minority? What if you are a Republican or support President Trump? Do you have a place here at Beth Am?
There are a couple of easy ways to respond to this problem. One is that the congregation could tell our Republican members that they’re right, they don’t belong here, that there are other synagogues that are more politically conservative and that they would probably feel more comfortable at one of them. Or, we could avoid talking about politics here so that no one is offended or feels alienated. Unfortunately, Jewish tradition would reject both of these solutions.
Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes. Jewish tradition sees disagreement not as a negative, but as healthy and even holy. In one famous story from the Talmud, two rival houses of scholars, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, disagree for three years on certain matters of halakhah, Jewish law. Finally, a Divine Voice calls from heaven, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim hen – these and these are the words of the living God, and the halakhah is according to Beit Hillel” (Er. 13b). Judaism values a plurality of opinions while also acknowledging the need for standards and rules that the whole community abides by. Both Beit Shammai’s and Beit Hillel’s rulings are divinely inspired, but the law is according to Beit Hillel. This story captures an inherent tension of life in Jewish community: we need diversity and harmony, conflict and resolution.
So if we tell all of our more conservative members that they don’t belong here, or if we avoid talking about politics entirely, we won’t be able to discuss and debate issues that are of real importance and Jewish significance: how should we as a country treat immigrants and religious minorities, where should our tax dollars go, how do we both protect the environment and people’s jobs, what is our obligation to the rest of the world? And how does our Judaism inform the ways we engage in civic life? What should our priorities and commitments be? If we drive out all dissenting opinions, we risk turning our congregation into an echo chamber instead of a place where we can grow, think, challenge, and learn. And if we make discussion of politics off limits, we not only deny ourselves the opportunity to grow and learn from each other, but we also strip Judaism of some of its power by limiting its influence on our lives.
So we must figure out a way to live with the tension of divergent opinions, how to allow for differences of opinion without letting them tear the community apart. Again, the great sages Hillel and Shammai are our models. Their disagreements are described as “disputes in the name of Heaven,” “machloket l’shem shamayim,” that is, disputes for a good or holy cause. Hillel and Shammai and their disciples show us the right way to argue: in spite of their disagreements, they still eat in each other’s homes and marry each other’s daughters,[i] showing that they behave with “affection and camaraderie between them.” The Mishnah also describes several instances when the disciples of Hillel change their opinion and follow the ruling of Beit Shammai, indicating their ability to admit when they are wrong. [ii] And finally, the reason that the halakhah usually follows Beit Hillel and not Beit Shammai is said to be that “they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakhah they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements in deference to Beit Shammai” (Er. 13b). Rabbi Howard Kaminsky summarizes what makes for a “machloket l’shem shamayim” this way: “Constructive conflict requires that one engage in dialogue, carefully consider the opinions of the other party, and be amenable to retract one’s opinion. Such conflict also entails that it not be conducted in a hostile atmosphere and that it not in any way negatively affect the personal relationships of the parties involved.”[iii]
Now that’s easier said than done, but it is a worthy ideal to pursue. Our first step is to create an atmosphere that encourages people to engage in machloket, dispute. This means that we should not assume that everyone in the congregation shares the same political opinions, and so we should therefore speak respectfully when discussing politics without denigrating people who disagree. By creating a culture of respect, we send the message that even if we have an unpopular opinion, it is safe for us to express it. We also have to be brave enough to share our opinions even if the majority of others don’t agree with them, and brave enough to hear different perspectives without immediate judgment or anger. As a therapist I know suggests, “Don’t get furious, get curious.” Hillel and Shammai’s example challenges us to be open to the possibility of changing our minds, or at least the possibility of better understanding and empathizing with the opposing position. Ultimately, if we remember that a machloket is meant to be l’shem shamayim, for a greater purpose, then we won’t shy away from difficult conversations here at Beth Am. We will engage in these discussions like Beit Hillel, with humility, gentleness, compassion, and respect. And whenever we engage in them, we will have a common goal: to move closer to our mission as Jews and as a congregation: to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to “do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).