Giving up “OR” for “AND”

Although this was written before the election, by the time you read this column, our long national nightmare should be over.

During the past 18 months, our electorate has wedged neighbors against each other, pitted spouses against their partners, and divided the country in unimaginable ways. It makes the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like child’s play.

Fingers can point in every direction to explain why this divide has happened and who is to blame. At this point it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how we will move forward in the wake of this election and the toll it has taken on our citizens and our society.

Like most times when I seek direction, I turn to our tradition to recalibrate my coordinates. I was pointed toward a teaching that Maimonides offers about a man who enters a mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, while holding a reptile. The twist here is that the mikvah makes you ritually clean — but the reptile makes you ritually unclean.

The question being posed — it might be the first example of Murphy’s law — ask what is the ruling. Clean or unclean?

Two contradicting actions are happening at once. Which one triumphs?

This paradigm, either/or, yes or no, clean or unclean, pure or impure, kosher or trief, has become a model for Jewish living and for our world in general. The problem is that our world, Jewish and secular, is not as binary as this pattern would have us believe.

Of course there are times when our choices are linear. But my rabbinate rarely has been preoccupied with those sorts of questions. While I am incredibly well-versed at what to do when a meatball splashes into a dairy pot, that is rarely the kind of question I am asked. Instead, I face questions that implore me to say the word “and” instead of “or.” You can observe Shabbat AND serve food at the soup kitchen. You can maintain the integrity of kashrut and be integrated into society.

I do not have enough fingers to count the instances where people ask me tough rabbinic questions to which there are no formulaic answers. My child is marrying someone who is not Jewish. I am opposed to the marriage. Should I attend?

“Yes” or “no” is the easy way out. “And” is the harder but more meaningful path. Letting your child know that you are upset and disapprove yet going to demonstrate your love unconditionally, is an example of building a nuanced relationship.

Whether it’s about being for or against the Iran deal or settlements, favoring J Street or AIPAC, liberal or Orthodox Judaism, Clinton or Trump, Bibi or Lapid, our world is divided into halves. Sadly, supporting one camp inhibits us from gaining any footing in the other.

It does not have to be that way.

Could “and” exist instead of “or”? Could we speak at AIPAC and J Street? Have a membership in both a Reform and an Orthodox synagogue? Could we support Bibi and Lapid financially? Could we support a particular candidate and find merits in parts of his or her opponent’s platform? Could we support a Palestinian state and be right-wing in our defense of Israel? Could we root for the Chicago White Sox and support the Cubs in the World Series? Or closer to home, can I believe that Black Lives Matter and police officers’ lives matter?

I sure do.

With “and,” we add color and degrees. “Or” is monochromatic and level. “And” provides many paths and portals. “Or” is entrance and exit only

I find something fundamentally awry when the archetype we create assumes that by being in one camp, we are profoundly opposed to the other. That is ridiculous.

The aftermath of this election will leave us with lots of clean-up from the mess we made on the campaign trail. It will be easy to dig in our heels and keep up the either/or mentality. If we do, my worry is twofold: We will continue to divide our country in ways that bridges will be unable to traverse. Secondly, by ignoring “and” in favor of “or,” we will lose the color and nuance that makes our individual and shared world glow. “And” is a bigger word than “or,” literally and in what it offers to our world.

Let us look for opportunities to incorporate it into our lexicon, our conversations, and the world we want to create.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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