It is well known that the single greatest Jewish legal text, the Talmud, is built on a foundation of disagreements. In fact, those disagreements were indispensable to the eventual adjudication of the laws themselves, because the truth that was to inform the law was ultimately found in the dialectic of the dialogues of the discussants.
So much so is this true that there were actually sages who had what we call today a bar-plugta, meaning someone with whom they regularly disagreed on matters of law. Hillel had Shammai, Rabbi Akiva had Rabbi Yishmael, Abaye had Rava, and many more. It wasn’t that they disliked each other. but rather that their different orientations to both life and law led them to different conclusions. In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 14a, it is made clear that though they differed on so many legal issues, men from the House of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the House of Hillel, and vice versa. Their differences were scholarly, and not grounded in personal animus.
For many years, Democrats and Republicans have differed on the very fundamentals of how America should be governed. Republicans traditionally believed that less government is better than more, and Democrats that greater government involvement is more often the answer, not the problem. They differ on taxes, social policy and entitlements, and all kinds of issues that constitute the nuts and bolts of these United States. But being a Democrat or a Republican never meant believing that those with whom you differed were so fundamentally flawed, and wrong-thinking, that their policies would literally imperil the country. You could absolutely think that they were in error, but still respect them. You could still believe that they had the best interests of America at heart, and the country would not be hurt by their being in power.
All of this began to change in the 60’s and 70’s, as the war in Vietnam slowly but inexorably set our country on another course, where those with whom we differed were vilified, and not just differed with.
It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to witness what too often passes for political discourse today in our country, decades later. One expects the nominating conventions of our major political parties to be sharply partisan, but the reality is that the conventions are but accurate reflections of powerful differences of opinion that lie beyond them.
The traditional philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans have given way to cavernous and, I suspect, unbridgeable gulfs. It’s not about less government or more any more. It’s about fundamentally different conceptions of what America is, and what it represents, and how it conducts itself in an ever more dangerous world. Democrats find Donald Trump’s vision for America toxic, repugnant, and dangerous. Republicans see in Hillary Clinton’s vision a surrender to a “lesser America’ that places all Americans at risk in a world that is coming apart at the seams. The only thing that they seem to share in common is a visceral dislike of the other…
In Ethics of the Fathers 5:17, we are taught that arguments that are for the sake of heaven, such as those of Hillel and Shammai, will ultimately produce lasting results. But those that are not, such as the revolt initiated by Korach against Moses, will not.
I have no doubt that how America chooses in the coming election will have an enduring impact on America, either for better or for worse depending on which side you come down on. But the scars of what we are hearing and seeing these convention weeks will also endure, and our next President will have to deal with the detritus of this process, as our social fabric slowly tears at the seams by our own hands. In its own way, the level of political discourse today is no less dangerous to America than the policies being argued.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.