Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida

Solving the Death of the Center and Moderates (using Talmud Study)

I know I’m a political moderate because I get criticized by both those to the left and those to the right. Sadly, in the world in which we live, the word “moderate” is viewed negatively by liberals and conservatives alike. Both seem perfectly happy to throw disgusting insults like “libtard” and “Nazi” at each other without considering what the other side is saying. And having a U.S. president that routinely calls people insulting names publicly changes  society, sending a clearmessage to young and old alike that disrespectful interactions are preferable to respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

moderation

Moderate views, unlike extremes, require nuanced thinking, if not outright divergent thinking. It is very simplistic (and untrue) to think, for example, that those who promote responsible gun ownership want to do away with the Second Amendment of the US Constitution or totally outlaw all weapons. Similarly, there are those who want to believe that opposing the recent American practice of separating children and parents who enter the country illegally means that they want completely open borders, with absolutely no safeguards.

On the other side, the idea that children in detention facilities are in “concentration camps” or that President Trump or his advisors are “Nazis” is equally simplistic as well as minimalizing what the Nazi era or concentration camps actually were.

Lest you think that the challenges of moderation are only for Americans, witness the similarity in language (and even in some opinions) between the US leadership and that in Israel. Is it coincidence that Prime Minister Netanyahu, echoing President Trump, is now showing disrespect for news media, even using the phrase “fake news” and accusing it of “Bolshevik propaganda”? Or that the Sudan refugee crisis and response in Israel looked similar to the current immigration crisis in the US?  I think not. Both are the result of black and white thinking.

So, how do we get to nuanced thinking?  One way is through Talmud study. No, seriously. Talmud isn’t just for Jews anymore. Even South Korea adopted Talmud study on some level in order to become “smart like the Jews” click here . While I was probably already a divergent thinker, Talmud study (even when it sometimes bored me to tears or required me to study it in a pretty dead language) opened some critical thinking horizons for me. Such as:

  • Two schools of thought that disagree can both be based on data, observations, and knowledge of precedent. Rarely does one side try to tell the other that their facts are “fake”, or “alternative”
  • Name calling and insults by one school of thought to another may appear, but are very infrequent (unlike today, where it occurs publicly several times daily)
  • Sometimes the final answer in a disagreement is: Hell, we don’t know either. Can we kick it off to Elijah the Prophet to figure out? here (unlike today, when everyone thinks they have the ultimate answer)
  • There’s the very cool response to two diametrically opposed views: the question of whether a mezuzah should be hung vertically or horizontally ends up with moderation and compromise – in most communities, the decision is to hang  it at an angle between the two views. Remember compromise and consensus?
  • And in reflecting on the Talmud and on personal characteristics, Maimonides, in the 12th century, states that the “golden path” is that of moderation rather than extremes

2014-10-03-blogbellcurve

So we need to realize that in political and social matters (as in just about everything), there is a bell curve. There will be those few at the extremes that will take radical positions. Like the recent few Republican candidates in the US that had been affiliated with the Nazi party or the rare but occasional party that gets thrown out of Israeli elections because of views that are racist or anti-Democratic, the extremes are out there, but in the very far edge of the bell curve with very few voices or followers.

Most of us congregate in the middle, at either side of the top of the bell curve. We’re the people that agree that you can’t have totally open borders, but disagree on how to reach an intelligent policy; The folks who don’t want individuals with serious mental illness or criminal intent to have guns, but disagree on how to assure it.

It’s time for us (Americans, Israelis, as well as other countries that face polarization) to stop obsessing about the extremists and to focus on the vast majority that actually want civil, respectable discourse and the ability of our leaders to find the compromises needed to really make our world better.

And if picking up Baba Metzia helps them do that, so be it!

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.
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