A March of Folly?

A March of Folly?

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

In April, 2016, New York Times columnist, Arthur Brooks, wrote, “Liberals should be liberals and conservatives should be conservatives. But our duty is to be respectful, fair and friendly to all, even those with whom we have great differences.” The title of the article was “Bipartisanship isn’t for wimps, after all.”  Brooks was right. We’ll always debate issues we hold dearly; but, Judaism has taught us to debate for the sake of heaven. How do we know if we’re arguing for the sake of heaven? In the 17th century, a rabbi taught, “This is how you know: if the [debaters] love each other completely in heart and soul, then that is a sign that their argument is for the sake of heaven. But if they are enemies, and they bear hatred for each other – that is not for the sake of heaven, and Evil will live inside them.” 

Criticism is a healthy part of debate. When it’s constructively expressed, it enables us to hear each other. Contempt leaves no room for debate; it’s a reliable signal of impending doom. It’s as true about marriage and relationships as it is about the fabric of our nation. The question is, “What kind of disagreements are we going to have with each other?” Will they flow from mutual respect or will they emerge from intractable contempt?
History proves that arguing our differences with intractable contempt leads to objectifying and demonizing our foes. The results have led to social marginalization at best and ethnic cleansing at worst. Arguing and debating with mutual respect, even if it isn’t with love in our hearts and souls, has always proven to be the nobler way.

Barbara Tuchman wrote, “[Truth, justice, and temperance] may in truth be in every man’s power (sic), [but] they have less chance in our system than money and ruthless ambition to prevail at the ballot box. The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz. Perhaps better men flourish in better times and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams was right, and government is ‘little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow.” (Tuchman Barbara W. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Ballantine Books, 1984. Epilogue p.387.)

We’ll all have to decide which times we’ve entered, brilliance and endeavor or decline and shadow? Whichever one we choose is a matter of opinion; but, how we act is not. Our faith and culture demand that we challenge our adversaries only through means of civil justice granted us by the Constitution and laws of the land. Violence and demonization are not answers. Our hope is that everybody will adhere to the highest values of their respective faiths and cultures in order to achieve the greatest good for our country. In 1984, Barbara Tuchman wrote about the follies of civilizations and nations of the past, including our own, but only in hindsight. She couldn’t have foreseen the polarized and divisive circumstances we find ourselves in, today; nevertheless, she warned us about them.

Let all lovers of America debate our future with hearts and souls turned in affection to each other for the sake of Heaven; and, may all our efforts be worthy of God’s blessing on our great land.
[reprinted by request]

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.