Let’s start by stating the obvious: Politics is a nasty business.
Anyone who runs for office today has to be willing to endure not only “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet the wronged politician proclaimed, but also the mud and garbage that our current political climate has come to accept as normative.
The election cycle that just ended was the worst eruption of this incivility in my lifetime (so far), but the invasive tone of rudeness was a culmination of national bad behavior that has been festering since the 2008 elections.
Be it Rush Limbaugh calling New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “fat” and “a fool” on the air for crediting President Obama for federal aid to the state after Hurricane Sandy; or Ed Schultz saying of the Biden-Ryan debate, “It was a man against a boy” on Twitter; Rep. Joe Smith (R-S.C.) for heckling President Obama as a liar during an address to a joint session of Congress; or President Obama for dismissing people in small towns who don’t support his view on immigration issues as “clinging to guns and religion,” the list just goes on and on and that is just at the national level.
When did the American political process start to look like the British House of Commons?
Political campaigns in America have always been mean. Andrew Jackson’s wife was called a bigamist, Abraham Lincoln was consistently caricatured as an ape, and Richard Nixon falsely accused a Senate race opponent of being a communist “pink lady.”
But for most of the 20th century there was a modern expectation of civility in our debates, presumptions that while candidates may be wrong in their ideas, they are at heart honorable in their intentions.
The advent of television actually reinforced this presumption during its first few decades. Think about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, which was so formal by today’s standards, but also so respectful. Convention speeches were crafted to be inspiring to a national audience — such as Barry Goldwater’s “defense of liberty is no vice” speech in 1964 or Ted Kennedy’s “the dream lives on” speech in 1980 — rather than insulting. The media’s role was to keep the candidates honest through facts rather than spin with innuendo.
Now we watch the debates to see who can draw first blood rather than make a better argument. We accept pundits who label candidates’ motivations as good or evil rather than challenge their ideas for accuracy and feasibility as credible journalists. We have devolved as a democracy in the last 30 years and I am deeply troubled by it as an American and deeply saddened by it as a Jew.
While I am proud of our American process of free speech and open debate, I have always been guided in that speech and debate by Jewish concepts of middot. Middot are Jewish moral virtues one should cultivate in oneself in order to bring balance and sacredness in to one’s daily life.
Some examples of middot that are often emphasized throughout the Jewish community are tzedaka (using one’s money for worthy purposes), gemliut chassidim (acts of loving kindness) and tzniut (modesty), but there is many other middot as well.
Of particular relevance for political discourse are derech eretz (respect) and tochecha (constructive criticism). These particular middot are so instructive because they buffer us in moments of heated debate. We all know the old adage “two Jews, three opinions,” and it is based in truth. Our people have embraced a good debate since Abraham challenged G-d about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and the ability to craft and press a point of logic or belief is a prized skill in Jewish culture. We treat argumentation as an art form; argumentation for the common good is understood by our tradition as being l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) and we are duty-bound to make an argument if we deem it capable of improving our community and life. Consider this by the great Rav Kook:
“There are those who err, thinking that world peace will not be built except by means of one form in points of view and qualities. Therefore when they see students of Torah scholars inquiring into wisdom and the knowledge of Torah, and by means of their searching, the perspectives and approaches multiply, they believe that they thus cause argument and the opposite of peace. Yet truthfully this is not so, for true peace cannot come into the world except by means of the value of a “peace of many faces.” A peace of many faces means that all sides and approaches are seen; and it becomes clear that there is a place for them all, each one according to its worth, its place, and its content.”
Arguments get heated though in the best of circumstances. Tempers can flare and words can be said that take the argument from abstraction to personal in a heartbeat. Keeping that risk in mind is central to Jewish communal debate. Consider the words of the Talmud:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: “If a father and son or a teacher and a student who are studying Torah in one place become enemies to one another, they should not move from there until their love for one another is restored.” (B.T. Kiddushin 30b)
So our passion for winning our argument is tempered by our respect both of our opponent’s intentions and feelings. They may be wrong, but they are still human and made in G-d’s image; calling a candidate “evil incarnate” would not be in keeping with our community’s ethical expectations.
However, that does not mean our arguments must be weakened in some way. People make mistakes and erroneous decisions that have consequences, especially people who are entrusted as leaders of the community, and we are also duty-bound to offer constructive criticism to them as directed in the Torah: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You should surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) “Rebuke” is an old word for critique and in Hebrew is called tochecha. Maimonides tells us that such critique is not offered if it will shame the recipient publically:
“Our Sages said: ‘A person who shames another in public does not have a share in the world to come.’ (Mishnah Avot 3:11) Therefore, one should be careful not to shame another person — whether of great or lesser stature — in public, nor to call her a name that embarrasses her, nor to relate a matter that brings her shame in her presence.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot)
Such public embarrassment is called bousha in Hebrew, and our American political culture has adopted it as an honorable act rather than a shameful one. This culture is not new to we Jews unfortunately, and practicing honorable, constructive debate is easier said than done. Even the Babylonian Talmud asks in exasperation if there is “anyone in this generation” who knows how to give or accept constructive criticism. (Arachin 16b)
Sadly, the current 21st-century political climate shows we have not come very far in maintaining and valuing respectful debate from the Talmud’s 5th-century political climate, but if we continue to just give lip service to the ideas of honor, respect, dignity and civility in our arguments then as a nation and as a community our political discourse will continue to diminish from l’shem Shamayim to l’shem Ego.
(Rabbi Scott Aaron is the community scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning.)