There is an intriguing ruling in the Talmud concerning the death penalty. It is said that if a guilty judgment were unanimously rendered against a defendant in a capital case by the 71 members of the Jewish High Court (Sanhedrin), not only was the sentence not carried out, but the defendant was released: “What is the reason? We have learned that [where the vote is to convict,] the judgment [in capital cases] must be delayed overnight [to give the judges the opportunity] to search for a defense [for the accused], but these judges [having voted unanimously to convict] will no longer consider any basis for acquittal.” (Sanhedrin 17a).
I am afraid this is where we are today. Whichever side of the socio-economic-political debate we find ourselves on, we are entirely right, and they are entirely wrong. We are unwilling to entertain the possibility of mitigating circumstances for those accused of wrongdoing or wrongheadedness; we have cut ourselves off from considering any basis for tempering our judgment.
I was recently asked how one is supposed to assert one’s principles while talking to someone with whom one disagrees. But how could one not welcome divergent opinions if one’s principles are rooted in upholding pluralistic values? Yet we have been pushed so far to the extremes, mind-hacked into rejecting, reviling and collapsing behind the walls of our own tribalism, that we find ourselves on the verge of destroying the very pluralistic principles we seek to uphold. A dangerous paradox this is.
There certainly are extreme positions and rhetoric being foisted upon us that constitute a direct threat to our pluralistic society, and those prone to adopt and champion them often place themselves beyond the reach of dialogue. I suspect that, one, despite the disproportionate noise they have been allowed to make, they only represent a small (if growing) minority of our neighbors. Two, even if opposed, their perspective still needs to be included as part of a pluralistically informed response. And, three, the unreachable violent fanatics among them need to be unreservedly rebuked.
Dialoguing can (and must) still happen with the non-radicalized majority of our compatriots. I wouldn’t suggest starting with ideologically loaded topics. Consider, instead, being curious about discovering what their fears are. Deeply listen. Don’t deny or dismiss their concerns. They are real to them. Then, share yours. Oftentimes, the unspoken fears that drive us apart are, paradoxically, the ones we have in common. A nation that espouses pluralism aims to alleviate all of its citizens’ fears as stakeholders of a shared destiny.
Our pluralistic society’s principles are under attack. To steadfastly embody them is to save them. The alternative, as we saw in Pittsburgh and in Louisville, is a dark and bloody path.
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
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