Looking to Judaism for Advice on How to Behave the Morning After the US Election
The most remarkable thing about the failed coup in Turkey last week is how utterly unremarkable it actually was. While this particular coup was unsuccessful, since 1960 there have been four takeovers organized and perpetrated by Turkey’s military.
Much more remarkable than Turkey’s latest coup attempt is that in its 240 years, America has never experienced anything similar. No matter how vociferous and strident the debates and campaigns have been, when the final ballot is counted and a new president is elected, he or she is the undeniable, undisputed leader and commander-in-chief.
When George W. Bush served as president, he garnered great opposition and disapproval, but nobody of consequence seriously suggested or attempted to overthrow him. Over the last eight years, President Obama has garnered tremendous discontentment and vocal disagreement, but there has never been the suggestion of a coup or a takeover.
Which brings us to November 9, 2016 — the day after the coming presidential election. Like it or not, unless something extraordinary occurs, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected the 45th president of the United States of America. He or she will not be the president just for the percentage of the population that voted for them. He or she will be the president of every single American, no matter how distasteful or repulsive that may be for those who will vote for the losing candidate — or perhaps don’t vote at all.
Elections consistently bring out rigorous debate and raucous disagreement. However, this election feels particularly negative due to the fact that only a minority of Americans actively like either of the candidates. Undeniably, there are qualities and behaviors in both candidates that are disheartening and deeply concerning.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 6 out of 10 Americans describe themselves as dissatisfied with the choice between the presumptive nominees. That means that most people cannot focus on what they like about a candidate, only about how they dislike and distrust. This reality breeds a culture and atmosphere of even more negative rhetoric, contentiousness, and name-calling among the electorate than usual. Rather than advocate for their candidate, most people simply cannot imagine voting for the other candidate and have lots to say about those who can.
So, what will be left in the wake of this upcoming election? How will we overcome the polarization that is rapidly and increasingly developing before our eyes? Will the people who swore to leave the country if the other candidate is elected start packing their bags and booking their flights?
How will we resume talking to one another civilly and lovingly on November 9, when we will be living in a country being led by someone for whom many have contempt and disdain?
Certainly we are entitled to, and to some degree have a responsibility to, make our voices heard, to express our concerns, criticism, and critiques. It is a hallmark of this great republic, and a foundational principle of democracy, that we debate freely and advocate unreservedly. But nowhere in our law books or in our traditions does it mandate that we call people with whom we disagree names or question their character to make our point. Indeed, at the core of our democracy is the recognition that others are entitled to see things differently and to share their point of view without fear of being slandered.
The Talmud (Berachot 58a) states, “Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another.” What is the comparison between faces and opinions? Rav Shlomo Eiger (1786-1852) explained that we should never become exasperated or disturbed that someone’s facial features are different than ours. We shouldn’t condemn or criticize someone for having different color eyes or hair than we do. We implicitly recognize that everyone is created differently, and it is our differences that weave the wonderful tapestry of our interconnected lives. Similarly, we should recognize that everyone’s opinions are the result of his being created differently and raised differently. Just as someone is entitled to look different, so too is he entitled to think differently and approach things differently without harsh disapproval or condemnation.
Our practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah comes from a Talmud passage in Yoma (53) which states, “Hamitpaleil tzarich she’yafsiah shelosha pesiot l’achorav v’achar kach yitein shalom. (The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace).” Rabbi Menachem BenZion Zaks (in his commentary on Pirkei Avot) explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities.
While America has never experienced an overthrowing of its government, we the Jewish people twice experienced foreign bodies invading our land, destroying our Temples, and dispersing us into exile. When analyzing the underlying cause, our rabbis did not provide a political or military reason, but rather suggested a spiritual source. We practiced sinat chinam — baseless hatred: intolerance, incivility, coarseness, and hyper criticism of one another. In an environment and atmosphere of hate, the house of love and Godliness simply could not continue to exist.
We know (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1) that in every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, if it had existed, it would have been destroyed. In other words, two thousand years later we continue to embrace a legacy and culture of sinah, of hate and disdain.
Sunday marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period designated on our calendar to introspect and contemplate the Jewish condition, its causes, and its roots. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook famously said , “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam.”
Over the next three weeks and continuing through the election and beyond, before each conversation, let’s ask ourselves will this topic, my opinions, and the way I am expressing them contribute to repairing the world with baseless love — or destroying it with baseless hatred.
So if you can’t understand for the life of you how someone could support the candidate or the ideology or the lifestyle on your right or on your left, take a step back and make room for his opinions anyway. Doing so may just finally bring the elusive peace we are so desperate for.