Religion, Politics and the Healing Potential of Dialogue with Difference

There has been much discussion lately whether religion and politics should interact or remain in separate domains without commenting on the spheres of each other.

If one defines religion in a narrow sense, defining its major purpose to influence its adherents to remain loyal to its doctrines and ignore the outer world, the latter would be true. But if one defines religion as a force to elevate humanity with a vision of a future that is permeated with Peace and Justice, it is reasonable and correct to peer out into the world and chart its progress and regress toward this ideal.

Judaism has always had an emphasis on both particularism and universalism. Both energies are important; the former stems from a perception of awe and responsibility to carry out ancient traditions with caution and honesty and thus move slowly into the outer world. Preserving its values in the face of outer temptations and negative influences often leads to a withdrawal into a community that supports what it perceives to be its holy mandate. But a stronger impulse inherent in the tradition, expressed by Prophets and sages of all generations, expresses the mandate to enter the world and imbue it with values of justice, forbearance and compassion as partners in the ongoing creation of this future of peace.

It is acknowledged that while particularism promotes strengthening of identity and commitment to core values, it must not be at the expense of neglecting the universal mandate of creating a just world for all humanity.

Some contemplative and introverted, G-d intoxicated temperaments, impacted by the awe of serving G-d, are more comfortable to reach this goal through a withdrawal that leads to holiness, while others feel more comfortable to go out into the world and elevate society. Conflict arises when the boundaries of each position are strengthened and little communication exists between these two distinctive temperaments.

There is a need to see the positives in each position even when each is in disagreement with the other. This can only be achieved through communication, and knowledge of the uniqueness of the other, created in G-d's image. Thus communication, exposure to a variety of communities, and inner examination of fears that lead to prejudices must be a part of our everyday religious life.

Religion without self-consciousness and awareness may erect a formidable barrier inhibiting the success of the very goal it is challenged to achieve--the responsibility to continue to grow and develop ethical sensibility in the goal of creating a more just and compassionate world.

The nature of all groups, whether they be political organizations or religious affiliations, can tend to create conformity to the group norm, a rigidification which leads to our judging outsiders negatively without taking responsibility for inner attitudinal examination. In addition, this often leads to a state of entropy. Thus we must be open to outside corrective voices that may see behaviors and attitudes that the inner group may ignore, learn to bear the tension of encountering differences of non-group members, face the fear of the potential change that results in the encounter, and guide that change in a positive direction.

There have been two examples of individuals embodying this positive trait promoted by faith in the past few weeks, both in religion and politics. In the first example, Pope Francis expressed his opinion regarding "building walls" in a spirit of dialogue. He asserts this in the spirit of encounter that is the requisite to healing adversarial relationships. Unless we speak out our values and beliefs in a respectful manner, we cannot hope to overcome adversarial relationships.

The alternatives of remaining silent, avoiding dialogue, or disrespectfully attacking the other will not lead to healing and growth. Our ability to see the humanity in the other, cultivated by the highest values in our traditions, will lead to a respect of the other even while differing with his or her opinion.

The second example, that of Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia, also embodied this trait of "We are different, we are one." Though they differed in many of their opinions, they respected the humanity of each other in a way that attenuates conflict and promotes harmony. They balanced complaints with appreciations of the innate beauty of the world. They argued about the way they perceived data and implications of policies, but they also found joy in the wonders of our universe and the generosity of many of its inhabitants.

While it is true that during this heightened political season we witness political insults, the denigration of bipartisanship, undue influence of powerful self-interest groups, sensationalism in the social media, an uncompromising insularity promoting dogmatism and self-righteousness, fear of being challenged and thus each side pronouncing its point of view as the only truth, there is a clear antidote.

In realizing that though our world is imperfect and the task of improvement is formidable, it is through respect, dialogue and learning to sacrifice our optimal desires for a shared common good that progress can be achieved. Indeed, it is a necessary commitment to begin the path of the Golden Rule if we are to survive and thrive in our short time on this mysterious journey on this blessed earth.