I’ve been thinking recently about how polemics can impoverish us. When we engage in polemics — taking two opposite positions, “poles,” and “polarizing” into our corners — each side becomes only a caricature of what they really are: we all become one dimensional.
Of course, polemics happen all the time. People debate and they want to make their point clear and easy to understand. They paint their opponents in clear and simple — and easy to dismiss — colors. If Democrats are compassionate, then Republicans are hard-hearted. Or if Republicans are sober then Democrats are irresponsible. If East Coasters are deep then West Coasters are superficial. If West Coasters are innovative then East Coasters are stodgy.
Maybe some polemics are unavoidable. Groups work out their self-definition and boundaries by defining themselves over and against an “other.” Jews have been defining our identity in opposition to Christianity (and visa-versa) for almost two thousand years. We grew up together, as it were, and like siblings sometimes do, we formed our identities in comparison with the other.
We are still very much doing it today.
The recent passing of Nelson Mandela brings up for me the old polemic: “Christians are into forgiveness and Jews aren’t.” Often this goes back to the old idea of the “angry God of the Old Testament” — which even many Jews seem to accept, even though the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Bible has at least as many instances of God being forgiving and compassionate as being angry. Sometimes I hear a similar polemic from the Jewish (especially Zionist) side: “Christians have this idea that you should ‘turn the other cheek’ when someone hits you — but that simply doesn’t work in real life. We Jews know that you sometimes have to fight back and defend yourself.”
But Mandela showed us, along with other greats of the twentieth century such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King that forgiveness and compassion even for an enemy can in fact be vital and effective tools of struggle. At the time of Mandela’s memorial, I heard several people repeat the story that Bill Clinton told about how, when Mandela came out of 27 years of prison, he did feel anger and hatred for those who imprisoned him. But Mandela realized that if he held onto his hatred, he might be out of prison but he would never be really free.
Mandela’s determination not to hate his former oppressors not only freed him from his internal shackles, but it paved the way for a national reconciliation, or at least enough reconciliation so that South Africa could emerge post-Apartheid as a multi-racial society. Even though it still has a long way to go, it could have been much, much worse.
It seems to me that instead of the embarrassing scene of the Prime Minister of Israel deciding not to attend Mandela’s memorial service “because it would be too expensive,” we might make more progress on peace if we learned from him about the practical value of listening, respecting, and forgiving.
Of course, Judaism does have forgiveness. The “angry God” of the Torah wasn’t always angry. As we repeat every year on Yom Kippur, this God is
“compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. . .” (Exodus 34:6-7). The Rabbis of the Talmud often emphasized forgiveness, saying, for example, “Whoever forgives another, his sins are forgiven him” (TB Rosh HaShana 17a). More recently, in the Jewish mystical tradition we find the idea that there is a spark of God in everyone — even the worst criminal or most hated enemy.
But, in this polemic with Christianity we’ve almost given it away.
Maybe some polemics are unavoidable. Groups by nature define themselves in comparison to others and create boundaries. But, in nature, boundaries are always permeable. Energy and information flows though the membranes of cells and the borders of ecosystems. And so it needs to flow between groups. Simplistic polemics put up brick walls. That may be fine for the debating floor, but we can do better than to live with stereotypes and caricatures — of others or of ourselves.
We can move history forward, perhaps come closer to peace, both inner and political, by learning to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves: whether it is Judaism and Christianity, Democrats and Republicans or East Coast and West Coast. Hey, I’ve lived in California, and not everyone is shallow, dude.