American political culture has become so polarized and there's almost no civility in public discourse. Judaism to me encourages intense discussions about laws and values, but is there a Jewish perspective on how one should debate and discuss political matters?
There is a simple Jewish perspective on how one should debate and discuss political matters - one should do so respectfully.
But this is no different than all our person-to-person interactions - they must be carried out respectfully.
The perspective is more than a nicety. It is against Jewish law to insult or disparage anyone, and insult is sure to be part of a disrespectful debate.
Disrespectful give-and-take has a further fundamental deficit. The one who insults is totally convinced of the correctness of his/her position. No counter argument can show otherwise. This attitude is the manifestation of consummate arrogance, an attitudinal fault strongly condemned in Jewish tradition, to the extent that the arrogant person by definition cannot be religious.
Your point about the absence of civility in public discourse is important, but do not delude yourself into thinking this is something new. Incivility is as old as civility. And civil response is the best way to lower the temperature of heated, disrespectful debate. A soft response turns away anger (Proverbs 15:1).
As you point out in your question, when it comes to discussion about important matters, passionate debate is part and parcel of Jewish discourse.Yet, both in the Torah itself and throughout rabbinic literature there are numerous examples that demonstrate how important respect and honor are when having such debates.In each of the codes of Jewish law, for instance, there are rules for how one should conduct oneself in public speech so as not to offend the honor of another.The concept is that one can passionately disagree with another’s ideas while still respecting their humanity and dignity as a fellow human being (Kavod Habriyut).In fact, the former is conditional on the latter.“Elu v’Elu Divrei Elokim Hayim” – “These and these are the words of the living God”.This verse is taken to mean that when both parties are arguing for the sake of heaven (l’shem shamayim), the result of such a debate, even if it results in disagreement, is holy.When we debate properly our tradition sees it as a sacred endeavor; when we do not, when our discourse lacks civility and higher purpose, such debate is simply destructive.The best example of this in rabbinic literature is the debate between the great sages, Rabbi Joshua and Resh Lakish, during which Rabbi Joshua regrettably insulted Resh Lakish’s character.The Talmud essentially tells us that Resh Lakish died from the insult and that Rabbi Joshua never recovered from the loss and tragedy of what his insult had set in motion.Two great sages were in essence ruined by disrespectful discourse.On the other hand, our Talmud contains pages and pages of debates and differing opinions where even the opinion that was not accepted was respectfully recorded for future consideration.It is to this ideal that we strive.
Political debate reflects deeply held positions about the way government should work. While it is understandable that individuals will express their beliefs with passion, it remains possible to engage in passionate debate without having it descend into incivility.
I agree with everything Rabbi Bulka says. The need for respect is crucial. He makes an important point when he reminds us that offering respect to one’s fellow is a mitzvah, a command, which ought to be part of ordinary daily life.
Talmudic tradition offers one tale which epitomizes the benefit of civil behavior when engaging in public debate. It is a model worth emulating. B. Eruvin 13b recounts that the teachings of the two competing academies, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, were equally the words of the living God, but that those of Beit Hillel were preferred. In response to the Talmud’s question of why Beit Hillel should enjoy such consideration we learn that the not only would Beit Hillel teach both their opinions and those of their opponents, but they gave priority to the teachings of the Beit Shammai over their own teaching.
This story includes elements that are key to encouraging civil discourse. Beit Hillel demonstrated humility in acknowledging and valuing the opposing position. They required both understanding and knowledge in order to present the opposing point of view respectfully while offering a convincing alternative of their own. Finally they demonstrated their honest respect publically for all to see.
If today’s politicians and pundits would demonstrate these same traits in their presentations, we would all enjoy a much more civil public square.
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