I keep having to remind myself that it is Thursday, as it seems like it has been a week since Tuesday night at 11pm. That was when I began obsessively following the counting of votes in the American election, and however many hours later, I haven’t stopped. Waiting is hard– and finding accurate information isn’t easy, but as the hours pass, I’m increasingly feeling like the major issue here is not who has won, but the fact that who has won is the operative question at all.
By all accounts– polls, journalists, psephologists– this should have been a landslide. The ambitious predictions of America’s pollster-prophets anticipated that Tuesday would be a day of judgement in inverse proportion to Reagan’s landslide win in 1980, a ‘blue wave’. Alas, the wave has not arrived– and it isn’t because the tide is simply out.
The reality of America is what is on display right now, as handfuls of ballots are tabulated and uploaded and shift the few remaining states by fractions of percentages. The reality of America is the distance between 48.9 and 48.7. The reality of America is that there is a division that runs so deep that for the first time in a century and a half, everyone is talking about another civil war as though it is an inevitable outcome.
It very well may be, but as the last days have demonstrated, it would be foolish to try and predict anything. The prognosis is a mystery– my question is different: what is the prescription? What needs to be done to shift America away from a confrontational 50/50 split which makes every contest heated and every discussion fraught? Obviously I don’t know (if I did, I could make an incredible career as an election consultant). However, I do think that our Jewish tradition has some wisdom (as usual) to offer.
In the early memory of our rabbinic tradition, there is a civil war of a different sort, that between two leading figures and their schools, Hillel and Shammai. For a time, this divide threatened to tear rabbinic Judaism apart. As we read in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b):
For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai.
There’s a really important concept here (several, really): both sides have merit (both these and these are the words of God), but one side ultimately has to win. We, by and large (there are 18 listed exceptions), follow the House of Hillel, not Shammai. The reason is not because Hillel was right and Shammai wrong. There were good arguments on both sides– and they were motivated by different and legitimate considerations.
Shammai wanted war with the Romans (and got it) and partnered with the Zealots to encourage people to violence. In the aftermath of that war– the war that cost us our homeland– Hillel was victorious. In the end, the fact that the school of Hillel behaved better won the day. Not at first, and never completely– but ultimately Hillel won in a way that he could not have expected- as we, two millenia later, still structure Judaism almost exclusively around his teachings.
The division of America, cloven in half, will not stop when the election results are finally announced. It will not stop due to any election– nor will it stop due to a civil war. Yet, in the long run, it will be the side that stands for integrity, honesty, compassion, love, and kindness which will be victorious. In the meantime, perhaps we should accept the view of the Talmud, that while both may be (at least in part) correct, one side is better.
I am under no illusions about Joe Biden or the Democrats. They have failed to respond to real issues, they have failed to understand rural America, they have failed to push for reform and instead enriched themselves as a political establishment class. That is why half the country is willing (and some eager to) vote for Trump. It is not because they are dumb, nor uneducated, nor deceived easily by Trump’s gimmicks (although some are). Lives are at stake, and lives will be lost, and Americans, as usual, are behaving as though elections are a sporting event, rooting for their team.
When the dust settles (whether this week, this year, or this century), we may look back and say that both sides had merit– perhaps even that ‘both these and these are words of God’, but it will be unquestionably clear which side will be victorious, which side is kind and gracious, and which side will go on to shape the America of the future. If the Democrats want to do more than squeak through a win (and they should), then they should be like the House of Hillel, modeling what it means to lead with integrity, justice, righteousness, and kindness.
I believe they can do that, and ultimately will. The anger that motivates Trump voters is similar to the anger that drove people to the Zealots and to back Shammai. There is a legitimacy in that rage that is unquestionable. But it isn’t enough. Eventually, Hillel wins – maybe not on election night, maybe not even within our lifetimes, but the longer the trend line, the more it favours decency and kindness. That’s something that no amount of refreshing my phone will show me, but which I think is reason for hope nonetheless.
Shabbat Shalom,R. Adam