Rabbi’s Desk: First Culture, Then Politics

It is a truism that today’s politics are riven with over-heated partisanship and rivalrous discourse in which proponents of different policy ideas go to their respective corners and, with relish, prepare for the fight that follows. Yet, behind politics is culture and the heart of culture is values. Now, the regnant cultural values that stand behind today’s politics seem to be suspicion of the other, arrogance and entrenched self-satisfaction, and a deep pessimism about the possibility of vigorous conversation within a framework of social harmony. And the battles continue, depressingly.

If we are to overcome this corrosive situation, we must seek to replace our current habits with something else and begin the work of regeneration. And so I ask, what are the heathy values that can undergird a society that is irreversibly pluralistic, multi-cultural and dynamic … and a politics that will always be robust, agitated and disputatious?

What, then, are the foundations of a society of collaborative and cooperative relationships, of collaboration and cooperation even among individuals and groups that disagree with one another? I propose four fundamental ideas: trust, respect, humility and social-mindedness.

First, trust. If we cannot put aside our suspicion of the person with whom we disagree, if we cannot believe that the other person speaks with integrity, then discord will never be put aside. Yet, my trust in you must be grounded in your trustworthiness. And so, each of us must say what we mean and mean what we say even though it may lead to tension and open disagreement. Trust and trustworthiness is a fundamental baseline of an orderly and healthy society.

But in order that disagreements do not spin out of control, trust must be accompanied by respect and humility, two sides of the same coin. I must respect you and your opinion while also recognizing that my opinion is only one of several that can be authentically held. The very possibility of amicable conversation in a pluralistic society rests with the twin conviction that your opinion may have some important truth and that my opinion may have its limitations.

As for sociability … we are individuals, to be sure. But we are also social beings. We thrive when our society thrives, and for society to thrive we must always consider … often ahead of our individual wants and needs … what is best for society as a whole. Have we not, as a society, focused too much and for too long on individual rights and not enough on social obligation? We must seek to rebalance these two important values.

The great statesman and scholar Daniel Patrick Moyniham once wrote that “the central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself; while the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.” And while many of my own convictions are liberal, in this case I agree with the conservative truth: if we don’t tend to the cultural ground of our society, to the habits and pre-political values of a decent society, our public discourse and politics will never be healed.

And so, in the spirit in which this proposal has been written, I must admit that the four foundations of a healthy society and culture that I have offered are simply one person’s ideas. Therefore, I invite you to propose your own list: What are the values which for you are foundational for a healthy society? What are we missing today and why has so much intolerance and discord flourished? And if you will send me your thoughts, I will devote a subsequent rabbi’s desk to your ideas … without mentioning your names, of course … so that we can engage in a communal conversation about the values that matter.

Our society, our cultural values and our politics are currently at a nadir. How can we begin to rise from the bottom and soar as a society that respects differences, where individuals and groups embrace values with conviction but also with modesty, and where we keep firmly in mind the public good and the public welfare?

L’shalom, Rabbi Roger C. Klein