Bridging the political divide – Rutland Herald

Posted By on July 29, 2017

This past week in Manchester Center an event was held, Can We Talk, Bridging the Political Divide, at the Manchester Community Library. The event came out of a conversation between Cindy Waters, Ruth Hoffman and Ed Morrow. I, along with Judy Livingston, our former Republican representative in the Vermont House of Representatives, was asked to co-facilitate.

Judy shared important models of working across the aisle in Montpelier. I began by saying we were not gathered to speak about specific political issues, but to remind ourselves how to have political discussions when we disagree. I hoped to share the knowledge gleaned from teaching conflict resolution classes at Bennington College and Burr & Burton Academy, as well as my work with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, where we train and teach young Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and international college-age students to become environmental leaders.

Some would argue the Arab-Israeli conflict is the hardest conflict to solve. David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute says, For over a century due to the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the region, there remains one critical resource that is scarcer than any other. That scarce resource is trust. Since 1996, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has brought Jews and Arabs together, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and international students, in order to build a network of trust.

As we have learned, if one trusts someone, you can disagree and move forward. In many ways, we have lost that trust here in the United States when it comes to those we disagree with politically. The evening was an attempt to learn something about each other and work to rebuild that trust.

The Bible opens with God creating the world through speech. It is a profound reminder that we create worlds and realities when we speak. We grow up hearing, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. How wrong and false. For the most part a bone can mend, but words said can stay with us a lifetime. We need to remember the power of words and how we use them, particularly in political discourse.

When I studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, we could study whatever we wanted Torah, Talmud, philosophy but every day before mincha, the afternoon prayer service, we were all required to study Smirat HaLashon, literally Guarding the Tongue, the laws of speech. That is to say, the most important topic to learn was to be reminded daily of the power of speech and, by extension, listening.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Talmud is pairing rabbis together who disagree with each other. That is to say, a different opinion is not an enemy to be crushed, but a valuable perspective to be listened to. Why? For one, we could be wrong. Two, the other could be wrong. Three, that encounter helps us sharpen and strengthen our position. Four, a synthesis (read compromise) might emerge. Five, a different perspective is another color in the tapestry of discourse. Too many of us live in our siloed news and information chambers the NPR vs. the Fox News crowds. In this day and age living in Marshall McLuhans global village, the world is literally at our fingertips. We would all be wiser to make some favorites on our computer news sources with a perspective we may disagree with.

There is a story from the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) that says the different opinions of two schools of thought, Hillel and Shammai, are both, the words of the living God, but the opinions of Hillel are followed. Why? 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. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammais opinions first. That members of Congress would act in such a way and model for us how we approach someone across our political aisle.

Much of the evening was taken up with participants forming small circles and answering between themselves these questions I posed to them: Who is your political hero/role model? What was your first political activity you ever participated in? What is your favorite political novel/movie/play? Do you vote in elections/if yes, why? If no, why? Share an incident or two that influenced your political viewpoint/ ideology. What is your favorite song with a political message?

The goal of the questions was for people to learn something about the other, to better know them a trust builder. The most important question was the fifth question, the political autobiography question, so people could see political orientations are in part formed by each of our life experiences. We may not all share the same political orientation, but we all share the experience of life.

Rabbi Michael Cohen is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center and teaches at Bennington College, Burr & Burton Academy and the Arava Institute.


Bridging the political divide - Rutland Herald

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