Ask The Rabbis // How do we balance civility with disapproval for others’ politics?

By | Mar 06, 2017


We should learn from our sages. Even though they disagreed vehemently on issues of law and politics more than 2,000 years ago, they would leave the House of Study following each debate holding each other’s hands. And even though some of their disagreements involved the laws around marriage and divorce, they gladly allowed their sons and daughters to marry one another anyway (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamos 13b). “When a scholar issues an [unacceptable] opinion, we do not compel him to retract, nor do we reject him…nor do we accuse him of being prideful” (Talmud Bav’li, Chulin 6b-7a). We can also learn from God, with whom we have been in disagreement on and off ever since the first circumcision. In the words of God as filtered through the Talmud: “Even if the Israelites worship idols but there is peace between them, I won’t judge them” (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 38:6). In the Tanach we read how the tribe of Joseph “went up to Beth-El, and God was with them” (Judges 1:22). Said the 3rd-century Rabbi Yudan: “Even though they went up to Beth-El for the purpose of worshiping idols, God was still with them” (Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 99a).

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA


There’s a familiar saying: “Don’t talk about race, religion or politics”—especially with family members who have opposing views. But that guidance is often observed in the breach, particularly at holidays, when tensions can run high. In normal years, many families unofficially agree to leave their politics at home and discuss benign subjects.

This year has been very different. Last fall, when I led pre- and post-election discussions in my congregation, more than a few members voiced apprehension at seeing family members on Thanksgiving. Even if not a word was spoken, how could they even sit at the same table as those relatives? Some said they simply wouldn’t go home; as good Jews, they would volunteer instead at a local church or soup kitchen.

But how long can you postpone seeing family? One person, who scrapped Thanksgiving, just couldn’t put off the annual trip to Florida in December to see her aging grandmother who, horrors, had voted for the other candidate! My member decided that honoring one’s parents and grandparents was the higher value, so she gritted her teeth, practiced calming breathing and made the pilgrimage. The dread was worse than the reality; her relatives brandished no swords, had no need to gloat and were just glad she came. As was she, but what anxiety!

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY


Hillel and Shammai were models for civil disagreement—but only when they debated questions like how to light the menorah, not charged political issues. Some of Shammai’s disciples actually used physical violence against Hillel’s followers because of differing views on Roman oppression. Shammai’s followers often supported the active resistance of the Zealots, whereas Hillel’s followers sought compromise and reconciliation with Rome.

Most of us vehemently oppose violent protest, yet believe that being civil (i.e. courteous and polite) is sometimes not enough. Recently in Manhattan, 19 rabbis were arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the president’s travel ban. Were they civil? Actually, yes: civil to the police but disobedient while struggling for a just cause.

Within our synagogues, we expect civil discourse between members whose political positions differ. We teach the mitzvot of not harboring hate in our hearts, avoiding gossip and finding respectful ways to criticize. Yet political passions can be strong and mitzvot are sometimes ignored. We learn civility from Hillel and Shammai, but we also acknowledge that, in situations when life is at stake, the mitzvah of pursuing justice takes precedence over polite and courteous discussions.

Rabbi David Zaslow
Havurah Shir Hadash
Ashland, Oregon


These are not ordinary times. From my perspective, they call us to resist and persist. Basic religious values of compassion, respect and truth have been brazenly breached, and few of us can leave our deep concern, even alarm, at the synagogue door. Religious communities can play an important role in bolstering faith, organizing for our values and affirming teachings of basic human decency.

What place does that leave for civility? A large one. We must demonstrate that people who disagree can listen to and learn from each other. We must model the rebuilding of community ties and caring for all, not just for those within our circle. This does not mean we should normalize the situation or silence ourselves. The Torah teaches that we should “reprove our neighbor.” It also teaches, however, that we must love our neighbor and treat others the way we want to be treated.

In these times when the basic social fabric is deliberately frayed and undone for nefarious purposes, we must assert that the social fabric matters. Incivility will only unravel social bonds and divert our energy from the real issues. It risks hurting or alienating people with whom we may yet find common ground. “The day is short; the task is great…” as Rabbi Tarfon would say. There is no time for incivility.

Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA


The Talmud chronicles many debates. A renowned story recounts that “For three years there was a dispute between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, each one claiming that ‘The law is in agreement with our views.’ Then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, announced, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, ‘These and those are the words of the Living God.’”

This phrase, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, became the foundation upon which Jews hold themselves responsible for respectful dialogue and debate. The equal weight given to the words “these and those” suggests that each opinion can be valid because they are both made “in the name of heaven.”

What does this posture require of us? It demands respectful listening. We have to acknowledge the sincerity of each other’s opinions, the intelligence by which each comes to those opinions. We may not agree; we may never agree. Regardless, we must recognize and revere the humanity of those with whom we engage in dialogue.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA


There is no tension between being civil and expressing disapproval. Especially when we disagree with someone or disapprove of their politics, we need to be polite, respectful and attentive. We can follow rule five of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Covey suggests we practice empathetic listening to genuinely understand the other person. In doing so, we encourage the other person to reciprocate and bring an open mind to the conversation.

Sadly, at present, civil and balanced political debate does not exist. Instead, both sides of the political spectrum seem to have their own media outlets where they vent their incredibly polarized and uncontested political views, often with the aim of discrediting the opinions of their ideological opponents. The two sides talk at each other rather than to each other, and suspicion and hate fester.

It is good to be passionate about our politics. However, if we converse only with like-minded people, we will never be challenged to re-examine our ideas. For truth to be upheld, it is fundamental that human beings not live in intellectual isolation.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


The essence of covenantal behavior is that we treat others, even opponents, respectfully. Even if we are convinced that they are totally wrong, we treat them as partners in building a better world (in covenant) or a better society (in democracy). From give and take—even between sharply conflicting political approaches—the best possible result should emerge.

Rumor has it that this question reflects chatter in Washington, DC synagogues over whether to confront Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (who attend synagogue regularly) out of outrage at the policies of their parent, President Donald Trump. Such behavior would violate the Torah’s instruction that “parents should not be executed [punished] for the [sin of] children; nor shall children be executed for the [sin of] parents” (Deuteronomy 24:16). If anything, this particular couple should be treated extra respectfully because they are playing a moderating role in the new administration.

History makes the idea of retaliation against families even more obnoxious. Totalitarian systems often demand that people prove loyalty to the “higher cause” by turning on their families. Under Stalin, a child named Pavel Alexandrovitch reported to the KGB that his father had mocked the great leader. The father was sent to Siberia (he never returned) and the child was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union and celebrated in textbooks. Thus, “saving the world” was turned into justification for cruelty and inhumanity.

The methods of tikkun olam must uphold human relationships. Judaism teaches that it is legitimate to show special concern for one’s family, because that is the humane start to improving the whole world.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY


The question is partly practical. If the purpose is not just to let off steam by yelling at people, if it is to relate to them, perhaps change minds, then incivility simply doesn’t work. There is a mitzvah to rebuke someone who is doing something categorically, legally, halachically wrong. The phrase is Hocheach tocheach et amitecha, you shall surely rebuke, and the verb takes a direct object. But there is a marvelous Hasidic story about two brothers, both rebbes,  who, when there was someone to rebuke in their town—say, someone who hadn’t shown up in shul—would start a conversation within his earshot about the value of coming to shul. The point being, when you rebuke a person directly, the chances of his heeding what you’re saying are about the same as the chances of Donald Trump becoming head of the Democratic National Committee.

Sometimes you’re not interested in affecting someone’s behavior, or you need to speak truth to power in strong terms. The Talmud says that the Torah scholar who isn’t as tough as iron isn’t a proper Torah scholar, because sometimes we need to describe things in a tough way. But we should always examine our motives.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA


Judaism contains two notions, chilukei deyot (argument/dispute) and pirud halevavot (literally separation of the hearts, or conflict/animus). The prior is encouraged, the latter disdained. In the Talmud’s two great schools of thought, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, Shammai is generally considered the more stringent: In the famous story of an aspiring proselyte who asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai dispensed with him, while Hillel taught, “What you hate, do not do unto your neighbor—the rest is commentary.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, teaches that Shammai stressed the present, Hillel the potential. In Shammai’s view, the proselyte was simply not ready. Hillel may have figured that if the proselyte would embrace this core principle, he could learn more about what being a Jew really is. Unlike Shammai, Hillel also always mentioned his opponent’s view, clearly saying that though he was right, he recognized the opposing opinion. He thus avoided the easy descent into conflict/animus.

We are a society of many ideas. We sometimes differ strongly, and lately that has become painful to watch nationally. But even when we do not see eye to eye, we must strive to see heart to heart. We have the right to disagree with others, including public officials whose views differ from our own, but it comes with a responsibility to keep the discourse civil and respectful, even if passionate. Otherwise, we lessen all of us.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Executive Vice President
American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)
Washington, DC


I believe that we should avoid labeling people because of their political affiliation, and therefore welcome everyone into our communal space. That being said, an individual has the right not to attend services if he or she feels offended by the opinions of another congregant. Special care has to be taken that those who represent the community, particularly the cantor, will be respected and accepted by all. There is also great risk in filtering out those who disagree with us: the risk of creating a monoculture devoid of diversity, where one is never exposed to the ideology and humanity of the other side.

With all that, I think there are cases where congregants or religious leadership should speak up and prevent some people from attending all or some services and activities—say, a person engaged in an ongoing violation of the rights of others and who shows no signs of regret or remorse. A husband who refuses to give his wife a get, an unrepentant Bernie Madoff, or an elected official who harms others should not be welcomed in our midst until justice is done (Isaiah 1:15-17).

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD

One thought on “Ask The Rabbis // How do we balance civility with disapproval for others’ politics?

  1. I appreciate the emphasis on respectful disagreement, presented by virtually all the esteemed rabbis. But there is another consideration in rabbinic ethics: the prohibition against humiliating others. Thus, in Pirke Avot 3:15, Rabbi Elazar teaches us that one who “…humiliates a fellow being in public…has no share in the world to come.” And in Bava Metzia 58b, we read that “whoever shames another in public is like one who sheds blood.” And yet, in so much public debate, we find comments aimed at shaming, disparaging, or insulting one’s opponents. As the rabbis point out, we can disagree passionately with our fellow human beings without being insulting or shaming those with whom we disagree.

    Ronald W. Pies MD

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