Ask the Rabbis | Is Political Compromise a Jewish Virtue?

Illustration for "Is political compromise a Jewish Virtue?"

INDEPENDENT

Absolutely. That’s how Abraham resolves his dispute with Lot over grazing lands: “If you head left, I’ll head right. If you head right, I’ll go left” (Genesis 13:9). Four hundred years later, Moses introduces the politics of tribal land apportionment via the male heads of each family, which works fine for everyone but five orphaned brotherless sisters of the tribe of Menashe—Mah’lah, No’ah, Tirzah, Milkah and Hag’lah (Numbers 26:33). Rather than dismiss the sisters’ complaints, Moses works out a compromise: They get the land that would have been assigned to their father, in return for keeping it within their tribe (Numbers 27:1-8 and 36:6-10). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel asks: What to do about non-Jewish settlers pouring into the Promised Land, where every inch has already been split among our tribes? Comes the Word of God: “‘And you shall divide up this land amongst all of you…and also to the strangers [the non-Jews] who sojourn amongst you and who have borne children amongst you, and they shall be to you like native citizens amid the Children of Israel…within whichever [Jewish] tribal land that the stranger is living…you should give to him his portion” (Ezekiel 47:22).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation Monument, CO

HUMANIST

Politics is group decision-making, which by definition includes individuals with conflicting priorities, interests and worldviews. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can even contribute to values clarification. A community considering whether to spend fixed resources on filling potholes or on fixing sidewalks is really weighing conflicting needs of drivers and pedestrians. In such debates, Judaism offers values like shalom bayit, the promotion of domestic harmony. It can help us reach fair compromises that allow us to collectively move forward.

Compromise is virtuous when it achieves the best possible outcomes for real people in the real world, despite falling short of the ideal.

But there are limits. Some values are beyond compromise. These include accommodations that violate the higher Jewish (and Humanistic) virtues of human dignity and equal justice for all. On these grounds, Jews who honor human rights must recognize that compromise is no Jewish virtue. America’s history offers one of the greatest reasons to oppose concessions that damage human rights. We need look no further than the idolized U.S. Constitution, the product of compromises that created a profoundly unrepresentative upper legislative body, a bizarrely undemocratic presidential “electoral college” and the unspeakably inhuman
“three-fifths compromise.” Today’s Americans continue to pay the price of loving compromise more than human dignity.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Birmingham Hills, MI

RENEWAL

Perhaps so, but I would say, not enough of a virtue. Of course, Jews famously value argument, especially arguments “for the sake of heaven”—those which produce something of lasting good, even if only a respect for multiple viewpoints. What arguments, then, are “not for the sake of heaven?” These have to do with power,
self-interest and authority—arguments that, according to Pirkei Avot, “will not be established in the end.” The cryptic language here is usually understood as a condemnation. But perhaps one way to read the statement is that arguments over power—i.e., political arguments—do not and should not result in a permanent favoring of one faction over another.

During 2,000 years without a state of our own, Jewish tradition had little practice in making the kind of political compromises that arise in questions of governance. Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University suggests that in exile, schisms within the Jewish community were so common because they caused little serious harm, given the absence of a real power structure that disunity could threaten. Hence the familiar joke about the Jew marooned on the desert island who builds two synagogues, then tells his rescuers that one of them is “the shul I wouldn’t set foot in.”

We have much work to do in our Jewish communities, here as well as in Israel, to find ways of containing and defusing more substantive political disputes, to recognize that even arguments “not for the sake of heaven” are necessary and normal and must take place within the bounds of the political process.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST 

The answer, in good middle-ground style, is yes and no. Compromise is virtuous when it achieves the best possible outcomes for real people in the real world, despite falling short of the ideal. It’s odious when core values or constituencies get sacrificed along the way, as happens far too often. Both are true, in Judaism as in politics.

Maimonides sanctifies the “golden mean,” often the path of compromise. Indeed, in the “sausage-making” that produces policy, certain compromises are inevitable. This reality of democracy requires Rashi’s caveat: In the verse “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20), he says, “justice” is doubled, since both our means and our ends should be just.

There are times when compromise or appeasement is a desecration of God’s name, and other cases where a refusal to compromise brings disaster.

The policy arguments between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, though vehement, were “for the sake of heaven” (Avot 5:17). Both sides stood for solid if differing values; both were committed to truth. Korach and his band, by contrast, spouted populist rhetoric while trampling truth. Enriching and empowering only themselves, they undermined the collective enterprise.

Today’s political choices are similar. Compromise on how much to spend or regulate? Necessary; kosher. Compromise over truth: whether vaccines save lives, climate change threatens lives, or racism is real? Political sausage; treif.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD

REFORM

If you look at a Jewish home and notice a slanted mezuzah on the doorpost, you see the virtue of compromise in action. When two medieval Torah scholars, Rashi and Rabbenu Tam, who were grandfather and grandson to each other, disagreed on how to hang a mezuzah—vertically or horizontally—a third scholar suggested this compromise. Today most Ashkenazi Jews hang the mezuzah at an angle.

Compromise, in Jewish law called peshara, requires all parties to give, get and make accommodations so that everyone leaves with some level of satisfaction. Compromise requires creativity and allows for more original resolutions to emerge. Good compromise requires nuance and willingness to let go in the service of moving closer to greater healing, justice and peace.

Compromise is hard. Jewish law recognizes this very human element. This is where our tradition offers insight into the many challenges we see today in the political sphere. Those sitting around the tables of political debate have to be willing and ready to compromise. They have to be open to hearing, accepting and even embracing elements of truth that come from diverse voices and perspectives. When they do, peace and justice will emerge.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

Politics is about the exercise of power. Throughout history, Jews have lacked power and have had differences of opinion over the best strategy for dealing with those in authority over them. The Talmud describes how, in the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the Jewish Zealots were opposed to any compromise (Gittin 56a). The Zealots were known for their uncompromising stance toward polytheistic Rome and were despised by fellow Jews who wanted to find ways to work with or around the Romans. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in order to secure the yeshiva at Yavneh, resorting to this tactic because the Jewish Zealots in the city resisted all attempts to deal with the Romans. Strictly speaking, Rabban Yochanan’s action was not a compromise, since a compromise requires that each side have some measure of power to give or withhold, and the Jews in Jerusalem seemingly had neither. And yet, one can argue that Rabban Yochanan retained some element of spiritual power and sought to relocate it, while the Zealots insisted that raw material power was all that counted. They were prepared to go down fighting in order to preserve their absolute truth. Judaism survived and was reinvented because of Rabban Yochanan.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

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MODERN ORTHODOX

Political (also economic and social) compromise is prized in Jewish tradition. The Talmud states that a mediated settlement—that is, one in which both sides feel they have gotten some of their just due—is a better outcome than a strict judgment that hands a victory to one side (Sanhedrin 6b). Without compromise, the overruled side may feel alienated and left out. This undermines the will to live together that enables a stable, functioning, productive society (just as the breakdown of bipartisanship and mutual respect between liberals and conservatives in America today threatens the viability of our democracy).

Covenant is a partnership between God and humanity, and between the generations, to improve the world at a gradual, sustainable pace, until incremental improvements add up to the utopian goal of a good life and full dignity for everyone. In the covenant, God—and the human partners—renounce coercion. They counsel, negotiate and act together—that is, they compromise. The compromise may leave people only partly satisfied, but no group is so alienated that it turns against the system.

Over the course of history, the covenantal halacha often prescribed not the ideal behavior but the best possible policy that kept people working together. This slow method cumulatively reached great heights of social improvement. By contrast, revolutionary movements refused to accept compromises and turned to violence and coercion to realize utopian goals, often crushing one side and setting back the entire society. In Jewish history, polarization often led to tragedies—such as the revolt against Rome, which led to civil war between Zealots and peacemakers and ended in destruction and exile.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
New York, NY

ORTHODOX

Virtues can be virtuous without being particularly Jewish. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states, “Go out and see, what is the proper path for a person to choose.” In other words, the Maharal says, don’t expect to find the answer in ancient hoary tomes. Sometimes you’ve just got to go out there and see what works. It’s usually clear when compromise will work better than obstinacy. I wouldn’t necessarily call that a Jewish virtue, other than the virtue of using your noodle.

Good compromise requires nuance & willingness to let go in the service of moving closer to greater healing, justice and peace.

That said, there are lots of cases in the tradition where people should have compromised and didn’t or made compromises when they shouldn’t have. Some famous examples: The Tisha B’Av liturgy tells the story of Josiah, a righteous king of Israel who met a tragic end because he was approached by a neighboring king, at war with another kingdom, who asked permission to pass through peaceably. Josiah decided to stand on principle: No sword could pass through the land. That led to a war and his own destruction. Conversely, you have the story of the Jews of Shushan, whose troubles with Haman, according to the Talmud, began because the Jews agreed to join Ahasuerus at the dinner celebrating his victory over them, a dinner where the sacred vessels from the Temple were used. It was a slap in the face for Jewish honor—but politically expedient to accept an invitation from the king. So there are times when compromise or appeasement is a desecration of God’s name, and other cases where a refusal to compromise brings disaster. There’s no formula, other than blunt honesty as to whether the decision to compromise reflects the honor of heaven rather than a personal agenda.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

SEPHARDIC

Jewish virtue is a broad category, and two Jews would have three opinions about what deserves to be included. To balance those opposing opinions we will need arbitration, and if that doesn’t bring compromise, the opposing parties will split into subdivisions, until the subdivisions disagree further…

I personally believe that compromise in any field, not just political, is a Jewish virtue, though any proof I provide could be contested. Many classic sources suggest that compromise is the ideal path when there is a dispute. Abraham reached a compromise with Abimelech and offered one to his nephew Lot. But Jacob wrested the right of the firstborn from Esau, and though Jacob tried to apologize later, they never reached agreement. Esau left Canaan to avoid a dispute, and the brothers became bitter enemies. Later in Jewish history, the Israelites pleaded with Rehoboam, son of King Solomon, to ease their burden. He refused, and the result was an unbridgeable divide between the southern and northern kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

When we insist on doing things our way against others’ will, we may win, but the others will be left with a sense of bitterness and animosity which could easily be later aroused. When we compromise, we may make more people happy, and that, I believe, is a Jewish virtue.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

CHABAD

Political compromise, unlike religious compromise, is usually a wonderful thing.

While compromising halachic standards—even to address pressing needs—has almost always led to adoption of the more lax standard, and must therefore be avoided whenever possible, personal or political compromise, especially for the sake of peace, has always been lauded by the Torah and even by G-d.

The Hebrew word for compromise, peshara, shares the same root as posher, to cool down. Too many unfortunate events stem from heated moments or the resulting lack of dialogue. The Torah urges the cooling down of negative and destructive passions, and Maimonides’ exhortation to walk the golden path of the center is especially relevant these days.

Lately, conviviality is in short supply, particularly in the political arena. Whether in public policy, business, marriage or relationships generally, calming down and taking a respectful look at the other side is virtuous, even if you continue to disagree.

The country, the world and all of us would significantly benefit from seeing our leaders talk to instead of at each other, as was prevalent only a few decades ago. Don’t compromise who you are, but let who you are be one who is open to appropriate dialogue and compromise. It ultimately brings you greater strength.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch
Washington, DC

Opening picture: Illustration composite made from Drawkit

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