By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx
We are living in a time of tremendous polarization.
Political analyst Bill Bishop observed that America is going through a sorting of sorts. Much as the incoming students of Hogwarts stood before the “sorting hat” to determine into which house the students would be assigned, we Americans are being self-sorted by our religion, ethnicity, race and, most of all, our politics.
There are “blue states,” and there are “red states.” Looking at the map of our country, we are divided not between the North and South as we were during the late 19th century, but are now divided between the coasts and the heartlands.
While this has benefits, as we often feel more comfortable with like-minded people, there are negative unintended consequences. Like-minded people tend to become more extreme. We “feed off of each other’s opinions” and, in turn, become more radical when we are not challenged by opposing viewpoints. When there is no one to challenge our positions, we tend to become more entrenched and too often turn to violence when confronted by an opposing viewpoint.
Too often, we see today people screaming at each other, unable to bridge the gap.
The news is full of violence on our streets, in our Capitol and, only recently, in multiple school board meetings. It seems we’re fighting over everything: vaccines, mask mandates, voter suppression, voter fraud, CRT, antisemitism and women’s reproductive rights.
As a child, I remember being told about the bell curve, where the majority of people are in the middle with fewer people on the extremes.
Now, our world has been turned upside down. Now, it seems like the fringes are the loudest and the most violent, and the middle is disappearing before our very eyes. Those in the middle are losing heart, steam and conviction, ceding our country to the radicals on both sides. We see an inverted bell curve.
We read an interesting line in Exodus 6:6, inspiring Moses to free the Israelites: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.”
This, too, was a world of violence, slavery and oppression. The more the Israelites bemoaned their plight and Moses raised his voice in protest, the more Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Their world was a world of polar opposites. You were either in one court or another. You were either for Egypt or the Israelites — you had to take sides. Neutrality was not an option. Then God tells Moses that the divine presence will free them with an outstretched arm.
A medieval rabbi, Ibn Ezra, comments that this arm was actually an extended hand stretching from heaven to earth. The arm did not come to smite but invite. In other words, it was a hand not of chastisement but of peace
Here is a possible solution to our problems today. Rather than extending an arm to destroy, maybe we can extend a hand to welcome. Rather than “calling out” our opponents and yelling at them, maybe we might consider “calling them in” for discussion. Rather than demonize our opponents, perhaps we should talk with them and see them as human beings. Maybe now is the time to get out of our political bubbles to talk less and listen more. That is why we have two ears and one mouth.
The more we demonize, “call out” our opponents, the more hate and polarization will result. But what if we could “call them in” and listen to each other, respect each other and seek to understand
This takes so much more work. It can be exhausting and is terribly time-consuming. Listening to each other, perhaps over a meal, is a way to heal the rifts that are destroying
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.