Years ago I read a story about an American couple visiting the Louvre in Paris. As they walked from gallery to gallery, they would comment on each work of art. “This one’s nice, that one not so much,” they said. “This painting is too dark; that one is boring; there is something wrong with the proportions in that painting.”
While the tourists continued making comments, museum guards overheard their conversation. Now the guards spend many hours with the masterpieces and have a relationship with these great works of art. One guard could not contain his exasperation.
“Excuse me, but you have it backward,” the guard said, “You are not here to judge these works of art; they are here to judge you. They were here long before you came to the Louvre, and they will be here long after you’re gone. How you see them is a measure of your character, your vision, your insight.”
This story, whether true or apocryphal, should resonate with all of us as we count the days to Nov. 8, when the political campaigns finally end and Americans go to the polls.
No one can deny that this campaign has been exasperating. Like the tourists, we seem to relish judging the candidates. We tune in to watch debates filled with mudslinging and personal attacks, and we watch to see which candidate will land the zinger and which candidate will stumble.
We stand back and pass judgment rather than engage in a dialogue to create a vision for the future. We’ve become spectators rather than participants in democracy.
I don’t recall a time when Americans felt as discouraged about the political process as we do today. In my conversations with people of all political persuasions, they tell me that they are so disillusioned with the presidential candidates that they will end up voting not for the best candidate, but for the lesser of two evils.
While I want to believe candidates are sincere, many have to assume some responsibility for denigrating our political process into name-calling and humiliating their opponents, rather than respectfully airing the issues. They should describe what they plan to do to solve problems we all face.
The lack of civility is disappointing.
Maybe those running for office should heed the lesson from the Talmud, an ancient text of Jewish law.
In the 63 Tractates of the Talmud, there are hundreds of disagreements between the academies of Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. Yet, the Talmud tells us, “Though the schools of Shammai and Hillel disagreed – what the one prohibited, the other permitted.”
In the end, the opinions of one academy were chosen over the other. The laws according to the academy of Hillel became the normative practice.
Why were the opinions of Hillel followed rather than those of Shammai? The Talmud says that we follow the school of Hillel not because their opinions were necessarily right or better, but because they were more gentle and tolerant of their opponents.
Hillel’s opinions were chosen because they taught their own rulings as well as those of their opponent. Not only that, but the academies of Hillel taught the rulings of the academies of Shammai before they taught their own opinions. The Talmud says that the ability to show respect for one’s opponent is as important, or even more important, than being right.
As we approach Election Day, all candidates should consider the Talmudic lesson: stop shouting at each other, stop interrupting each other, start listening to each other, be more gentle and tolerant of each other and lay out for the American people a vision for the future.
If they follow this advice, maybe all of us who are disillusioned just might vote with enthusiasm and hope.
Rabbi Reuven Taff, past president of the Greater Sacramento Board of Rabbis, serves as rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org