Wednesday, February 25, 2009


So, I sometimes think that I could skip all of the writing and talking and pontificating that I've done these past few months, and just pass out an index card with two bullet points:
  • Shabbat is good, rest is good; take some time
  • Complexity is good; fundamentalism and extremism are bad
This Op-Ed, from the New York Times, belongs with the 2nd bullet point.

Democracy, at its best, rests on a foundation of mutual respect among co-equal citizens willing to take the time for serious debate. After all, even on the momentous issues that divide us, there is usually the possibility that the other side has a good argument. Yet if we paint our opponents as monsters, we owe them no obligation to pay attention to what they have to say.

Forty-five years ago, in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter warned against this tendency, and worried that it would recur in every era. There is, he suggested, something in the Western psyche that too often makes us retreat to a vision of politics in which there is no complexity. “Since what is at stake,” wrote Hofstadter, “is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

If there's a Great Truth to be taught in Judaism, I'm sure that it somehow connects to the idea that truth is complex. Arguments are rarely between a "right idea" and a "wrong idea," but rather about sorting out which parts of each idea are right, even when they seem to contradict. Fundamentalism, the belief in a simple, direct, absolute Truth isn't only dangerous (which it is), it's also simply wrong. Truth is never simple, and truth is never direct.

One day, maybe I'll have the time, energy and discipline to write a book. And, I'm pretty sure that this is what it will be about. In the mean time, just remember that "always sure, but never right" is not a complement!


Anonymous said...

Wow what a debate this caused with my sister and I. Needless to say I tend to believe truth can be complex and she does not. Our religious differences came thru with this discussion.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

I guess it's not surprising that it sparked a debate - I'm becoming convinced that this is one of the great dividing lines in our world. It's not religious vs. secular, or east vs. west, or liberal vs. conservative, but fundamentalist/absolutist vs. pluralist. I disagree so vehemently with people who see the world in black-and-white (even if we seem to agree on the surface issues) that it's almost impossible to have a constructive conversation with them. But, if someone is willing to admit to ambiguity and uncertainty, then there's nothing we can't talk about!