Resolving Political Intolerance According to Chassidus

By Shmuel Gomes, United States
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

He Who makes Peace in the Heavens, May He make Peace for Us:
Resolving Political Intolerance according to Chassidus

In the 21st Century the U.S. has been increasingly plagued by political intolerance: the unwillingness to even consider opposing political views. This has caused communicative failure across the political spectrum, resulting in political polarization, government malfunction, and strife within families and among friends. In a discourse by the Mittler Rebbe, it is explained that a similar strife exists in the kingdom of heaven, between the angels Michael and Gavriel. Like opposing political parties, they disagree about how the kingdom of heaven should be run, as well as the values its governance should be based on. Yet despite this difference, they are able to work together. The reason, the Mittler Rebbe explains, is they realize they are both working towards the same goal, albeit in different ways, and that their differing values must both be incorporated for this goal to be achieved.

This account by the Mittler Rebbe contains an important lesson on the psychology of political intolerance, and its solution. On this account, political intolerance results when the opposition’s goals and values are seen as irreconcilable with one’s own. Correspondingly, political intolerance is resolved when both sides recognize their common goals and can appreciate each other’s values as needed for reaching these goals. In practical application, this can be achieved by “deepening” political discourse: in addition to policy positions, individuals and politicians should discuss the values underlying these policies, and the broader goals they hope to accomplish with them. In doing so, they should seek to identify shared goals and values, thereby breaking down political intolerance and enabling constructive discourse on the basis of these shared goals and values. I call this a “policy-goals-values-commonality” based dialogue.

One needn’t follow U.S. politics closely to see that political tolerance is on the rise. Among politicians, there has been a rise in political polarization, where even the slightest compromise with the opposing party is seen as a betrayal of party values. Recently, this “us v.s. them” mentality culminated in a government shutdown, as the republican and democratic parties were unable to agree on a routine spending bill. The effects of political intolerance are also felt on the personal level. Friendships are increasingly being strained, if not outright broken due to political disagreement, and even within families political divergences are causing tension. At dinner tables, politics has become a topic to carefully avoid, as political disagreement is more often ending in embitterment than an increased understanding of why the opposition supports the policies (or candidates) they do.

In short, political disagreement has morphed into political intolerance. Political disagreement is a normal, even healthy part of a functioning democracy. It is natural that a diverse citizenry will engender diverging opinions, and the best policies are often those that emerge from dialogue between opposing views. Political intolerance, by contrast, is a corruption of political disagreement. In political intolerance the opposition is not just disagreed with; one also refuses to grant opposing positions serious consideration, and policy proposals are categorically rejected as soon as they are proposed. In a climate of political intolerance, policies are inevitably partisan, and dialogue breaks down.

However, we find a powerful analysis of political intolerance, as well as its remedy in a chassidic teaching by the Mittler Rebbe.1 Citing Midrash Tanchuma,2 the Mittler Rebbe relates that the archangels Michael and Gavriel are perpetually engaged in a dispute over the conduct of heaven. As the Mittler Rebbe himself notes, this is like two government ministers, vying for opposing policies. Michael wants divine beneficence to be granted to created beings without regard to their merits, being given independent of how deserving the recipient is, whereas Gavriel believes divine beneficence should be strictly proportional to the beneficiary’s merits. With the exception to be noted below, this heavenly strife is intractable: Michael and Gavriel remain eternally engaged in this dispute, each advancing its own agenda against the other. Moreover, the Mittler Rebbe reveals that the roots of this policy dispute run deep.

Michael embodies kindness (chesed), and therefore has a natural tendency for unfettered beneficence. By contrast, Gavriel embodies strict judgement (gevurah), so his natural inclination is to act in strict proportion to one’s merits. Put simply, this means Michael and Gavriel have different values: Michael’s cardinal value is kindness, whereas Gavriel’s is strict judgement. So not only do Michael and Gavriel differ over how the kingdom of heaven ought to be conducted; they also disagree about the very values the kingdom of heaven ought to be based on.
What we see, then, is that the cause of Michael’s and Gavriel’s dispute is twofold. First, their goals are seemingly antithetical: Michael wants to grant beneficence in a gratuitous way, whereas Gavriel wants to reserve beneficence for the deserving. Second, their values (on which these goals are based) are fundamentally different: Michael’s driving value is kindness, whereas Gavriel’s is strict judgement. It is therefore only natural for their dispute to be unresolvable, for seemingly there is no common ground on which they can base an agreement or compromise.

The Mittler Rebbe’s analysis of the strife between Michael and Gavriel can likewise be applied to political intolerance. For example, opposing political parties or candidates are often charged with holding “un-American” values, or pursuing perverse goals for the country. So too, individuals find opposing political views to be incompatible with their goals or values. Just as in the case of Michael and Gavriel, political intolerance occurs because there is a perceived lack of shared goals or values, and this precludes constructive dialogue.

But, the Mittler Rebbe points out, there is a certain condition under which Michael and Gavriel can work together, despite their differences. This is when they are in the presence of G-d. As the Mittler Rebbe describes, this is like when two government ministers work together in the presence of the king. When they are before the king, the ministers are aware that although they differ in many respects, both are loyal to the same king, and both have been assigned by the king to administer the kingdom. Thus, they realize they share the common goal of administering the kingdom. They also realize the king has selected each of them to work on this task, despite their opposing values — in other words, that the king has selected them because each of their values are needed for properly administering the kingdom. In the case of Michael and Gavriel, this means kindness and severity must both be utilized to properly bestow divine beneficence — this bestowal cannot be totally without regard to merit, nor can it merely be what is strictly deserved — and they also realize that they share the overall goal of administering the kingdom of heaven. Recognizing these commonalities, Michael and Gavriel are able to work together.

This solution can be analogously applied to political intolerance. The key is for individuals to realize that both sides of the political divide are pursuing the same goals — for example, the betterment of the nation, and various particular goals, such as economic growth and the wellbeing of citizens. Moreover, they must also recognize that the different values underlying their positions are all critical for the healthy functioning of the nation.

The trick, then, is for people to recognize these shared goals and values, and use them as a basis for constructive discussion. For this purpose, we can use the “policy-goals-values-commonality,” or “P-G-V-C” approach to dialogue. In this approach, when there is disagreement over a policy the interlocutors should explain the broader goals they hope to achieve with this policy, and the values that make them prefer this policy. The aim of this approach is to find shared goals and values that can be a basis for constructive discussion regarding the policy issue. And even if disagreement over the policy issue persists, at least the interlocutors will understand each other’s positions in a way they can appreciate on the basis of their own goals or values.

For example, this could be applied to the recent debate over whether to allow refugees from countries that often harbor terrorists, and to what extent if so. Proponents of letting in more refugees argue this will save numerous lives that would otherwise be lost to war, and will also better the U.S. by promoting its humanitarian reputation. In contrast, those who promote tighter refugee policies argue that a tighter policy will save lives in the U.S. by guarding against terrorism, and will better the U.S. by increasing its security. Yet, we can see that both sides of the debate share the same two overall goals: saving lives and bettering the U.S. Additionally, the values underlying each of these positions are shared by both sides. A major value underlying a looser refugee policy is that of kindness towards others, whereas a major value underlying a tighter refugee policy is that of protecting one’s own. Everyone would agree these are both important values; so the debate is not over the values themselves, but only how to apply them. And once it is realized that there are shared goals and values that can be used as a common standard for evaluating policy, political discourse is able to once again be fruitful, and political intolerance fades as these points of agreement are revealed.

In summary, we can break down the steps for P-G-V-C based dialogue as follows:

Policy – What policy do you support regarding a specific issue? What is your interlocutor’s position?

Goal – What broader goal(s) do you hope to accomplish with this policy? What broader goal(s) does your interlocutor hope to accomplish with his/hers?

Value – What value(s) have led you to adopt this policy? What value(s) inform your interlocutor’s position?

Commonality – What commonalities are there among your goals and values and your interlocutor’s goals and values?

1 Toras Chayim, Bereishis, page 130b.
2 Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash.