Am I still a centrist?

(RNS) — An anonymous teacher once said to me: “The problem of being in the middle of the road is that you can get hit by cars going in either direction.” 

Let’s talk about that.

For many years, I have prided myself on being a centrist, both in American and Israeli politics. I identified with the text from the Book of Exodus, about the parting of the Red Sea (or, Sea of Reeds): “The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14: 21-22)

I know all about those walls; I keep running into them.

How did I get into this predicament? Because I can see things from many different angles, hear a multitude of stories and narratives, to try to find the good and true in all those stories, and to see nuances.

I got this from my late father. He was a professional photographer. He disdained color photography, preferring to work in black and white. It was not because he believed the world was black and white (well, he did on some issues), but because he believed that real photographic artistry resided in the gray areas and the shadows. He would sometimes remind me that great photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Diane Arbus and Walker Evans also preferred to work in black and white.

That became the way I viewed the world as well. I preferred the gray scales of existence. In some ways, it became like that scene in “Fiddler on the Roof”: “He’s right, and he’s right — they can’t both be right.” To which Tevye responds: “You know, you’re also right.”

Tevye was, well, also right. Consider:

  • The Talmudic teaching, in which sages try to reconcile different views — eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim, “both these and these are the words of the living God.” Such controversies that were “for the sake of heaven,” like those of the sages Hillel and Shammai. Their disagreements on Jewish law and teaching would ultimately lead to two schools of ancient Jewish practice. But note how RASHI interprets that teaching: “There are times when one position is correct, and there are times when the other is correct.” Times change and those differing times call for different solutions.
  • The nature of truth itself. To paraphrase my friend and colleague Rabbi Elyse Frishman, in her commentary in “Mishkan T’filah”: Spell the word emet, truth. It consists of alef; the letter furthest to the right; mem, the letter in the exact middle; and tav, the letter furthest to the left. Truth, therefore, encapsulates all different directions of the human and moral compass.
  • The placement of the mezuzah on the door post on a diagonal slant. RASHI, the great authority of medieval Rhineland, thought it should be placed vertically; his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, thought it should be horizontal. A compromise was needed — and that is why the mezuzah is on a slant, to this day.

All of those arguments, texts and illustrations have been part of my centrist toolbox and they have worked very well for me.

Moreover, the protests in Israel have been, in large measure, the revolt of the center. They have unified elements of the political left and the right, as well as elements of secularists and traditional Jews (of every stripe).

But I will now freely admit there are some hazards to being a centrist.

First: The center is a lonely place. There seem to be fewer and fewer of us there.

Second: The center is a precarious place. It is very hard to sit at the top of an intellectual needle, and not topple off.

Third (and this is the real danger): Being a centrist — hearing and internalizing various political, social and cultural narratives — can all too easily devolve into being a relativist.

I have prided myself on hearing all sorts of stories, from all sorts of people who are on all sides of political and moral issues. That is especially because the societies I love — the United States and the state of Israel — are deeply divided and deeply polarized.

Screen grab from a viral “I don’t hate” music video portraying two Israeli Jews. Video screen grab

This came alive for me with that now-famous video from Israel making the rounds, as posted by Daniel Gordis. It is a music video, in which two Israeli Jews — one, Ashkenazic, secular and leftist; the other, Mizrachi, traditional and right-wing. “I don’t hate. I accept different opinions. Because to hate is not nice. But, my brother, I must be honest. In the last year, I don’t feel unity with you. Only division and incitement and condescension … ”

And then, the two antagonists go on to tell their stories and why the current situation is tearing them apart.

I affirm the pent-up anger on the part of Mizrachi Jews and the lower class in Israel. (Check out this interview with Hen Mazzig on this topic). Over the decades, and until relatively recently, the Ashkenazic elite effectively shut them out of power and influence. That is at the very heart of the cries for judicial reform.

Likewise, in the United States (the parallels are uncanny and chilling). I can understand the anguish of people whose jobs have disappeared in America’s heartland. I can understand there are many Americans who believe the American elites have diminished them. I can understand there are many Americans who long for what they believe to have been a simpler, better time.

Even so, in both cases and in both societies, if your sense of societal alienation pushes you into hatred and bigotry, then I will have to fight you on that.

The problem with hearing and internalizing so many stories from so many sides is that action can become confusing. If I see your point, and I see my point, what do I do? It’s good for conversation, but it leaves unanswered the question: “Now, what?” Or, to quote the old union song: “Which side are you on?

It is like the story of the Prophet Elijah and the confrontation with the prophets of Baal. At Mount Carmel, he confronts the Israelites who have been worshipping Baal, and he says to them: “‘How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!’ But the people answered him not a word.” (I Kings 18:21)

In the people’s silence, there was continued ambivalence and continued spiritual paralysis.

I am still a centrist, and I do not want my centrism to become either relativism or an excuse for inaction. I would like it to be a means to compromise.

In order for that to happen, it will require reason, patience and empathy.

So, how do we do that?

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