Monday, June 16, 2008

Shimon Ben Zoma for President! Vote the Pluralism Party!

Now that Al Gore has finally declared his support for Barack Obama, I feel free to announce my desire to support Shimon Ben Zoma as the one man who has what it takes to be the next leader of the United States. There are really only two problems with this endorsement--Ben Zoma was not born in the United States and he has been dead for almost 2,000 years. If it weren't for those details, I'd vote for him in a second.

Ben Zoma was a young rabbinic student who died before he could become a rabbi but he lived long enough to make a huge contribution to the lexicon of Jewish wisdom. He is quoted in the Mishna in Pirke Avot--the Ethics of the Fathers--as saying:

"Who is truly wise? He who learns from ALL people."

This is the essence of pluralism. It is different from being bipartisan (the appreciation of two points of view) or advocating tolerance, acceptance, or multi-culturalism which are either condescending by their nature or celebrate diversity for its own sake. These approaches can lead one down the slippery slope of moral relativism which would keep us from labelling some behaviors "good" and others "evil."

Effective leaders will always have strong beliefs and opinions. Being pluralistic requires them to acknowledge that no matter how smart they think they are or how strongly they feel, it is unlikely--maybe impossible--that they possess 100% of the truth. Being pluralistic means search for the partial truth in the beliefs of all people--even those we might disagree with most and, yes, even those we find to be evil.

The Hebrew Bible commands us to learn the difference between good and evil and to hate that which is evil. But it also reminds us that all people are created in the image of God. It seems to set the stage perfectly for Ben Zoma's statement. We need to learn from all people--or at least try--since even the evil ones are created in the image of God.

What we get from our political leaders today is the exact opposite. They tend to stake out their position on an issue and then seek to discredit and demonize those who disagree. There has always been negative campaigning but Karl Rove took it to a new level with his vicious smear campaign against John McCain in 2000 and the devastatingly effective Swift Boat ads against John Kerry in 2004.

My friend and teacher Dennis Prager was a major role model for me in the 1990's and helped me get excited about Jewish wisdom. It was from Dennis that I learned of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg's warning not to fall into the trap of comparing the best things about our religion or political views to the worst things about those of others with whom we disagree.

Now Dennis repeatedly rails against Democrats and Liberals on his radio show and notes that there is "zero wisdom" Left of center while he ignores the shortcomings of Republicans and people on the Right. Like so many others, he spends all his time and energy demonizing those with whom he disagrees and violates Yitz Greenberg's rule on a regular basis. It is disappointing to see the man who taught me many of these insightful and useful rules violate them so blatantly himself, but that is what hatred and our polarizing environment has done to many people.

Barack Obama and John McCain both seem to be good people who don't like that type of thinking or campaigning but it is clear that they have fallen in line with their party leadership in the early stages of their campaigns.

It opens the door for Shimon Ben Zoma to move in and fill the gap.

Over the next few days, I'll be laying out what a pluralistic platform might look like on a number of key issues confronting the world and our country. Stay tuned.

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