Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pluralism--Our Last and Best Hope

Last month I gave my posthumous endorsement (he's dead--I'm not) to Shimon Ben Zoma (June 16--Shimon Ben Zoma For President! Vote the Pluralism Party!). Ben Zoma was the young rabbinic student who lived almost 2,000 years ago and, according to Jewish tradition, is attributed with saying:

Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.

At this critical time in the history of our nation, the world, and the institutions we hold most dear, these ten words hold the key to success in virtually all of our endeavors.

Ben Zoma's question and answer provide the framework for pluralism--a word you really don't hear often enough.

The first person I ever heard use the word "pluralism" was my friend and teacher Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a founder and the long time president of CLAL--the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Yitz is an orthodox rabbi who was distressed by the tension and bad feelings that existed between many reform, conservative, and orthodox Jews. He believed that Judaism was actually made stronger by the diversity of interpretations of our central rituals and traditions. He used the word pluralism often to describe the joy and energy that we should derive from the opportunity to learn from one another.

For this great insight and others, Yitz has earned enormous respect in many circles. He has also suffered and been ostracized by certain orthodox groups who believe that his pluralistic approach represents an abandonment of "true" Judaism.

Please do not make the mistake of confusing pluralism with the two words that are often used in its place--tolerance and diversity.

Being tolerant means that we should not say bad things in public about people whose beliefs and practices are different from our own. It is suffused with the implication that we are dealing with inferior people and ideas. But because we want to be nice and keep peace in the community, we will agree to co-exist alongside these unworthy neighbors and not complain about it.

Showing an appreciation for diversity for its own sake is a bigger problem because it implies that we should be appreciative of people and ideologies simply because they are different without regard to their merit. It is an appreciation of diversity that causes some to refrain from criticizing barbaric practices that exist in other cultures on the grounds that it is not our place to criticize.

Pluralism seems to get it just right. It implies that we have a responsibility to establish our own moral standards and work hard to define our own "truth" regarding a variety of issues. But it doesn't stop there. We are also obligated to try to find the partial truth in the beliefs of others with whom we disagree. In some cases there might not be a lot of truth there, but it is our obligation and in our selfish best interest to approach each person or differing point of view with the assumption that there might be something of value there.

In the business world pluralism is now all the rage but they don't call it by that name. It is called seeking "best practices." Instead of assuming that we have all the right answers, business and education leaders are constantly trying to find the best practices of others (including their competition) and incorporate those systems into their own business plan.

There's another term for this. It's called "being smart." Because at the end of the day in a free market of ideas and capitalism, only the most excellent and best run businesses or schools will survive.

Unfortunately, most of our governmental, political and religious institutions have apparently not figured this out yet. But they'd better get with the program pretty fast because in most of these situations time is not our friend.

Instead of trying to learn from all people, most of our political and business leaders seem more interested in self-promotion while ridiculing and demonizing those who see things differently.

The most dramatic recent example of this self-defeating approach in the political world has been the Bush administration. In the weeks and months following the attacks of 9/11, Bush could have tried to gather all the best and brightest people around him to determine the best course of action on a broad range of issues including retaliation, how to protect the country going forward, what to do about energy, and how to take best advantage of the enormous outpouring of world support and outrage against our attackers.

Instead, according to dozens of Republicans and Democrats who have since spoken out, Bush surrounded himself with people who agreed with the decisions he had already made--to attack Iraq, develop an energy policy that would encourage Americans not to view conservation and keeping oil prices down as a priority, and to exploit the fears of most Americans as an opportunity to rewrite the Constitution and expand executive powers in unprecedented ways.

He packed the Justice Department with Right wing ideologues and graduates of Jerry Falwell's law school, he packed FEMA with college buddies and horse show judges, and he made it clear that the regulatory agencies designed to protect Americans from abuses in industries ranging from mining to banking to mortgage lending were going to let big corporations have their way on just about everything.

Instead of trying to learn from the many bright patriotic people around him with differing views, he sealed himself off from those people and branded them as naive, unpatriotic, and not aware that there are evil people in the world who want to destroy us. Valuable resources like Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill, General Eric Shinseki and Christie Todd Whitman were thrown in the trash heap because they weren't 100 percent on message all of the time.

We are all painfully aware of the catastrophic results of his approach. We have known about the failures in Iraq and the follow-up to Hurricane Katrina for years. Recently we became aware of the crisis in our financial services industry that was caused in part by the failure of regulatory agencies to regulate.

Another major area where we desperately need a pluralistic approach is in the development of an energy policy that will serve us well into the future.

Shortly after 9/11, columnist and author Thomas Friedman and others pointed out that our top national security priority should be taxing gasoline to drive the prices that customers pay much higher. His theory was that this would cut demand and drive the price of crude oil lower. It would damage all the evil nations that hate us and are trying to destroy us since they all get most if not all their revenue from oil. If we didn't take action to bring down the price of crude oil, we would be paying for both sides of the war.

As a result of ignoring this type of advice, Bush enriched himself, Vice-President Cheney, all of the oil company execs who met in secret with Cheney to set energy policy, AND every country in the world that is plotting our demise.

Even now, with gas here in Aspen over $5 a gallon and all of our most heinous enemies wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, there seems to be no place for pluralism or best practices in the energy discussion. McCain has come out for increased domestic drilling and a gas tax holiday and Obama has said that it is critical that we bring gas prices down.

But let's take a look at the warped logic here. According to even Bush, we are "addicted to oil" and need to curb our usage. It seems that $5 gasoline is finally cutting demand for oil and causing a serious look at alternative forms of energy. This is what everyone agrees we need to do for the future.

There's only one thing that could get in the way of this new momentum--a sudden and significant drop in the price of energy. If gas goes back to $3 a gallon, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and start driving their SUVs again. All the alternative energy projects will be scrapped. It will derail the progress we are making at finally getting serious about what we need to do.

And yet the political leaders of both parties are calling for just that--cheaper gas and lower energy costs. As Will Rogers once said, "when you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging." We are in a hole of energy dependence that has strengthened our most fearsome enemies. Now our political leaders are saying we have to keep digging faster than ever so we can stay in the hole.

Instead of having a nuanced discussion with all the best and brightest people at the table, we get slogans and demonization of the other. Those on each side believe they have absolutely nothing to learn from people with different points of view.

My friend and teacher Dennis Prager taught me a great deal about Jewish wisdom and many other things. He now is very political and a water carrier for the Right. He has stated publicly and often on his radio show that "there is zero wisdom Left of center." Dennis is a legitimate Jewish scholar but in his zeal to demonize the Left he has abandoned some critical Jewish teachings that, in a different time and place he probably imparted to others.

It was Dennis who taught me many years ago the warning that Yitz Greenberg gave to him--"Don't compare the best things about your religion (ideology) to the worst things about someone else's." Now Dennis along with the true believers of the far Left and Right violate this wise precept on a daily basis. It too is the opposite of pluralism.

As I write this, yet another of my friends and teachers Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (current co-president of CLAL) is in Madrid at the invitation of the King of Saudi Arabia who called a meeting 150 religious leaders from around the world to begin a conversation that will hopefully lead to increased dialogue and mutual respect.

Brad and the 20 other Jewish leaders at the meeting had been strongly criticized by a number of people who believe that their participation validates or lends credibility to those in the Muslim world who have perpetrated horrible acts of terror against Israel and other countries. There are many who believe that no good Jew should participate in such a conversation or attend such a meeting.

Brad is a unique individual. He is an American Jew who moved to Israel in his late teens to fight in the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank. In his two years living in Hebron, he fought the Palestinians and was a true believer in the need to preserve every inch of Israel for the Jewish people.

After a couple of years, he became concerned about the tactics being used by the settlers and what he was personally becoming. He returned to the U.S. where he was ordained as an orthodox rabbi. He now is in his third season of hosting a TV show called "Building Bridges"--the most popular weekly show on Muslin cable television. He has also written a wonderful book called "You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right." The title speaks for itself. This is pluralism at its best.

I believe it is valid to label people such as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Adolf Hitler as evil and deserving of the most severe punishment imaginable for their actions. At the same time, I believe in the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible which goes out of its way to point out that all people are created b'tzelem elohim--in the image of God.

It would be convenient if my tradition taught that the good guys were created in God's image and the really bad guys were the creation of the Devil or at least had succumbed to his evil influence. In many ways, it would make life less complicated.

But if you believe that the most wonderful hero and the greatest villain are all not just created by the same God but are created in that God's image, then I believe the text is telling us that we need to take a more nuanced approach. By the way, that same text has no problem calling for the death penalty for certain crimes. But we are first commanded to try to find the partial truth or learn what we can from all people--the one's we like and the one's we don't.

To deal effectively in a complex and nuanced world, we need to take advantage of best practices and get the smartest, most ethical people in the room as we try to sort things out.

My prayer for the coming election is that one or both of our presidential candidates gets that message and starts acting on it. My sense is that the one who does will win in a landslide.

If Shimon Ben Zoma were only alive today I'd feel a lot more confident.

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