Overcoming Polarization in the Aftermath of the Election

Published in the November Issue of the Reflector
Amy Melnick-Scharf, JCRC Chair

Rabbi Yitzhak taught that "A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted" (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a)

Voting is an expression of being Jewish

When I think about democracy, I see a concept embedded in the very fabric of Judaism. This deeply entrenched ethic of political participation has led Jews to engage in the democratic process.  Throughout history Jews vote at rates higher than the national average.  For this we should be very proud, though not surprised. As Hillel taught "Al tifros min hatzibur, Do not separate yourself from the community" (Pirke Avot 2:5), demonstrating that it is our responsibility to play an active role in public affairs and in the process of choosing our governments leaders. The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a).

This year in Virginia, and in all elections in the Commonwealth moving forward, you have had many options available to cast your ballot. As of October 15, at the time of this writing, over 1,000,000 Virginians have voted! That is incredible and represents over 25% of all votes cast in 2016. Many voters, including me, appreciated the many options available, due to worries about going to potentially crowded polling stations on Nov. 3 and risking exposure to the coronavirus.

I urge you to VOTE (in person, early, or absentee) both as an American and as a Jewish American. I also encourage you to research and appreciate the great care the Virginia Department of Elections and local Registrars have taken to ensure the integrity of our elections. These professionals, are working hard in all 95 counties and 38 cities to ensure every vote is verified, secured, protected, and counted.

If anyone  says they know what is going to happen on election day….or the day after….they don’t. However, our country has been through tumultuous elections and uncertain times before  – when election outcomes were not readily apparent. Our Jewish tradition is based on debate and dissent – we celebrate both and in many ways dissent is upheld as something vital and necessary. Torah scholars have enshrined minority opinions in the Mishnah. Having vocal distinctive minority opinions is a part of our Jewish and American traditions. We must however work to insure they do not fracture our community. It is ok that some of us may be disappointed about the outcome of the election but let us not disagree about the future and the support of our democracy. It is my hope that when we disagree, we do so with respect for each other as members of our community-each of us who care deeply about our families, our friends, our city, our Commonwealth, and our nation.

Combatting the Polarization Pandemic

Our community has come together to combat the coronavirus pandemic – let us now join together to combat the pandemic of polarization. Micah Goodman, Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute, suggests that the high level of polarization is due to our “collapse of curiosity”. We are no longer 

intellectually curious about the other side. We are trapped in a polarized political world fueled by social media algorithms that feed our soul with confirmation bias. This constant polarizing onslaught leads us away from content that nourishes the soul and instead makes us feel emptier and more depressed than ever. Goodman asserts, and I agree with him, that it is this polarization (from both the right and the left) that is threatening our democracy (and some say our mental health too). The constant social media compulsion to fear and hate those of different opinions or backgrounds is threatening to drive our community apart. A true community is based on a shared love and caring for each other (our friends, our children, our parents, extended family and our neighbors). Polarization creates a community too, but one that is based on hatred and separation.

How to combat polarization?

After the election, we will need to transcend our political differences and opinions and focus on healing our community, helping our community, and working together on the challenges that confront us. Witnessing each other’s lives….the life cycle events, holidays, community gatherings and events, births, b’nai mitzvot, weddings, graduations and yes, even funerals, is where we come together and create these shared connections. Through these shared experiences we celebrate – we acknowledge; kvell; express our gratitude and yes, sometimes to mourn and ….it is during these shared community events (virtual or in person) where political affiliation seems almost insignificant. 

Belonging to our Community can liberate us from loneliness – participating in polarizing speech does the opposite. So what can we do?

  • As COVID leaves many of us alone  – remember that we are not alone – we are part of a warm, thriving, caring Richmond Jewish community. Reach out and call a friend or a neighbor, psychologists have proven that these connections make a difference.
  • Join one of the amazing virtual gatherings happening weekly, if not daily, throughout our community.
  • Recall that throughout our history what unites us as fellow Jews is stronger than what tears us apart.
  • Use your social media voice and consume carefully. Take care not to harm each other. Words can cut and they can also heal – be a healer. Be curious about the “other”.

Our political future today is uncertain, of that I am certain. However, my belief in our democracy is strong and my belief in the strength and caring of our Jewish community is even stronger.

Judaism’s tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16).

We will all have work to do after this election, will you join me?