The Antidote To Polarization

We are living in a time of great polarization.  On some issues we may feel 100% “right” and that a large group of “other” people are incontrovertibly wrong.  At other times it feels like there is no truth, because both sides of an argument are too simplistic to be right.  If only people would listen to each other, we might feel, compromise would be possible.

This conversation could apply to a wide range of issues facing us today.  But if you think about it, the polarization is actually larger than the issues themselves. It seems to overtake relationships and honest conversations and encompass more issues as time goes on.  Some have said that we’ve broken into tribes and it only matters what our tribe says is true.

Jewish mysticism has something to say about this kind of polarization, which in Hebrew is called machloket. Sarah Yehudit Schneider, a mystical Jewish teacher in Jerusalem, reveals that all disagreement springs from paradox: when two perspectives which are mutually exclusive are, paradoxically, both true.

According to Jewish tradition, paradox – and the polarization it causes – happens when a large piece of wisdom – larger than our small minds can understand – is entering the world from a higher, more spiritual level. It is a truth that we need. But in entering the physical plane, this large truth, which cannot be contained by our small understanding of reality, splits into two mutually exclusive half-truths, which are contradictory but both true.  Attachment to one of the half-truths, and not being able to see the truth on the other side, is the source of all disagreement in the world.

From this perspective, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the mutually exclusive half-truths that have been dominating our global conversations recently.  The two conversations are something like this:

  • Truth #1: I need to take care of myself. I am fully responsible for my actions. Others should be fully responsible for their actions and choices as well
  • Truth #2: I am part of a larger community (organization, neighborhood, country, humanity, or planet). I am responsible for taking care of that larger community, and they are responsible for taking care of me.

While at times these views may seem mutually exclusive, they are both true.  We are both fully responsible for ourselves and for each other.

A recent Torah teaching illuminated this point for me.  In Deuteronomy, right before the description of all the Jewish holidays, we’re given a seemingly contradictory instruction.  In regard to the shemittah year (which is beginning now in Israel), we are instructed to cancel all loans. “This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not press his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the LORD..” (Deut. 15:2) The text goes on to say,

There shall be no needy among you…For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised you…If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs… Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the LORD your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land… (Deut. 5:4-11)

The text seems to include a strange, contradictory instruction. We should give to the poor, and if we help the poor there will be no poor, and if we help the poor we will be blessed… and there will always be people who are poor.

The Torah here is illuminating the paradox mentioned above – the struggle between our needs and responsibilities, and those of others. Am I an independent person with needs and wants, or am I part of a larger collective? The text says: Both. It matters that you are an individual, and, if you take care of your neighbor, you will be blessed both as an individual and as a community.  You will not lose anything by giving away what you have to another; in fact, you will gain.

Across the world, on a wide range of issues, we are falling into the trap of thinking only one perspective (the one that seems most accurate to us) is true.  People who lean toward the truth of personal responsibility may be called selfish and uncaring. Those who lean toward the truth of interdependence may be called irresponsible or naive. Both sides refuse to see the other half of the truth – perhaps afraid of what they might need to give up if they do. A sense of urgency on a wide range of issues makes holding onto our side of the truth seem all the more important.

From a spiritual perspective, we could say that a larger wisdom is trying to enter our world and we are struggling mightily with it. How can we overcome this challenge?

Sometimes spiritual growth is about understanding what is deeply true for us, and sometimes, it’s about having a view large enough to see the truth in a point of view that is the opposite of our own. 

One does not have to give up one’s own view of the truth — only to be willing to discover the truth in both sides of the paradox. It is possible to expand one’s view to incorporate both truths, and this is where wisdom lies.

This is different from compromise, in which both sides give something up. In the context of paradox, it is possible to fully embrace a particular course of action which is aligned with a truth we didn’t see at first, because, after consideration of both half-truths, we recognize it as the best way forward. Or perhaps a new possibility will emerge that was impossible until both truths were understood.

To practice this mental expansion, one could start by reading news sources presenting different views, or by asking someone with a different perspective to explain their view without shutting down what they have to say. What solutions could meet the needs of both views? 

Our polarized world is filled with the noise of half-truths and crying out for practical solutions. This year, may we find a way to receive the full wisdom, and discover the solutions we need, together.


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