The heaping praise that the political pundit class is justly awarding to the now deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for transcending politics in his personal relationships couldn’t come at a more necessary time in American politics. In the age of Trump and reality show-style presidential contests, anyone watching our political discourse can see that civility in politics has reached a nadir. Legitimate debates and discussions about hot-button issues have become sideshows to personal and ad hominem attacks. One gets the sense that these candidates don’t just disagree politically, but that they dislike each other personally. The bitter interactions among presidential candidates will only help to perpetuate the volatile culture of hyper-partisanship in Washington, and, not without a little irony, may derail any hopes of reaching an agreement to replace Justice Scalia in the near future.
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Scalia’s death prompted pundits to highlight his now-famous relationship with Jewish liberal justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. Despite their radically differing political philosophies, they remained close friends throughout their years on the court. They would attend operas together and their families would vacation together. Their off-the-bench friendship was so similar to a Romeo-Juliette bond that they even inspired an opera.
Yet there is also this beautiful sense of, almost Talmudic, dialectic in the way the two engaged in pilpul (back and forth) to help sharpen one another’s legal arguments. They scarcely agreed, and yet they had a healthy, mutual respect for one another’s intellect. When Ginsburg was voted one of TIME’s 100 most influential people this past year, it was Scalia who wrote that he could “attest that her opinions are always thoroughly considered, always carefully crafted and almost always correct (which is to say we sometimes disagree).” Over the years, Bader Ginsburg would pay similar compliments to her judicial foil. As the best of Talmudic hevrutot (Jewish study groups), they used one another to sharpen each other’s arguments and were the better for it. And they did not let their political disagreements affect their personal relationship.
In Jewish tradition we have our own Scalia and Ginsburg, who understood how to have a deep and healthy relationship with an intellectual or political opponent. They were named Hillel and Shammai. Living around the turn of the last century, Hillel and Shammai only disagreed five times, but the two set the precedent for the students from the Houses of Hillel and Shammai to disagree with one another a total of 316 times in rabbinic literature. Shammai’s school was generally viewed as more machmir, more stringent on matters of Jewish law, while Hillel’s was more meykil, lenient. In the end, we are told that in nearly every case, we are to side with the House of Hillel, who were viewed as more lenient. Yet, that is hardly the final word on Hillel and Shammai. For all of their disagreements on matters of Jewish law, the Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 14b teaches that “though those forbade what others permitted, Beit Shammai nevertheless did not refrain from marrying women from the House of Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Shammai.” Even though the followers of the two factions rarely agreed, they too had a healthy respect for each other. The idea of Jewish peoplehood transcended politics.
Watching the American political debates on television, I can only pray that someday the idea of American peoplehood will transcend politics. Rather than political, the differences currently feel like they are deeply personal: instead of saying he disagrees with her positions, Republican candidate Donald Trump called the Democratic Hillary Clinton, “in a certain way, evil”; and rather than sharpening one another in matters of policy, Trump and his rival for the GOP leadership Jeb Bush have gone back and forth calling one another “loser” and “jerk.” The relationship between Scalia and Ginsburg shows us a vision for a different direction that, instead of dividing the country, can bring us closer together. It is one where our sons and daughters would still marry, whether or not we disagree.
Dan Dorsch is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, and is a board member of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.