A wise teacher of mine, Rabbi William Lebeau, always used to speak to us about the importance of synthesis when building new relationships. Too often during marital counseling, clergy talk with newlywed couples about compromise, when for many new couples fearful of sacrificing their individuality, compromise may be the last thing they want to think about when forming a permanent new bond with another person.
However, a Jewish marriage, and the building of sacred relationship, is all about synthesis. I remind engaged couples that when Jews engage in Talmud study together, we recall the back and forth arguments during study “pilpul,” which means “peppery” or “sharp.” When partners disagree, it is their responsibility to only do so for a constructive purpose: “to sharpen” ourselves to come up with the best possible pathway. Disagreeing in a healthy way is not always about compromise, where each side feels like it loses something, but about synthesis, which involves clarifying values and creating a “win-win” of values that is best for a new family.
Unfortunately, we all know that this “win-win” attitude is not the kind of relationship that exists in Washington D.C. between the president and Congress. During his State of the Union Address this past Tuesday, pundits from across the country noted that, for the first time in his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama firmly wielded the “bully pulpit” and threatened more than once to force his agenda, with or without congressional approval.
For many Democrats, this was seen as a positive development, and certainly, I cannot blame the president for feeling frustrated with a Congress so unproductive that it shut down the government. However, I also think that the president’s attitude in his State of the Union address reflected a terrible marriage in Washington - perhaps even an abusive relationship in government - that is unfair to the American people.
In a successful relationship, partners do not threaten to abandon one another and go it alone, just as partners do not refuse to work together to discuss disagreements. Indeed in American society, we expect our politicians to see their work as being part of a sacred covenant, or marriage, where they are expected to engage in pilpul, constructive dialogue, to find the best pathway forward for the country.
This is why if the president and Congress are truly serious about finding the best possible path for our country, they will need to change the way that they disagree with each other and learn to synthesize.
Despite what Obama may say, compromise has become a dirty word. Compromise is why politicians of all sides in this relationship are reluctant to budge - because somehow it implies that they are losing something of themselves.
When Jewish couples become engaged, we extend to them the blessing that they should zokheh to build a bayit neeman: that they should merit building a home based on having faith and mutual respect for each other. As Americans, we must demand that our politicians learn to have faith in each other as well. I cannot recall a politician ever being challenged by a constituent who accused them of “compromising” who responded by saying, “You may think I compromised. But what I actually did was to work together respectfully with those whom I disagree with to build the best possible home and future for your children.” It is about time that one finally had the courage to do so.
The president began his State of the Union by reminding everyone that it was we “the citizens, who make the state of our union strong.” Together, let’s use that strength to remind Washington that it has the responsibility to build a bayit neeman, and not to knock it down.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.