In recent weeks while visiting Latin America, I found myself reading about the “fiscal cliff.” I arrived in a country where people were taking to the streets to demand their government confront, yet again, an inflation rate they experienced as many times the government’s published number. Far from home, I heard rhetoric about the irreconcilable divisions between parties and points of view in the United States with a deep skepticism. We have much more in common than we care sometimes to admit. Americans live with a level of stability and transparency that few enjoy. We are ill-served by rhetoric of division that squanders the energies we need in order to do what America has always done at its best – to provide more opportunity for more people to have a better life and the dignity to choose it.
Jewish tradition emphasizes the need for a community to provide for the welfare of all of its citizens and to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are cared for and given adequate opportunities to overcome their challenges. However, also explicit in Jewish tradition is an appreciation of how complicated these decisions can be and the need for compromise in order to fulfill shared values.
Ten simple words of the Mishnah, the primary legal text of Judaism, speak to the current decisions facing our country: “public funds are collected by two and distributed by three.” They are collected by two in order to ensure first, that no one person should have exclusive authority to enforce communally levied financial obligations and two, to ensure honesty. A court of three is required for distribution of public funds because such decisions involve complex and competing demands – some urgent and some longer term, some for the needy and some for the public good.
It would have come as no surprise to the rabbis of antiquity that two parties with two platforms would repeatedly and inevitably come to an impasse in how they prioritize the needs of the community. Where three judges serve equally and together, the “partisan” nature of the decision is diffused. Jewish tradition, with its appreciation for the sanctity and complexity of human life, holds that differences of opinion do not show an absence of shared values, but rather attest to the passion and depth to which they are held. Jewish tradition assiduously preserves minority opinions – but it preserves them to a glorified end – their reasoning is engaged in other discussions so the system is strengthened by an argument’s defeat as well as victory.
The Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, guides that courts ought to actively seek – and prefer compromise in – monetary matters, rather than move to judgment. Judaism’s case-based methodology reveals repeatedly that most monetary issues are gray, rather than black and white, and a thoughtful compromise yields greater justice than a determination in favor of one side. Compromise is neither “partial concession” nor even “partial victory,” for either party, but a clear victory for the entire society, including the parties. Compromise allows values underlying decision-making to be reaffirmed for new times and new challenges. Where parties compromise, the people win.
The American tradition of government bears many affinities to the underlying notions of compromise and resolution of civil matters in Judaism. Both traditions have at their center a fundamental respect for the people who share the responsibilities of decision-making and the people on whose behalf decisions are made.
In a two-party system like ours, who comes to be that third decision maker? Can there be a third way where there is no third party? A strong strain in U.S. history demonstrates that the art of compromise itself has been that “third party” in our system that evolves through the creative tension of two competing views.
Locating the capital in Washington was part of a compromise to resolve a crisis between Northern and Southern states regarding debt from the Revolutionary War. The unique bicameral legislature that meets in the Capitol is the result of an early compromise between large and small states regarding legislative representation. Like the preservation of minority opinion in Judaism, the U.S. Senate with equal representation for all states is a legislative body that honors the full diversity of culture and region, rather than mere numbers, and in that way guides government in being responsive to all the people.
Differences of opinion over how strong the federal government ought to be, particularly in resolution of debt and levying of taxes to support national programs, goes back to our country’s founding. As we face the fiscal cliff between an election and an inauguration, we feel the need for compromise strongly. Over the course of our lives, we have all voted for candidates who won and others who lost, but when we walked away from the polls, we expected to wake up the next morning, to have the hospitals and schools open, lights on, contracts made and honored. In monetary matters, the American people view compromise as a victory for our government and our nation, because our treasured values must prevail so that we can address what lies ahead.
Of one thing we have always been clear – when we stand at the precipice of a “fiscal cliff,” we step back, affirm our shared goals and allow compromise to be the third judge.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly ,an international association of Conservative rabbis.