Getting a Second Opinion

Back in the 1970s there was a one-of-a-kind, short-lived magazine called “Schism.” It contained nothing but reprints of news articles from widely diverse sources. It was an eye-opening periodical, as it laid bare a plethora of perspectives well beyond those available in mainstream newspapers and newsmagazines of the time.

Some of the viewpoints – I recall in particular several emanating from Arab and Asian countries – were infuriating; the lenses through which the writers viewed the world were weirdly distorted. Others, though, made a reader think a bit, even question some assumptions. Whether the issue was the war in Vietnam or gun control, it was deeply educative to be exposed to different points of view. One was able to at least “hear” even opinions with which one, in the end, disagreed.

Today, of course, it is easy to find very different perspectives on any issue, if one is inclined to seek them out. Few, though, do. It’s more common to hear people these days say “Oh, I don’t read that” or “I never look at him” – simply because the “that” and the “him” represent points of view at odds with those of the speaker. And so political conservatives don’t dare miss Rush Limbaugh; and liberals hold tight to their copies of The New York Times. They are all poorer for not realizing that greater gain is to be had from meeting another point of view than from exulting in having one’s own opinions duly seconded.

Needless to say, there are ideas from which we, as observant Jews, rightly insulate ourselves. The focus here, though, isn’t on things heretical or licentious, but rather on social and political issues.

Most of us have some opinion about, say, the death penalty. But thoughtful people, whatever their conclusions, realize that there are entirely legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of the issue.

Why should taxpayers be burdened with keeping horrible people fed and housed? Do such people even deserve to live? Executions deter other would-be criminals, and can provide victims’ families a measure of solace.

Yet, killing any human being, no matter how dismal an example of the species, is a grave deed. And mistaken convictions have sent innocent people to their deaths.

Some dismiss the first set of points as callous and pandering to a lust for revenge. And some dismiss the second as weak-willed and overly sensitive.

Thoughtful people, however, don’t dismiss either. They acknowledge the validity of all the points. And then they simply weigh them on the scale of their consciences and make, if they choose, their personal judgment.

What brings the thought to mind is the reaction some readers had to a column that appeared in this space several weeks ago. In it, I sought to stress the importance of having all the relevant information when taking political positions – using President Obama’s record as an example, pointing out a number of laudable, but largely unrecognized, decisions he has made regarding Israel and religious rights.

Among the large number of responses to the essay I received were some from people (admirers and detractors of Mr. Obama alike) who related that they had indeed been unaware of the information I had cited, and who thanked me for the essay’s message. Others seemed to miss the message but praised or berated me (depending on their personal feelings about the president) for “defending” Mr. Obama.

My intention, though, was not to judge the president one way or the other, only to point out that judgments require – and so often lack – all relevant information. The vehement negative responses, though, reminded me of a different, if related, imperative of reasoned discourse: the willingness to recognize that different people can have different perspectives.

The Gemara teaches that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their attitudes.” The Kotzker is said to have commented on that truth with a question: “Can you imagine disdaining someone because his face doesn’t resemble yours?”

One hopes no one could.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: [email protected]

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