Compromising on “Principle”

“Those are my principles!” famously declared Groucho Marx. “And if you don’t like them, well… I have others.”

Principles are important, to be sure. But Groucho wasn’t entirely wrong. There are principles… and there are principles.

For a believing Jew, of course, religious principles are sacrosanct. And there are high principles, many in fact derived from Judaism, that have come to be embraced by much of humanity.

But there are also things that people, including religious Jews, may call principles but which are really just preferences, inclinations or stances. And it is important to keep that distinction, well, distinct.

What musters that thought is the language that flowed forth after the agreement between President Obama and Congressional leaders on a budget deal. Commentators pontificated about this politician “standing on principle,” that one “abandoning his principles,” a third being sent to the principal’s office (okay, maybe not).

That undeserved elevation of economic and political views to high principle yielded much rhetoric. Vice President Biden was reported to have said that tea party Republicans had “acted like terrorists,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) called the deal a “Satan sandwich”; and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) labeled those who disagreed with his position “arsonists.”

The New York Times editorialized that the deal represented “capitulation to… hostage-taking demands.” Columnist Tom Friedman called the tea party the GOP’s “Hezbollah faction.”

The vitriol was a bit much. But, of course, it was over matters of principle—at least in the eyes of the vitriolic.

The one word that was treated as an expletive was “compromise,” which, of course, in the end, well described the deal. It was the ninth word (the nine including “Good afternoon, everyone”) uttered by President Obama in his brief remarks announcing the agreement; and he repeated it several times.

To some, the compromise was lopsided, hence the anger at the president from within his own party. But a compromise it was, and it had to be.

In Judaism, compromise is no uncouth word; it is in fact something of a high principle itself.

The Shulchan Aruch, Jewish law’s mainstay-text, states: “It is a mitzvah to ask litigants at the start [of their case] ‘Do you wish [for the case to proceed through] strict law or compromise?’… Every court that regularly delivers compromises is praiseworthy.” (Choshen Mishpat, 12:2)

Thus, the coming together of two parties, each of which agrees to not stand on “principle” (i.e. position), is the Jewish ideal. Likewise when it comes to “principles” like one particular economic theory over another, or this political philosophy vs. that one: the praiseworthy path is compromise.

Every special day on the Jewish calendar is a “learning moment,” an opportunity to glean a keener appreciation of the concept that attends it. Tisha B’Av is past, but as we move on we should carry its message: The evil of baseless hatred, the sort of factionalism and infighting that preceded the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdosh, or Holy Temple.

Our Orthodox Jewish world today has its share of the same, of course, which is surely why the Temple has not been divinely rebuilt. And while true Jewish principles may never be compromised, many contemporary disputes are based on illusory “principles”—personal positions, not timeless truths.

We approach a happy day, Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Jewish month. It is a day of rejoicing, the Talmud teaches, partly because of the breaking down of barriers between Jews. So many contemporary barriers masquerade as principles. Recognizing that they are not, and appreciating compromise, are worthy things to carry from the ninth of the month to the fifteenth. Not standing on personal “principle”—whether with our spouses, our friends, our business partners, our employers, or our employees—is key to reversing what we mourned on Tisha B’Av.

Because the willingness to compromise is a true Jewish principle.


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

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

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