From both Judaic and non-Judaic philosophy, we know the value of an open mind, the significance of respect for others and the importance of knowledge. Without these elements, we are incomplete human beings.
Hillel, when challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one foot, said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole of Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn."
Montaigne, an influential 16th century French Renaissance writer, expressed his belief that it is not possible to achieve absolute certainty, adopting as his motto, "What do I know?"
One of the beauties of Judaism is its questioning nature. A keystone of our religious heritage is that arguing about actions, beliefs and even tradition is legitimate. But what happens when we apply our heritage to how our political discourse is conducted? Would Hillel be impressed with the quality of the dialogue used when it comes to deciding how we govern our nation?
John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher, said the mind at birth is a blank slate — tabula rasa — and that knowledge is solely determined by experience. Oscar Hammerstein II perhaps summed it up best in a song from South Pacific when he wrote the words: "You've got to be taught to hate and fear."
An open mind does not require compromising values. It does mean, however, listening to and understanding the arguments of those with whom we might disagree. Too often, those who seek our votes tear down the ideas of others, rather than explain their own. Why do they do it? Why, for example, are campaign ads and political discourse so negative? Because it works! At best, we hear empty slogans instead of meaningful explanations. Why do we, as Jews, with our heritage of critical analysis of everything, accept this behavior?
Demagogues — whether they be Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — thrive on class warfare and public ignorance. To ensure that our republic remains intact for our children and grandchildren means obtaining and evaluating facts, not opinions — even if we do not particularly like the conclusions that result.
Knowledge requires the investment of time. How many voters understand the rules by which our government functions? Do they know, for example, that all tax legislation must originate in the House of Representatives and that although the president proposes a budget annually, Congress, not the president, determines how much money we spend?
As a nation, we have multiple crises facing us. Here are a few:
· Iran has accelerated its enrichment of bomb-grade uranium. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency has stated that Tehran is developing a triggering device for a nuclear weapon.
· Medicare is estimated to run out of money in 12 years. And Social Security is not far behind, going bankrupt in less than 21 years, three years sooner than last year's projection.
· Our unemployment rate is over 8 percent — and if we included those who have given up looking for a job or can find only part-time work, the number would be close to 15 percent.
· The United States is borrowing over $1.2 trillion a year. For those of you who, like me, may not be able to relate to $1.2 trillion, it is equivalent to over $3 billion of borrowing a day, or more than $2 million per minute, 24/7, 365 days a year.
And those are only some of the big crises. There are a myriad of other problems that get scant attention in the media.
As when we study Torah, a refusal to identify issues, gather knowledge concerning them and then thoughtfully evaluate all points of view are the components of a lazy mind.
If we do not insist that our current and would-be leaders present solutions, instead of criticisms — and if we, ourselves, do not face our national problems with an open mind, respect for the views of others with whom we may disagree and a commitment to knowledge — our challenges will consume both us and those whom we love.
And that unquestionably would not be in keeping with the values of our Jewish heritage.
Robert M. Rubin of Huntingdon Valley is a retired senior executive of an international chemical company, an author and public speaker, who has served on multiple civic boards.