Ancient Sages May Have the Key to Saving the Republic | Opinion

While the public struggles with an oppressive sense of impending economic and political breakdown, three quarters of Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. To make matters even worse, a newly released Gallup Poll reflects the growing fears of a corresponding collapse of national morals.

According to the late May survey, an all-time high of 50 percent of Americans rate the "overall state of moral values" in the United States as "poor," with 78 percent expecting the situation to deteriorate even further in the years ahead. Only 12 percent view the moral state of the union as positive, while those who choose the lowest characterization ("poor") outnumber the lonely few who consider our situation "excellent" by a ratio of 50 to 1.

Considering all the other challenges confronting the republic at this painful, polarized juncture, we surely face more urgent problems than negative assessments of society's moral health. But any improvement in the perceived state of national values will help to heal a host of other difficulties and dissolve, or at least dilute, the prevailing mood of gloom and grievance.

In that context, we should apply timeless wisdom from an ancient source to diminish the destructive impact of our deepening divisions.

The Capitol dome
A view of the Capitol dome on June 21, 2022, in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

"Judge people favorably and give others the benefit of the doubt," urges a celebrated Talmudic dictum (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6) derived from the Oral Law some 1,800 years ago. Jewish tradition never demands that believers must altogether avoid judging others — or themselves. Evaluating the ideas, associates, and behaviors we encounter in our lives is not only inevitable but can also be a healthy and constructive means of growth. If we view the world around us with grace, generosity, and gratitude, we will not only uplift the relationships among people around us but also enhance the connection between humanity and God. "If you judge others favorably, so you will be judged with favor," (Shabbat 127b) says another oft-cited passage in Hebraic scripture.

Unfortunately, our political discourse at the moment seems to exemplify precisely the opposite inclination, with all sides and every faction instinctively assuming the very worst of one another.

Consider the ferocious debate over the regulation of firearms: liberals accuse conservatives of gun-obsessed fanaticism that leads them to cherish their weapons more than they value the safety of their kids; conservatives fear that the left seeks to disarm law-abiding, patriotic citizens so they can magnify the malevolent, exclusive power of government.

On the abortion issue as well, the contending parties see their opponents as not only misguided and mistaken, but as downright evil: pro-choice advocates insist that pro-lifers feel a sick need to control the private decisions and bodily autonomy of America's women, invoking images from The Handmaid's Tale; conservatives accuse abortion defenders of a Nazi-level blood lust on a Holocaust scale, with millions of innocent infants sacrificed to the cause of undermining traditional families.

Even with explosive, polarizing issues like these, the principle of Dan L'Kaf Zechus — judging with the benefit of the doubt — doesn't mean abandoning your convictions or forcing yourself to respect arguments that you find offensive and outrageous. The "doubt" that's appropriate here doesn't pertain to your own opinions, but to the intentions of those who disagree with you. Presuming a sincere and reputable basis for that disagreement makes it easier, not harder, to prevail in debate and, on occasion, even to persuade your adversary of the value of your point of view.

Abraham Lincoln may have never counted as a rabbinic sage, but nonetheless reached conclusions that echoed the traditional Jewish approach. "If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend," he declared in his remarkable Temperance Society address of 1842, when he was 33. "Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself... you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw."

Not every politician can be a Lincoln, either in terms of character or rhetorical gifts, but certainly today's officeholders could all do better than the squalid, accusatory attacks and the hyper-partisan demagoguery that currently poison the national discourse. Another recent survey (by Tulchin Research for the Southern Poverty Law Center in late April) showed 63 percent of Republicans identifying Democrats as "a threat to the country," while 67 percent of Democrats believed the same about the members of the GOP. Nearly a quarter of both parties said they "approved of assassinating a politician who is harming our country or democracy."

In this climate, conspiracy theories of every sort take root and flourish, and as they do, the negative assumptions about opponents come more and more to resemble evil abstractions, growing steadily darker.

We all gain by viewing our neighbors more positively, wherever possible, and finding the most generous available explanation for why their political loyalties differ from our own. That honorable, ancient approach brought up-to-date amid our current controversies and confusions, could again redound to the general benefit, and there is no doubt.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.