In his famous introduction to Sefer Breishit, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, or the Netziv, writes that the people of the Second Temple were “righteous,” “pious” and intensely involved in Torah study. However, they were not upright in their relationships with others, either in their actions, thoughts or speech. Therefore, because of the unwarranted hatred each one had for the other, one would falsely accuse another of heresy, simply because the other’s religious expression and way of respecting and showing reverence to God, was not in accordance with one’s way. The one whose way was different was thereby labeled a non-believer and considered cut off from authentic Judaism, even though that person fulfilled the Torah’s commandments.
In this passage, the Netziv explains that the baseless hatred that existed during the Second Temple period was a lack of tolerance for each other’s religious beliefs and expression. Judaism encourages passionate debate and dialogue, but at the same time requires respect for one another. Even under the guise of religious fervor, passion that leads to hatred is misplaced passion. Unfortunately, this message is often lost in countless unending religious battles among different streams of orthodox Judaism, both in America and certainly in Israel.
Here in America, with the general election season underway, the message of the Netziv is so salient and should resonate with us with great force in the political arena. We live in a country that is experiencing tremendous divisiveness and polarization. It often seems that we cannot have meaningful conversations about the presidential elections because we are called anti-Israel if we support one candidate and supporters of hate if we support another candidate.
Why do so many of us, in supporting our chosen candidate, become blinded to his or her flaws? Why do we become unable to appreciate any element of value in the other candidate? It seems as though our political passion comes with a set of blinders, taking typically thoughtful individuals and rendering them unable to appreciate nuance, unable to consider anything outside their own party line. The views of our friends who are sitting next to us in shul, whom we deemed to be logical, rational people just weeks before, are now categorically dismissed as irrational, illogical, and completely without any redeeming merit.
Why do so many of us fall into this cognitive trap?
The answer lies in a powerful but beguiling cognitive construct, called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is premised on the notion that we like to think of ourselves as consistent, and therefore become uncomfortable when it seems as though we are being hypocritical. When we find ourselves in situations where our attitudes, beliefs or behaviors are tested, the sense that we are not being “true to ourselves” produces a feeling of discomfort, or dissonance. In an effort to restore our internal sense of consistency, we may consciously or unconsciously opt to ignore information that creates discomfort.
Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger arising out of a participant observation study of a cult that believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. When the flood did not happen, the most intensely committed members of the cult were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along and the earth was supposed to be destroyed by a flood but was only not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members. They couldn’t acknowledge that there was no chance that the flood was ever going to occur because that would cause them too much internal cognitive inconsistency.
Important decisions require constant evaluation and re-evaluation. As thoughtful individuals, we should not only be open to, but welcome cognitive discomfort as an internal clue that our existing conceptions deserve reevaluation. Politically and religiously, I urge each and every one of us to practice a little humility in our thinking and recognize that it’s okay to at times be uncomfortable with our own strong, passionately held positions. This is not a weakness in character; just the opposite is true. It is in these moments that growth occurs!
Humility is a key ingredient to teshuva, to true change, to true repentance. Being open to dissent is a sign of strength and actively seeking nuance will only make us stronger. During these Three Weeks, let us not repeat the divisive actions of our ancestors during the Second Temple period. Let us each respond to our own moments of discomfort, not by doubling down on our beliefs or by shutting down debate. Let’s instead use these moments as an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster relationships, even with those with whom we disagree. In this merit, may these three weeks be the last we mourn and may we find ourselves celebrating the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, speedily in our days!