The Rabbi Had a Point

One of my favorite stories is the one about the Rabbi of a small shtetl, or village, who was asked to mediate a quarrel between two residents. He listened to one side intently, then said, “yes, you are right.” Then he listened to the other man’s position, and said “yes, you are right.” A bystander protested. “Rabbi, they can’t both be right!” To which the Rabbi replied, “You also are correct.”

What I love about that story is that it underscores a point often missed in our toxic political culture: no one has a monopoly on being right. Or wrong. As I frequently remind my students, reality can be complicated. The right answer will often depend on context, on factual distinctions and how the question is framed.

Over the weekend, I read David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal and it reminded me of the Rabbi’s lesson. The book is excellent; it deserves the plaudits it has received. I don’t necessarily agree with every conclusion he draws from the considerable research he has consulted about the nature of the human animal, but his is a plausible, reasonable reading of available evidence.

At the end of the day–for me at least–the book made a case for a more social, more communitarian approach to government. I have long been leery of communitarianism, the argument that we are all socially embedded creatures who require an agreement about the ultimate ends of life. (The practical problem with communitarians is that many of them tend to be statists who would hand over to government the power to choose our life goals.   Marxists tried that and it wasn’t pretty.)

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that we have traveled a very long way toward radical individualism, and those results aren’t pretty either.

If the Rabbi were mediating this debate, he might say to the libertarians among us  “You are right that the state should not prescribe your beliefs and social behaviors.” He might also say to the communitarians “You are right that humans need a community to be a part of, a community that you help support and that helps support you”

Onlookers might protest that both things can’t be right, but in this case, I think they would be wrong.