Never Talk About These 2 Things at Your Dinner Table?

When I was growing up the common wisdom was, if possible, to avoid conversations of religion and politics around the dinner table. The thinking went that those two topics were precisely the ones that would cause the most amount of divisiveness, contention and friction within the group. They are topics that do not allow always for easy resolutions and quick solutions to dilemmas and debates. Why open up that kind of Pandora’s box unnecessarily? What should you talk about instead? Anything! The weather would be a great topic to choose. Everyone can equally complain about the heat or cold or rain or humidity.

As my life progressed and I chose the rabbinate as my life’s work, what was I to do now? As a rabbi how could I not speak about religion at the dinner table? Would it be advisable or even possible to segment that entire dimension of myself away from every social interaction? Furthermore, should we shy away from discussing politics as well? If we can’t avoid religious discussion topics, surely we can put politics in the forbidden column!

The answer is, of course, absolutely not. In choosing openly to discuss religion and politics around my dinner table I am making a conscious decision. In fact, I am making a values decision. One of the leading figures of the Russian Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement in the 19th century was Yehudah Leib Gordon. In one of his poems he coined the well-known expression: “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.” This line was a passionate plea to bifurcate a person’s life between the secular and the religious; the civic and the Jewish. In acting according to that dictum a person would be asserting that their are two separate values systems they operate by — a Jewish one and a secular one. The domain of the Jewish system is the private and the personal while the domain of the secular one is the worldly and the public.

When we choose not to shy away from religion and politics around our dinner tables we are proclaiming that Jewish wisdom has value and merit to these discussions. Religion is not solely the pursuit of the individual within her or his own psyche but rather part of an ongoing dialogue within community. I share my thoughts and reflections in order to be reflected upon; for others to interact with my ideas and refine them, argue with them, agree with them.

In the same way, politics, whose root comes from the Greek word for “relating to citizens,” is surely a topic that Jewish wisdom, tradition and heritage has much to offer. The Jewish ethical voices from the centuries on topics such as power, powerlessness, military and diplomacy, social welfare, free enterprise and a wide array of areas in public policy have a great deal to contribute to ongoing dialogues and debates in our society. Additionally, the very fact that Jewish tradition is so often multivalent presents us the most positive of challenges: To formulate our opinions and strongly held convictions while respecting that others may arrive at different conclusions and learning how to have productive dialogues between us and others.

The presidential primary season is well underway. Passions are running high within all corners of the United States. Let us not shy away from these conversations when we gather together as family, friends or community. Let us strive to cultivate dinner tables that infuse Jewish wisdom into these most important of topics and that model the Jewish tradition of genuinely hearing and making room for multiple possibilities and ideas.

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