Embracing Complexity

This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in November 2017

Did you know that the largest organization in the world that supports the teaching of evolution and opposes the death penalty is the Catholic Church? Political conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of climate change, while political liberals more often distrust genetically improved foods (GMOs) – both positions are at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Free-market libertarians, government-skeptical conservatives and left wing liberals all want to see police reform that respects individual rights, particularly on asset forfeiture, where property suspected in a crime can be confiscated without due process. And in the Jewish world, there are Orthodox Jews who support a two-state solution and secular Jews who are die-hard West Bank settlers.

In the hyper-partisan era in which we find ourselves, it would be much easier for us if the lines were bright and clear, if everyone on “our” side believed all the same things and “their” side was uniformly terrible. Of course, the realities of human life and personal belief and behavior do not match what we might prefer. Anti-semitic sentiments are expressed by both the nationalist far right and the internationalist far left – a plague on both houses. No one group has a monopoly on good ideas, or the one true description of human nature and society. An important part of our Humanism is to accept that we do not have all the answers, and that we have to learn from each other.

At Kol Hadash, one of our semi-serious slogans is that we are “like-minded people who don’t think alike.” We have a similar approach to life, to knowledge, to Jewish culture and identity, but we do not insist that everyone agree on everything. In fact, I would be nervous being part of a group where everyone agreed on everything. This being so, we have two challenges. First, what are the shared values that unite us strongly enough to generate positive shared action? And second, how do we, who celebrate diversity, handle diverse opinions in our own community?

If you browse our website, you can find a new page under “Activities” called Values in Action. There you can see what we’ve found that can unite the community in doing good: helping a battered women’s and children’s shelter with basic human needs like food and toiletries; a holiday gift drive for the disabled; fleece blankets for children facing medical treatment; feeding the hungry. By focusing our attention on these basic human needs for shelter, food, clothing and personal dignity, we’ve been able to do good while also creating community solidarity.

We are of many different opinions on many different subjects. That is the challenge of creating a community of individualists. It is also our strength – embracing the complexity to agree on some issues and disagree on others. This is a more realistic way to journey through life, which is more often a spectrum than either/or. And it is a path towards doing good on causes we value – the more allies on a specific issue, the better. If we demonize those whose help we need, why would they work with us on causes we share?

It can be much easier to be “the true believer,” in Eric Hoffer’s memorable phrase. But that will not lead to the world we want.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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