It is interesting that you see the opposite of compromise as "standing by your principles," because there are many opportunities for compromise where a principle need not be involved. In civil court cases, for example, the Talmud often favors peshara, compromise, over din, finding the exact "right" solution. Especially in the complex business environment of our time, peshara is often better all around than trying to determine who was exactly "right," when that "right" is not easily clear at all.
On the other hand, where a principle is actually involved, we have a thornier problem-- the point of principles is that we hold them to be vital and indispensable, otherwise they shouldn't be principles. So if, for a silly example, I like to set the table with forks on the left of the plate and someone else thinks forks should go on the right, it would be a shame if either of us made a principle out of it. Similarly (and more significantly) we may have strong views about how the economy will work out best, but those are, generally, our best guess as to what will produce the best outcomes. There may be some principles underlying that (such as the extent to which we worry about the consequences of our policies for certain segments of society), but much of the debate is about practicalities.
Even when our principles are offended, we can find ways to interact that are productive and yet do not involve giving up on our principles. Jewish society found ways, for generations, to interact comfortably and without tension with people they deemed to be idol worshippers. While those compromise modes of interaction did not accept the other's idolatry, they found ways to interact without making an issue of it. On the other hand, they would never allow themselves to do something that demonstrated an agreement with that other view.
In the political realm, then, I think Judaism would urge us to find modes of compromise, of reaching workable solutions that did not and do not violate our principles. To do so, we might have to put up with much behavior we find less than optimal, many roads we find less than perfect, but that accomplish enough to be worth it. Compromise while standing by those of our principles we absolutely cannot imagine leaving behind, I think, is the way to go.
A great example of plurality and compromise in Judaism comes from the Talmud, in a story about the first recognized rabbis, Hillel and Shammai.
“For three years the House of Shammai disagreed with the House of Hillel. these ones said the law is according to us, and these ones said the law is according to us. A Divine Voice went out and said, ‘These and these [ i.e. both] are words of the living God’, yet the law goes according to the House of Hillel.
After (God said) ‘these and these are words of the living God’. Why did Beit Hillel merit to set the law their way? Because they were pleasant and taught (both) their own words and the words of the House of Shammai.
And not only that, but they put the words of Beit Shammai before their words.” (Talmud Eruvin 13b)
Here, we see that civil discourse, politeness, teaching both sides, and disagreement in general is the Jewish way. One-sided ranting, stubbornness and the attempt to ram your own opinion down the other side’s throat is inappropriate and anathema in this example.
Moreover, the Talmud, our central repository of Jewish tradition, law, morality and lore that is the basis for all modern Judaism, is not a dry book of single-viewpoint platitudes, but a cacophony of voices; a digressive discourse where different sides are taken and we all ‘agree to disagree’.
On most occasions, the rabbis allow both a majority and minority opinion to stand, and the followers of an individual rabbi are still free to follow their ‘rav’, despite it’s standing outside the mainstream. This ability to live alongside a fellow Jew who does not practice as you do is a pure example compromise that we still see today, in the different observances of Sephardim, Ashkenazim and Haredim; Reform and Orthodox; many voices, one people.
And on many occasions, rabbis would bend each their two views to come to a full compromise- Hillel and Shammai, for instance, on a certain measure of Challah required for a sacrifice; or Rabbi Yehoshua and other rabbis moderating a series of draconian mourning rituals after the destruction of the Temple to a more moderate series of observances.
Judaism not only embraces compromise; it was built on it.
Rabbi Laura Geller
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Since the election, there has been a lot of talk about compromise in Washington. What does Judaism teach us about the need to compromise vs. standing by your principles?
Judaism teaches that you need to both stand by your principles and compromise at the same time. But before you even get there, you need to listen to the other point of view. The Talmud tells us that while the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and violence, the Second Temple was destroyed because of incivility, baseless hatred, and the inability to listen to each other. Compromise is a high value; the reason we affix a mezuzah at an angle is because of compromise. Rashi taught that the mezuzah should be placed vertically; his grandson Rabbeinu Tam thought it should be horizontal. That’s why our mezuzzot are tilted at an angle. A subliminal message from this compromise is that shalom bayit, peace in the home, requires that everyone in a home be willing to compromise.
What is true in our homes is also true with political discourse. And yet here is the tension. Should one really compromise principles for the sake of peace? Shouldn’t justice take precedence over peace making? Maybe things are never quite that clear. "Where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no strict justice." (Talmud Sanhedrin 6b.) One might argue, as the tradition seems to do, that a good compromise is actually justice moderated by peace.
Perhaps the most honest answer to the question requires a case-by-case analysis. Sometimes compromise might not be possible, but one can only arrive at that conclusion after serious dialogue and real listening. Remember that shalom is not only the absence of conflict, but also the combining of opposites to create wholeness.
Oseh shalom b’mromav, hu yaaseh shalom: May the One who makes shalom in high places help us listen to each other deeply enough to find creative compromise that represents the blending of justice and peace.
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