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The case for ‘radical centrism’

Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Can moderate voices adopt the passion often seen on the political and religious fringes?

Rabbi Avi Finegold

Founder, The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal

Rabbi Philip Scheim

Beth David B’nai Israel Am Congreation, Toronto

Rabbi Scheim: The current election primaries campaigns in the United States dramatically demonstrate the passions of the polarities, with candidates on the political extremes generating extreme emotions, often with scary results.

Of course, extreme positions are not only found in politics, but in religious circles as well, accompanied by intense emotional connection with faith. Those of us who labour in the centre often envy the passion of those further to our right. How do we infuse our moderation with the “hitlahavut,” the fiery enthusiasm of those more extreme in their practice, without sacrificing the perspective, the tolerance and the balance that exists in the centre?

Rabbi Finegold: Radical centrism, I like it! We should start a movement. Or maybe just a congregation.

I think you pointed out the paradox already – that the very balance we often seek comes at the price of tempering our passion for fear of losing the balance.

Radicals may be more willing to go for broke because they believe they have nothing to lose. By contrast, the centre has much to lose, since our message is often the first to get lost in the noise. This is the first step toward radical centrism, the articulation of what one stands for.

Polar voices come about when others want to convince the world of the objective truth of their positions. But we need to remember that personal autonomy and balance is not just an anything-goes position, it is about big ideas. It’s just that we are not trying to beat people over the head with these ideas. Perhaps we need to remember to beat ourselves over the head and realize that passionate ideas need passionate people.

Rabbi Scheim: I am writing these words in Washington while attending the annual policy conference of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Aside from the drama and extensive attention given to the appearance of the major candidates for the U.S. presidency, what is most striking here is the intense passion for Israel expressed by the 18,000-plus people in attendance.

In the case of a large percentage of the Jewish attendees, their passion for Israel likely does not extend to other aspects of Jewish life. Don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled by the passion directed toward Israel, and can’t begin to describe the excitement of being in a massive arena packed with lovers of Israel. I would just hope that some of that enthusiasm would find its way to core Jewish observance, and to serious Jewish learning as well.

I think you are right, much of the onus falls upon us – upon educators and religious leaders – to model the enthusiasm and the excitement that we want our congregants and our students to acquire. Should we teach Torah as literature, and not as “black fire on white fire,” we diminish the power of our sacred texts and tradition to shape lives.

Rabbi Finegold: A colleague of mine, upon witnessing the same AIPAC conference, pointed out that this is the first time that he feels like a “Galut Jew,” an outsider to a culture who is tolerated only so long as he votes the right way.

This highlights to me the downside of passion and radicalism. Passionate points of view and passionate leaders often deliberately exclude those who do not share their views and their passions. Donald Trump is a prime example of this. I would even go so far as to say that Trump is a haredi Republican. He is a paragon of isolationism and rejection of those who don’t share his radical views.

Thankfully, we in Canada do not have to make a choice regarding such a potential leader. And maybe Canada is the example that radical centrism needs – fierce pride in a shared sense of values while fully respecting, not just tolerating, the multicultural landscape we live in. Let us take the great passion that we can use to inspire and be very mindful of the balance that centrism requires.

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