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Psychology For Democracy (Part II)

Who decides who is one of "us" and who is one of "them"?

The following is adapted from the May, 2017 Jewish Baccalaureate Keynote that Dr. Paresky delivered at the United States Air Force Academy.

Source: 400tmax/iStockPhoto

As I wrote in Psychology for Democracy (Part I), “makhloket l'shem shamayim” is Hebrew for “argument for the sake of Heaven.” It refers to the particular kind of disagreement that forms the foundation of the Jewish view of civil dialogue — argument for the purpose of finding truth together. This kind of productive disagreement is fundamental to democracy.

Because the goal of argument for the sake of Heaven is to get closer to the truth, it requires the ability to acknowledge our differences while appreciating our common humanity. Embracing our shared humanity makes it possible to go beyond merely being “tolerant” of people who think differently, and see our discussion partners not as “one of them,” but as part of a larger “us.” After all, we are not taught to be “tolerant” of people who are part of “us,” we are expected to be “tolerant” of people whom we see as “other.”

Seeing those who disagree as part of “us” allows for what catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain described in the mid-20th century as “fellowship.” In contrast to tolerance, fellowship “conjures up the image of traveling companions who… journey through life — however fundamental their differences may be — good humoredly, in cordial solidarity and human agreement, or better to say, friendly and cooperative disagreement.”

The Biblical Psalm 133 says, Hinei matov uma-nayim shevet achim gam-yachad! “Behold! How good and pleasant it is to be together!” Hinei means “behold” or “look” or “see,” but “hinei” also means “here.” In the Torah, God calls to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “hinei ni,” which means, “here I am.” When Jacob has a dream that an angel calls to him, Jacob replies, “hinei ni,” here I am. God calls to Moses, and Moses replies, “hinei ni.” When God calls Samuel, Samuel says, “hinei ni.” When God is looking for a messenger, Isaiah responds, “hinei ni.”

But “here” is not really a place. No matter where we go, we are always “here.” We bring “here” with us everywhere we go. I've wondered whether hinei means “here,” and also “behold,” and “look,” and “see” because we can only see what we see from where we are — and we are always only “here.”

A perspective is a view from a particular place, and our perspectives are always the view from “here,” so when we ask ourselves whether our argument is for the sake of heaven, we might find the answer by asking ourselves where we place the person with whom we are speaking. Is that person “here” with us, or are they “there” separated from us? Do we see them as part of “us” or part of “them”?

When that person is “here,” we have the ability to see their perspective. We use our disagreement to search for truth together, and we cannot help but embrace the fullness of their humanity. When we engage with someone we see as “there,” on the other hand, the distance between “here” and “there,” no matter how physically small, is vast enough to cause division; to breed distrust and disregard. This leads to arrogance and a need for the other to be wrong — or even a need for them to be less than fully human. In the distance between “here” and “there,” we are not searching for truth. We are not even listening. In the distance between “here” and “there,” we argue for the sake of tribe or position or self-promotion; we argue to win and make the other person admit defeat rather than arguing for the sake of Heaven.

But when a person is “here” with us, we eliminate the distance of distrust. We become vulnerable enough to engage with humility, providing the opening for connection, curiosity, and dignity. In the space of “here,” we can listen. In the space of “here,” we can honor each other. In the space of “here,” we can search for truth together, even as we argue. In the space of “here,” we are privileged to argue for the sake of Heaven. “Here,” we can argue for the sake of democracy.

Whether someone is “here” or “there” has nothing at all to do with that other person. It is always only up to you. You choose whether to argue for the sake of self or for the sake of something greater. “Here” is your place; the place you bring with you everywhere you go. And in every moment, you are free to choose who is “here,” with you. ♦

Thom Morris/iStockPhoto
Source: Thom Morris/iStockPhoto

Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.


Maritain, J. (1957) Truth and Human Fellowship. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Various translations of Psalm 133 can be found here: