Center Field: The benefits of doubting – in the Senate and during Sukkot

Ethics of the Fathers 1:8 advises, “Consider them both guilty,” when judging two litigants.

US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, September 27, 2018 (photo credit: JIM BOURG/ REUTERS)
US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, September 27, 2018
(photo credit: JIM BOURG/ REUTERS)
During the ugly week that was, when most Americans viewed messy realities through over-simplified, polarized, partisan blinders, one man wavered constructively.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, delayed the Senate vote on the Supreme Court nomination so the FBI could investigate the sexual assault charges against Brett Kavanaugh. Responding to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the sexual trauma she endured as a teen and Brett Kavanaugh’s fury at the reputational damage he is enduring now, Flake said the dueling, heartfelt, accounts left him “with as much doubt as certainty.” Such nuance, has President Donald Trump calling the independent-minded senator, who is retiring, “Flake(y).” Actually, healthy democracies need nimble, nuanced leaders – and citizens – who give others the benefit of the doubt and can appreciate the benefits of doubt, too.
Flake has resisted Trump-Republican orthodoxy before. When the bigoted, teenage-girl-dating-when-he-was-in-his-30s Roy Moore ran for Senate, Flake tweeted “Country over Party” while donating $100 to Moore’s Democratic opponent. Trump, of course, never doubts himself, boasting to the UN, “My administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Increasingly, more self-righteously but less buffoonishly, Democrats don’t doubt themselves, either.
Ethics of the Fathers 1:8 advises, “Consider them both guilty,” when judging two litigants. Instead, Democrats favored Ford as blindly as Republicans favored Kavanaugh. Deviants from their party’s line were repudiated. Those who noted that Ford lacks corroborating evidence and isn’t sure what year the assault occurred, were accused of dismissing any woman who was ever assaulted sexually anywhere, anytime.
‘‘Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me,’’ a protester who cornered Senator Flake in an elevator shouted, making a now-ritualized but frighteningly totalitarian leap from specific situations to sweeping universals. Simultaneously, Republicans swallowed Kavanaugh’s preposterous spins, claiming that loutish high school references celebrating drinking and disrespecting women were benign expressions, even compliments.
By defying his colleagues, Flake slowed the process – to help legitimize the outcome for either side. I wish one Senate Democrat demonstrated similar nerve and denounced Senator Dianne Feinstein for manipulating the timing of Ford’s charge or acknowledged the messiness of proving old allegations. And how many more articles must pronounce what “all” white males supposedly feel, when millions of white male Democrats detest Kavanaugh – or what “all” women feel, when millions of Republican women support him.
We don’t need mushball leaders standing for nothing, but the fanaticism inflaming modern politics – in America, Israel, and elsewhere – is scary. Politics is not theology and rarely pits good against evil. Our political platforms should be more like sukkot – rooted in eternal values, clearly defined, temporarily functional, yet open on all sides, flexible, and just a tad flimsy, inviting some uncertainty.
The benefits of doubting, acknowledging messiness, leaves some room for compromise, some tolerance for your opponents, some opportunity to refine, to evolve. Yet another all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway, political dustup will leave America more divided, more paralyzed – and thus weakened, demoralized.
 As most Americans veered left or right into their respective, rival, partisan fortresses, I experienced a delightfully messy Israeli Sukkot. One day, my family and I attended a beautiful bat mitzvah on Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Reflecting Israel’s own orthodoxies, Israelis would categorize our hosts as hiloni (secular) – meaning not dati (religious). Our friends don’t call themselves masorti traditional, because they don’t belong to the Masorti movement, but we ate kosher food in a sukkah in the desert – romantically evoking the holiday’s origins.
Perhaps Israel’s non-religious silent majority, juggling tradition and modernity, should be called Messerti – from messer (message), Hebrew for a “central idea to convey” or “information to pass on.” They’re not nothings, they stand for something. “Messerti’s” similarity to “tradition” in Hebrew and “messiness” in English are pluses.
The next night, I participated in a mass Zionist Salon in Beit Tefila Yisraeli’s wonderful, ecumenical, Messerti Giant Sukkah in Tel Aviv’s Port. The event, co-sponsored with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, also represented the delightful mix Israelis live daily but the media ignore. Israel-Prize-winning educator and social activist Adina Bar-Shalom recalled municipal authorities offering to block her father Rav Ovadia Yosef’s street from traffic on Shabbat when he lived in a mixed secular-religious neighborhood. Modeling the expansive broadmindedness we need, Rav Yosef responded, “What traffic? I never noticed.”
In that spirit, Rabbi Sharon Shalom recalled fleeing Ethiopia as a nine-year-old, seeing larger-than-life Israeli frogmen emerge from the ocean to “take me home to Israel.” These superheroes embraced the Ethiopians with tears. Finally, Esteban Gottfried, who, with Rani Jaeger runs the Sukkah and weekly Friday night services welcoming everyone on the port, acknowledged Israel’s many miracles – while demanding more tolerance of fellow citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
These activists aren’t wimps. They’re benefit-of-doubt givers. Without being ambivalent about who they are, they don’t fear life’s ambiguities.
The last night of Sukkot, before starting Simhat Torah with hassidim, I hosted another Zionist Salon with 100-plus participants of Kol Ami, the Jewish Agency’s six-month leadership mechina, wherein Diaspora Jews and Israelis live and learn together.
“You’re not supposed to exist,” I chided them. “All we hear is that Israelis and Diaspora Jews are divorcing each other.” My sarcasm invited these young bridge-builders to join an international, countercultural cult of passionate doubters, people who stand for something but can stand others who disagree with them, too.
Democracy cannot flourish when everyone is frozen in polarized positions. It sprouts amid doubt and true diversity – of ideas, not biological traits.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” the writer is author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.