Brisket, High-Waisted Pants, and the Policy Process: Advocacy as an Argument for the Sake of Heaven

“Can’t we all just get along?” No. And we shouldn’t – at least not if getting along entails going along with ideas, policies, or conditions that we know no longer serve us or benefit humanity. Think about it for a moment: When do we go along? I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you about me. I go along when I’m not invested, when the stakes are small, or when none of my core values are challenged by the situation at hand. I go along when I’m (apparently) the only one who thinks the brisket was stringy or that high-waisted pants should be relegated to the clothing bins of history. These are arguments that I am unwilling to pursue because neither I nor anyone else will benefit by the energy I spend in dissent. But I cannot say the same when it comes to the welfare of my neighbors or when someone or something I love is threatened. On the issues closest to my heart, consensus is too costly – I care too much to go along.

The truth is that consensus is not always the product of agreement; it is just as often an outgrowth of apathy. Conflict, similarly, is not always a problem. Conflict often emerges from a place of deep caring. Given this, our cultural preference for consensus over conflict is puzzling. Anytime we see a problem and refuse to remain silent, anytime we speak up on behalf of someone who cannot speak for themselves, anytime we dare to seek to change we must first risk conflict; we must say out loud, “I disagree.” If you are anything like me, mustering the courage to do this requires something more on the hook than stringy beef or regrettable fashion. To pursue conflict, I must care. For me to care, the stakes must matter. In this, I suspect I am not alone. In addition to protecting and providing for our families and loved ones, my intuition is that we care most about the problems that have proven intractable: poverty, hunger, bigotry, war. And when it comes to the intractable, reasonable minds disagree about solutions. Were this not the case, we might have resolved some of these issues already – particularly in light of all the caring that is done on their behalf.

Perhaps this is why we are told in Pirkei Avot that “Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure.” Arguments for the sake of heaven, machloket l’shem shamayim, are those that go on without end. These are the arguments that matter. There will be another brisket, and high-waisted pants will give way to some newer trend – I hope – but once the poor among us have starved to death there is nothing we can do to resuscitate them. And we have always had poor among us. So first we will do as we have done since the days of the Torah: we will risk conflict when we argue to feed them. If the past is prologue, we will then argue over how often and how much. And on it goes.

Conflict is the birthplace of new and better ideas. Progress itself is a series of ruptures – disagreement, debate, coalescence around something better and new – until the next rupture begins the process again. This is the essence of an argument for the sake of heaven. It is the process, an endless process, of making things new, making things better, and tearing down old structures to make way for the bigger and improved tent. There is a right way to do conflict, of course. Constructive conflict is more than picking our battles. We are told that machloket l’shem shamayim are characterized by careful listening in lieu of defensiveness; by the search for truth rather than the anointment of a victor; by the maintenance of relationships over time and the will to avoid the temporary satisfaction of setting bridges aflame.

This is also the nature of advocacy. When we engage in advocacy, we seek out officials on both sides of the aisle in hopes of pressing our policy agenda but also in search of opportunities to listen and be heard, to discuss and debate, and to participate in the never-ending work of government. When we engage in advocacy, we link ourselves to the generations of people who have come before us to the halls of power in pursuit of something better for themselves and for their neighbors. When we engage in advocacy, we remain mindful that the policy process is an opportunity to generate new and better solutions, not a forum for the crowning of winners and losers. When we engage in advocacy, we keep as a priority the maintenance of relationships, preserving the right to debate and perhaps disagree again on another day. When we engage in advocacy, we remember that governance has no beginning and no end – support or opposition around one bill or issue will give way to support or opposition regarding the next.

This is also, of course, very Jewish. If it is a mitzvah to care for the poor, then it also a mitzvah to both feed them and to argue on their behalf when they don’t have enough to eat. This is holy argument, conflict rooting in caring. This is a Jewish gift to politics and the planet. It is the legacy of Jacob, who cared enough to wrestle. It is the legacy of Esther, who cared enough not to know her place but instead to risk the wrath of a monarch in order to save her people.

Finally, this is the legacy of Hadassah. It is the legacy of a founder who looked at the squalid living conditions in Jaffa and said, “This won’t do;” a founder inspired to put nurses in charge of public health and who dared to open a hospital thirty years before statehood; a founder who, when sitting for her portrait, said, “Make my eyes look to the future” – a place where things would be different.

As members of the Seattle Hadassah Advocacy Committee, we engage in arguments for the sake of heaven by advocating on behalf of Hadassah policy priorities with our elected officials. We promote gender equity in medical care and medical research, ask for resources that will put an end to sex trafficking, and always, lobby for a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. In doing so, we strengthen our bond to Hadassah, to our sisterhood across the country who are engaged in these same discussions, and to the Jewish tradition of the holy argument itself. The only prerequisite for participation in our committee is caring. If you care about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, you are welcome. If you care about health care and health policy, you are welcome. If you care about ending the sale of human beings, you are welcome. We don’t need to agree on the subtler points of policy or on all policies to work together. All communities, our committee included, are made stronger by people who care enough to say, “I disagree.” That is, in fact, the entire point. Hadassah is a large tent. Our committee is a large tent. Join us. If nothing else, we can debate brisket and the future shape of pants.

B’Machloket L’Shem Shamayim,

Kindra Cooper
Chair, Seattle Hadassah Advocacy Committee