In English, the problem with the concept of compromising seems to be baked into the word itself.
The noble ideal of compromise is settling a dispute by everyone making concessions as they work toward the greater good, which is the ability to move forward together, if not in lockstep then at least in the same general direction, in peace.
The ignoble idea of compromise is to “accept standards that are lower than is desirable,” as the dictionary puts it. In that sense, to compromise means not to negotiate, not to imagine what the person on the other sides feels, wants, or needs, but simply to settle, because it’s easier, because your hand is weaker, because it’s somehow embarrassing or tiresome not to attempt adamantine, unmoving resolve.
In other words, the idea of compromise has become itself a compromise.
That’s unfortunate, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes thinks.
His synagogue is offering a panel discussion on the idea of compromise on Thursday, May 10. (See box.)
“I am doing it because it seems to me that the topic is at the heart of a lot of the conflict that we see in society and government now,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We are living in an increasingly polarized society; the political parties are increasingly radicalized and polarized. Compromise is the way out of this hole we have dug for ourselves.”
Compromise is part of the America ideal, he said. “I think that the American Founding Fathers designed the government as bicameral and three-branched, and our government evolved into two parties, because all that demands that we find common ground.
“The Founding Fathers saw compromise as one of the chief virtues of public leadership,” he added. “Because human beings have selfish interests and personal agendas, and the public good demands that we take as many of our fellow citizens into account as we can in trying to identify the best road forward.
“Look at the Declaration of Independence,” Rabbi Prouser, an American history buff, added. “It is a whole list of attempts to communicate with the British crown, and to find some way of identifying common ground and allowing the colonies to go forward as colonies, rather than as an independent nation or a series of independent states.”
(After its rousing beginning, where Thomas Jefferson laid out the inalienable rights that all people have, the rights whose denial inexorably would lead to revolution — those Creator-endowed rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the Declaration becomes a drumbeat list of times when the colonists have tried to govern themselves while remaining a colony — when the colonists have tried to compromise — only to have those offers rejected.)
“Those attempts to cooperate and communicate were rebuffed,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It was in response to that, in response to an absolute monarchy, that the founding fathers realized that the voice of the people had to be heard. Even at that stage, that included a diverse spectrum of perspectives. They realized that the only way to hold the center was for the extremes to approach and to speak to each other.
“And there also are obvious applications to the Jewish world,” he added.
On the other hand, “Barbara Bush once famously said, ‘I hate the fact that people think compromise is a dirty word,’” Rabbi Prouser said. “It can be used to suggest a character flaw or moral shortcoming, where in many circumstances it is a virtue, or a sign of character or strength.
“Sometimes there is not a common ground that people can reach on any given issue. Sometimes you do have to suffer painful losses on principle, and see it as a moral victory. I see that as an area of moral literacy that is widely lacking.”
Cantor Michael Kasper is the director of placement, recruitment, and cantorial studies at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers; he is also a psychotherapist and social worker, and it is in that second capacity that he will be on the panel at Emanuel.
“The human mind has a bunch of functions, and there are tons of brain research that show that when you get right down to it, compromise is probably the essential part of what the mind is asked to do.
“If you go back to Freudian psychodynamics, you will remember that he divides the mind into id, ego, and superego, but the word that almost everyone in the world knows is ego. In the classic Freudian system — which you can sign onto or not — the part of the mind that wants what it wants is the id, the part of the mind that decides that whatever you want, it’s a bad idea, and you should be punished for it, is the superego, and the part that decides the conflict between what you want and what you think you should get is the ego.
“The ego is working itself to bone every second of every day trying to figure out how to get those other two parts to work together.
“Most of the time, the ego works pretty well, but we all know people who are egocentric, and others who have a weak ego and can’t fend for themselves. The ego is supposed to be that part of the mind that takes care of the person.”
To do that, the ego must cause the other two parts of the brain to compromise. And if you can’t compromise within yourself, how can you compromise effectively with anyone else?
“Without compromise, there is no society,” Cantor Kasper said. “There is no society. There is no civility. It is essential to humankind, because without compromise there is anarchy.”
Given its usefulness, why have we managed to cast compromise as the province of wimps? Why do we see it as a bad thing? “Because we still operate in a binary world,” Cantor Kasper said. “That’s why computers work so well. Everything is either good or bad. You either win or you lose. The art of compromise is having the ego resolve the question of having only to win or to lose. It’s a way to have a partial win and a partial loss and to be able to live with it. When we allow ourselves or are forced to think in a way that is only binary, that makes compromise impossible. Then we always feel that we are on the brink of extinction — and our current political climate captures how well that way of thinking doesn’t work.
“Old adages don’t become old adages for nothing,” Cantor Kasper said. “The idea of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes is very important to me, but it seems to me that it counts for a whole lot less in 2018 than it did in, say, 1918.” That was not everyone’s idea of the perfect year — the Germans surrendered to end World War I, thus bringing World War II closer, and the influenza pandemic killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people around the world — but at least the war ended.
So the adage about standing in someone else’s shoes — “We don’t hear that much anymore,” Cantor Kasper said.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to imagine other people’s situations — and thus be able to compromise as we move toward the shared good, away from the purist’s harsh truth.
Still, there are some issues about which no compromise is possible; issues about which people genuinely could be compromised should they choose to compromise. The panelist will consider how to identify and respond to them.
The panel will feature two other speakers as well as Cantor Kasper and the moderator, Rabbi Prouser. Kim Guadagno, New Jersey’s former lieutenant governor and the Republican candidate for governor in the 2017 election, will talk about compromise in politics. Rabbi David Wise of the Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center in Queens, who is a former member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, will talk about compromise as it relates to Jewish life.
Or, as the 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke said (and Rabbi Prouser quoted him as saying), “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser, the Honorable Kim Guadagno, Cantor Michael Kasper, and Rabbi David Wise
What: Will be on a panel, “Compromise: Vice, Virtue, or Moral Imperative?”
Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey,
558 High Mountain Road in Franklin Lakes
When: On Thursday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m.
How much: Free
For more information: Call (201) 560-0200 or go to