When I officiate at a wedding, I typically encourage the parents to bestow blessings upon their children. In addition to the Priestly Blessing, often the parents read a blessing in English that I provide to them, found in the Rabbinical Assembly Rabbi’s Manual, including the lines: “When you speak with your beloved, may you always know the joy of companionship. When you see each other, may your eyes be filled with wonder at the miracle of your love. When you disagree, may you always think of compromise.”
I began to be curious about the etymology of the word “compromise,” noting that it has the word “promise” in it, and I wondered if it originally meant something like “promise together.” I looked it up and discovered that in fact, the original meaning of the word “compromise” is a promise that is made by two disputants, at the same time, that they will abide by the decision of someone else who is acting as the arbiter of their dispute.
The word “compromise” is unusual in that depending on its context, it can have either an extremely positive valence or an extremely negative valence. In a sentence like “when you disagree, may you always think of compromise,” the word “compromise” sounds beautiful, harmonious, and peace-building. But everything changes when the word is used in other contexts: “She had to compromise her principles,” or “He was found in a compromising position,” or “The situation necessitated a moral compromise.” In these sentences, “compromise” sounds like something you would never want to do if you’re an ethical or principled person.
Some rabbinic commentaries on the Torah portion of Shoftim, from the middle of the book of Deuteronomy, focus on when we ought to seek compromise and when we shouldn’t. The best-known line from the beginning of that Torah portion is “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) A discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 32b) revolves around the verse’s unusual repetition of the word tzedek (“justice”). One suggestion is that the first reference to the word tzedek refers to din — “judgment,” the obligation to be strongly principled — while the second use of the word tzedek refers to p’sharah, “compromise.”
The Talmud goes on to present some scenarios to illustrate why sometimes we ought to make decisions based on “judgment” and our strong principles, and sometimes we ought to be willing to compromise. Two camels are approaching each other, in opposite directions, at Ma’alot Beit Horon, a narrow mountain pass not far from Jerusalem, and they can’t both get through. One of the camels has to back up so that the other one can get by. Or two boats approach each other in a narrow canal; one boat will have to back up so the other can pass. Sometimes it’s clear which one should back up and defer to the other. For example, if one boat is laden with cargo and the other boat is empty, it makes sense for the empty boat to back up and to defer to the boat that is full of people or cargo.
But sometimes the two boats, or the two camels, are both “in the right,” and there is no obvious choice about which one should defer to the other. In such a case, if you adopt the perspective of din, strict justice, they both will stay exactly where they are, neither one will back up, and the result will be gridlock. Because of their strong adherence to principle and to justice, neither boat gets where it’s going. The only way they will actually get to their destination is to develop some kind of compromise — for example, one camel (or boat) backs up, allowing the other camel (or boat) to proceed, in exchange for some small compensation, so everyone is happy (enough).
But it’s harder in the real world, where compromise with one’s adversaries often feels like treason to one’s principles. The judicial crisis in Israel, and any number of political controversies in the United States, highlight that our societies are becoming ever more polarized, and common ground is ever harder to find. It is hard to point to any successful human endeavor that did not require some degree of compromise. But that compromise almost always is painful.
Rashi comments on this Talmudic passage: “You shall pursue justice when it’s appropriate, and pursue compromise when compromise is appropriate, and you should not pursue one of these more than the other.” I take these words to mean that periodically, each of us should audit our personal balance of din and p’sharah. If we find that we’re always compromising, perhaps we should strive to stick more strongly to our principles. If we find that we are rarely compromising, though, perhaps we ought to show some more humility.
Maybe the extreme discomfort of compromise is actually an advantage, in that it keeps us from compromising too quickly — while hopefully not completely preventing it. When that pain keeps us from compromising altogether, we become like those gridlocked camels at Ma’alot Beit Horon, each expecting the other to back up, while both camels and their drivers become increasingly frustrated and furious.
Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken (Conservative) and the Interim Rabbi in Residence of the Academy for Jewish Religion.