John McCain wasn’t Jewish, but he taught this rabbi something

Sen. John McCain embodied a Jewish soul, a Charlotte rabbi says.
Sen. John McCain embodied a Jewish soul, a Charlotte rabbi says. NYT

In 1999, I heard Senator John McCain speak while he campaigned on the Straight Talk Express. He answered questions with candor and honesty. I agreed with him on some issues. I disagreed with him on some issues. I admired his integrity and his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, even if they were unpopular to people within his own party. I joined his campaign. I was a wide-eyed college kid who wanted his brand of politics to raise the bar.

Senator McCain wasn’t afraid of taking on big issues in our country and our world. He was a conservative who believed in conservation. He had a true disdain for waste. He worked to create opportunities for people because he sincerely believed in human potential.

I ultimately came to disagree with him on many issues and was deeply disappointed by his later presidential campaign. However, I firmly believe that our world is a better place because of Senator McCain and our country is much poorer without him. While Senator McCain wasn’t Jewish, I believe he embodied a Jewish soul: he appreciated complexity and nuance – something sorely lacking in today’s leadership.

With everything going on in our country, we desperately want to live in the safety of our own ideological bunkers. We are living in a world of partisan echo-chambers: the absolute left largely only listens to the left; the absolute right largely only listens to the right. And the center — even the right- and left-leaning center — just gets quieter and quieter, tuning out the chaotic din of the outrageously opinionated and hyperbolic noise. The result: The very people who don’t hold extremist positions, the people who can see scales of gray, are falling silent and refraining from debate altogether.

Jewish tradition calls this, “disagreements for the sake of heaven.” Because, in a polarized world where sincere dialogue and debate are no longer treasured, we fail to open ourselves to the diversity of ideas and the rich creativity that comes from thoughtful discussion. That’s what Senator McCain taught me: Argumentation is the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

Senator McCain faced death with dignity. May his memory continue to light our path. May our voices, needed now more than ever, speak of hope and optimism. May we dignify the complexity of issues and diversity of ideas, with an understanding that nuance is not an enemy, but makes for better thinking. May we listen and learn from the wisdom of those who disagree with us, so that we can strengthen our city, our state and our country. And may Senator McCain’s family and friends find peace and comfort as they mourn their loss.

Knight is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte. Email: