Mutual Incomprehension: What Response?

Shabbat Chol Hamoed
October 22, 2016—20 Tishri 5777

            Now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are behind us, we can talk about the elephant in the sanctuary that has been looming all fall: the presidential election in 17 days.

            The presidential election, oy.  Actually, double oy.

            The first oy is that our two major party candidates are the most unpopular major party candidates in American history.  About either of them a reasonable person could make a blistering critique.  For many Americans, this election is not about which candidate I like more. It is about which candidate I dislike less. That is an oy.

            But there is a double oy. This election has revealed all too painfully the torn social fabric of our country.  So much vitriol. So much bile.  Those who will vote for him, and those who will vote for her, stare at one another with mutual incomprehension.  Each says to the other: how can you possibly vote for your candidate given that candidate’s lengthy list of misdeeds? 

            This mutual incomprehension is not just a matter of red state and blue state, of coastal and  heartland.  This mutual incomprehension exists here, within our own community, even within our own families.   

            On November 8, the election will be over.  But what will be the continuing impact of the divisiveness, of the tearing of our social fabric, of the mutual incomprehension, the morning after?

            Can we put into a Jewish framework the thinking of the person who is going to do the unthinkable: vote for the candidate whom you dislike even more?  How do we understand and respond to that move?

            One of our tradition’s most important teachings is that God created all of us b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  The Mishnah in Sanhedrin makes an analogy to the Denver mint.  When the Denver mint mints copper pennies, every penny is the same.  Same form. Same content. Same value. Same thing.  But when God mints human beings, God makes a miracle.  Every human being is made with the same template—tzelem Elohim, the image of God—and yet every human being is different.  No two human beings are the same.

            What happens to this lofty teaching—we are all different, yet our difference is holy—when we encounter the messy real world? 

            This week the Washington Post profiled a man named Derek Black.  Derek Black came from a family that was aristocracy in the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don Black, created Stormfront, the website for white nationalism and white racism. His godfather is David Duke.  Derek Black was raised in this movement and was called by many “the heir.”  He was home-schooled, which meant that white nationalism was the focus of his education.  From an early age Derek helped his movement think about how white nationalists could take over the Republican party.  As a precocious teenager, he would say: “The way ahead is through politics.  We can infiltrate. We can take the country back.”

            When it came time for him to go to college, Derek attended New College of Florida, in Sarasota, which was multi-cultural—a very different world from the white nationalism in which he had been reared. At some point, it came out on campus that Derek Black was a leading white nationalist. There is a racist in our midst.  This created a tempest, a public conversation about how to respond.  Some suggested ostracism. Shunning. Public humiliation.   

            But one student took a different tack.  This student, named Matthew Stevenson, was an Orthodox Jew.  He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek Black’s radio show.  And his response was not shunning, humiliation, or angry encounter.  Rather, he sent him a text message:  What are you doing Friday night?  He invited him to Shabbos dinner.

            Now this was far from obvious for Matthew.  He went back over Derek’s posts, and they were frighteningly filled with hatred:  the hatred of KKK and David Duke and neo-Nazis.  These were some of his posts. I quote:  “Jews are NOT white.” “Jews worm their way into power over our society.” “They must go.”

            Why would Matthew invite the writer of these vile posts to Shabbos dinner?  Because it occurred to Matthew: “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before.”

            It was the only social invitation that Derek received, so he accepted the invitation, a white nationalist at a Shabbat dinner table.  He came, and he kept coming, week after week, and month after month. The godson of David Duke was doing Shabbos dinner, meeting with, listening to, hearing the stories of, Jews and students of a wide variety of backgrounds.  Seeing their faces, hearing their stories, began to have an impact, and he began to question the prejudices that he had been raised with.  His own thinking started to soften and to evolve.

            After graduating, he went home to visit his parents.  They were talking about “enemies” and “comrades” in the “ongoing war,” and he realized that that is no longer who he is.  That night he went to a bar, took out his laptop, and wrote a statement:

A large section of the community I grew up in believes strongly in white nationalism, and members of my family whom I respect greatly, particularly my father, have long been resolute advocates for that cause.  I was not prepared to risk driving a wedge in those relationships.

After a great deal of thought since then, I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism.  I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.

The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all.  I am sorry for the damage done.

When he completed his statement, he clicked send.

            When his father Don read the statement, he said to his son: “You got hacked.”  To which his son replied: “It’s real.”  As the story made news—the son of a leading racist renounces white nationalism—Derek was disowned by his mother and his siblings.  His father Don was deeply torn.  On the one hand, he loved his son Derek.  On the other hand, he hated his son’s renunciation of core white nationalist beliefs.  The article ends with father and son having a cup of coffee and talking politics.

Don, who usually didn’t vote, said he was going to support Trump

Derek said he had taken an online political quiz, and his views aligned 97 percent with Hillary Clinton’s.

Don said immigration restrictions sounded like a good start.

Derek said he actually believed in more immigration, because he had been studying the social and economic benefits of diversity.

            A moment that is prismatic of our time. Father and son, Trump voter and Hillary voter, staring at one another in mutual incomprehension.

            What is the lesson in all of this?  It is easiest, and safest, to just talk to the people we agree with already.  But Mathew Stevenson teaches us that the spiritual move in this toxic political time is to work harder to find tzelem Elohim. Less judging, more listening. Less fighting, more Shabbat dinners. Less putting people in boxes, and more getting to know them face to face.

            There are limits, of course.  I cannot always find tzelem Elohim in haters, in people like Derek’s family who are unabashed white racists.  But not all people casting votes, even for the candidate you will not be voting for,  are in this category.

            For those who vote differently from you, and are not haters, they just see things differently, it is important not to exile them to some silo in your own mind, not to see them as the other.  After all, in 17 days this bitter election will at last be over.  But we still have a country. We still have a community. We still have family.  And, perhaps more than ever, we still need to be able to see, to appreciate, and to love people who have deeply held convictions that happen not to align with our own.

            In that spirit, here is some spiritual homework 17 days before the election: get to know one person whose politics are different from your own. Invite them for Shabbat dinner.  Take them out of their box.  See them face to face. It is really hard. It is really slow. It is really painstaking. It took Mathew Stevenson months of Shabbat dinners with Derek Black. Tzelem Elohim is our tradition’s most beautiful teaching, and also the hardest to own, but if not now, when? Shabbat shalom.