Since before the election, we’ve all heard periodic calls for dialogue between those who support Trump and his policies, and those who do not.
The most recent wave, in anticipation of the July 4 holiday, included a tweet by author Stephen King instructing progressives and Trump voters to hug so that we can “all be Americans,” and a piece on “The Value of Sharing Meals With Those We Disagree With” by Rabbi Steven Moskowitz.
Progressives, go find a Trump supporting friend—the one you haven’t spoken to since November of 2016—and give him or her a hug. Trumpies, find a “liberal snowflake” friend and do the same. Just for today, let’s all be Americans.— Stephen King (@StephenKing) July 4, 2018
In some ways, I think the problems with Moskowitz’s longer exposition helps to clarify the problems with King’s pithier take — which doesn’t mean that all efforts to break bread together are futile. Just that it’s much more complicated than Moskowitz and King make it out to be.
Moskowitz compares the fierce debates of the last century BCE/first century C.E. sages Hillel and Shammai — and their students, later — to the political polarization today, and suggests that the way to “heal” the divisions of the country is by sitting down and breaking bread together. “And then we can begin the arguments for the sake of heaven,” he says, referring to Pirkei Avot 5:17’s comment about the nature of Hillel and Shammai’s disagreements.
Before we can unpack this analogy, however, we must look at another critical Hillel and Shammai text. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b:10) teaches, “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God.”
In other words, the schools of both Hillel and Shammai hold true, holy, God-infused positions, whether on principles of what’s kosher or how to light Hanukkah candles or issues around marriage.
And this is where the analogy to today begins to break down.
I believe that engaging in overt racism, child abuse, family separation and religious discrimination, and permanently kneecapping the poor and stripping the planet of any real chance for survival, is not coherent with acting according to the words of the living God.
I refuse to call a disagreement about the direction in which we light the Hanukah menorah analogous to whether or not it’s permitted to perpetuate human rights abuses. Hillel and Shammai both walked the way of Torah, and their work was about figuring out how to live that path in the world.
They both knew that the Torah commands us to protect the non-citizen in our midst 36 times. Thirty-six. They knew that the Torah teaches that every human is created in God’s image. They knew that the Torah commands us to care for — and to set up systems to protect — the poor, to love our neighbor as ourselves and even to not cut down trees unnecessarily.
The reference to Hillel and Shammai, and the request for hugs on all sides, flattens positions, allows the Overton window to move and lets those engaging in actions that violate international law set the terms of the conversation.
There are plenty of topics about which Republicans and Democrats in the past might have been able to disagree for the sake of heaven. What should be the United States’ role in creating global stability? What is the best economic system for America? How should we live out the First Amendment today? To disagree for the sake of heaven means to argue issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, to work constructively toward the best solution, to admit when you are wrong.
But we judge people by their actions and their words, and the current administration has shown that it does not care about human rights, human safety, human flourishing or the continuation of life on this planet. And I resent the implication that these and those, elu v’elu, are equal positions. Right now they are not.
Does that mean you should never have dinner with Trump supporters? No — but it’s a nuanced no.
In October 2016, the Washington Post published a piece called “The white flight of Derek Black.” Black is the son of a famous white supremacist. He himself became a rising star in the movement, featuring prominently in Stormfront and hosting his own white supremacist radio show. Then, when he was in college, he was outed as a racist and became socially ostracized.
But leading up to the last presidential election, Black said his views aligned 97% with Hillary Clinton’s. Why? Matthew Stevenson started inviting him to Shabbat dinner. Week after week after week. “I don’t think I would have talked my way out of this belief system without those private conversations with somebody that I trusted,” Black said later.
But it’s important to note a few things about this. First of all, many have suggested — rightly, I think — how instrumental the lack of social validation was in this process. Many people refused to normalize Black’s views, and made it clear that his interest in deporting people of color from this country was not fine, was not good, was not valid. He had to experience loss. And he was separated from his home community, so he didn’t have an alternative form of connection or people to help bolster his racist beliefs.
Additionally, this outreach happened on Stevenson’s terrain, and Stevenson was thoughtful about inviting a range of people to the table. They did not meet in the neutral space of a coffee shop on campus, one that would have implied elu v’elu. The terms of entry were that Black had to concede the validity of Judaism, at least tacitly.
Black’s process was not simple or straightforward, and it was something that a lot of people had to be willing to invest in — to make space for Black there, to accord him the respect they believe every person should get, to be willing to engage deeply on hard, painful issues.
These dinners transformed Black. They forced him to question many of the ideas with which he’d been raised, and to let go of some of the ideology based in fear and disdain for the other that he’d held for so long.
But nobody let him think that his white supremacist beliefs were fine, neutral, normal. There was no meeting of equals, no uncritical hug.
The Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 54:1 teaches, “Such indeed is R. Yosi ben Hanina’s view, for he said: Love unaccompanied by rebuke is not love. Resh Lakish said: Rebuke leads to peace… Peace unaccompanied by rebuke is not peace.”
To be clear, not everyone should be obligated to engage in this level of emotional labor. Particularly in the case of people who are marginalized in our society or targeted now, sometimes just being alive in this country is enough work. But maybe if you’re in a position of safety and privilege, if you have the bandwidth for it, it is not a bad thing to engage someone else as Thou — as created in the divine image, as worthy of all the care and respect that every person deserves — and to try to connect in deep ways.
I’d like to note also that I don’t believe that sitting down with Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions will ever get us anywhere. Some people’s racism, some people’s pull toward darkness, power, domination and exploitation, is too deep and entrenched. But your cousin who thinks that Trump’s stance on Israel is sufficient reason to support his dehumanization and abuse? Or your uncle who read too much about how Hillary was constructing some sort of conspiracy? Maybe that’s a different story. And maybe it starts with stories.
When I worked with Ask Big Questions, we would talk about finding questions that everyone can answer, that matter to everyone: For whom are you responsible? What do we choose to ignore? When do you take a stand? What does the world need from you? Who is in your community? If you decide to engage with a Trump supporter in your life, maybe that’s a place to start. (Here are some other starting places, if you’re looking for them.)
I don’t think people’s fear and racism necessarily get unbound by arguments and debate and facts and data. And I’m certain that many people may never be in a place where they’re receptive to seeing other ways of being in the world. But Derek Black was. And someone reached out to him — not to argue, but to connect.
This kind of engagement is a lot of work. A lot. And it’s not meant for everybody. As Rabbi Ruti Regan notes, “Anti-hate outreach is difficult work — not just in that it’s hard on the people doing it, but also that it takes considerable skill to be able to do it well. It’s not just a matter of maintaining connections with people in your life… [or] open-mindedness, being nice, or meeting as equals. It’s about creating a context for interactions that forces someone to reconsider their worldview if they’re going to keep interacting — and also supporting them through that process.”
If you want to do anti-hate outreach, you have to be able to resist the impulse to validate all the sincerely held emotions you will encounter. Hateful ideologues have a lot of feelings that are not valid and do not reflect reality. Remembering that can be easier said than done.— Rabbi Ruti Regan 🏳️🌈♀🇺🇸 (@RutiRegan) July 5, 2018
Black is clear about this, as well. He notes in another interview, “I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong.”
And it’s not for everybody. Not everyone has the skill, or the expertise, or the bandwidth to do this work. I fully understand the decision to invest in relationships with people who don’t endorse tearing apart families and caging small children, to focus one’s work on fighting for the human beings in, and the soul of, our country in any one of myriad other ways. There’s a lot to do to care for those being harmed today, and to fight for a better tomorrow. We all have an important role here.
As Black says, “I really worry that someone will hear the fact that I had quiet conversations over two years and then… abandoned my ideology, as proof that being loud and saying, ‘I condemn that in my society,’ is counterproductive, when I don’t think it is. They’re both essential.”
Everyone must determine the essential pieces of work in which they need to invest their energy and life-force. For some people, it’s about being on the front lines of these conversations; for others, it’s about speaking up loudly, or registering voters, or working for a candidate they believe in, or raising money for an organization doing critical work in this moment, or one of many other jobs needed to fight for a better world today.
We need all hands on deck these days, but there’s a lot of deck to be covered.
Danya Ruttenberg is author of “Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting” and Rabbi-in-Residence at Avodah.