I’m acquainted with at least three people who voted for Donald Trump. I’m thinking of these three because of the way I came to know them – as fellow volunteers at a homeless shelter. I met the first many years ago, when we were serving food to homeless children at a Manhattan synagogue. The kids were grossly unequipped for the coming winter; one didn’t have socks, none had decent winter coats or gloves. So my fellow volunteer, at the time a student like me, snuck out and spent nearly all her money on coats, boots, gloves, backpacks. She urged me not to tell the families who donated the gifts, and her eyes lit up with excitement as the children tried out the jackets and the boots. She’s since become quite successful, and continues to donate and volunteer at various shelters. She voted for Trump. The second was the volunteer coordinator of that particular shelter – a gruff, former marine who spent nearly half of his waking hours worrying over the shelter. The third is the current volunteer coordinator at the same shelter, an Iranian Jew who funds most of the activity out of his own pocket.
I mention these three not because they’re the typical Trump supporters – in some ways they are, in some ways they’re not – but because each displays in their day to day life an extraordinary degree of generosity and compassion. Why did they vote for Trump, despite everything we know, a list so long and obvious it’s not worth writing out? Partly, they bought into the Republican narrative of an irredeemably corrupt Clinton, partly because of Israel, partly because of a stubborn loyalty to Republican policies. At this point, it doesn’t matter. My dilemma now is what do I do with them, how do I manage these relationships? They are good people, by any measure of ethics (at least if you end the measurement at Nov 8). And if they’re not quite friends, only because we don’t spend time together anymore, they are people I’ve admired and liked. Yet they voted to hand over the reins of American government to a person I consider a dangerous bigot, who’s surrounded himself by even more dangerous bigots.
I’ve characterized this as a personal dilemma, but in fact it’s a larger predicament of American Jewish life, a problem of intimacy, of defining community. 30% of American Jews – my community – voted for Donald Trump, including a good percentage of folks I pray with on a regular basis. And, of course, nearly half of all American voted for him. Can I be in community with Trump voters? Is there, today, such a thing as the American Jewish community, or the American community? This wouldn’t be a dilemma if Trump were Hitler, or, say, Ted Cruz. The answer would be obvious: no for Hitler because you can’t embrace anyone who supports a genocidal hate-monger, yes for Cruz because as much as I might disagree with his politics, he’s in in the acceptable range of American political discourse. But Trump isn’t Hitler or Cruz. He’s something altogether new, a challenge not just to politics as usual, but to friendships, relationships, community.
There’s a beautiful and strange scene in a coming Torah reading where the estranged brothers Esau and Jacob reunite after 20 years of conflict and alienation. The Torah tells us they kissed and wept. Jacob looked at his twin and said his face was like the face of God’s. On the surface – the pshat – it’s a moving scene. It doesn’t lead to a grand reconciliation or an alliance – they go their separate ways. But it’s an emotionally satisfying moment. There’s a catharsis, a letting go, a release of tensions that inspires.
But in the text, there are several mysterious dots above the word vayishakehu– “they kissed.” According to several midrashim, the dots reveal the essentially deceptive quality of the scene. Neither Jacob nor Esau is sincere in offering friendship and love; both still hate and fear the other. The most dramatic midrash identifies the dots as teeth marks. Esau, say the rabbis, tried to bite Jacob, but God miraculously transformed Jacob’s neck into marble. The tears both men wept were in fact not tears of joy or sadness, but merely personal, physical pain – Jacob for his neck, Esau for his teeth.
What’s going on here? The midrash is asserting that both Jacob and Esau bring a fully developed narrative to the encounter - an accretion of grievances, of resentments. Their previous battles over resources, blessings, territory leaves them bereft of empathy. The only tears they have are for themselves, for their own sorrow. There’s nothing for the other, because the conflict narrative has gone for too long, and it’s too intense. This is a depth reading, heavily shaded with background and history, symbolized by a few dots on the page.
But I study this scene today and I long for a surface reading, a putting aside of narrative, of accumulated grievances, of context. I need to see two brothers, long-time enemies, but for one achingly genuine moment, kissing, crying, compassionate, seeing the other’s face as the face of God. Interfaith dialogue in America works because we’re prepared to set aside – not deny, or re-write, or ignore, or forget, just set aside, at least momentarily - our accumulated grievance stories, so we can really see the other. This has been true for Jewish-Christian dialogue, and it’s especially relevant for our increasingly successful encounters with American Muslims. In this new and uncertain season of political polarization, it’s a technique we should try with those who voted differently than us. Otherwise there’s very little hope.