In 2017, our minds have succumbed to thinking in antonyms. There are two of everything these days, be it political affiliations or moral positions. We are drowning in a form of dualism that pits each of us against the other and aggravates every form of difference. This is a lonely way to live and a remarkably easy to way to divide a people; it is a system of thought that convinces its followers that being right is more important than being together. And it might have a simple antidote: friendship.
Before leaving office, President Obama alerted Americans to the singular importance of person-to-person conversation in sustaining a democracy. He was echoing the great ancient defender of Athenian democracy, Pericles, who once connected the secret strength of Athenians to the form of friendship the city cultivated. An Athenian, he explained, makes friends “by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them.” Generosity of action and of spirit was crucial to establishing relationships steeped in the humble and open act of giving time, resources, and the benefit of the doubt.
To describe the value of friendship, our own sages cite the story of Honi, the miracle worker, who fell asleep for 70 years. As Honi wakes up and walks into the house of learning, to a place where he was once respected and known, the shock of being unknown shatters him, and he prays for death. From this story, Raba explains, we learn the saying “Either Friendship or Death.”
Friendship is rarely a quality that we see modeled by our political or religious leaders. Loyalty, with its veneer of submission, is in plain sight, but friendship, with its casual joys and fierce support, less so. Before President Obama and Vice President Biden’s singular “bromance,” I had never witnessed two leaders, on the same podium, enjoying one another’s company. And yet, if we believe that cultivating friendship is truly constitutive of what it means to be alive, a foundational aspect of what makes one feel present in the world, then we must do more as a community to model this behavior. We must do more than just placing single leaders at the helm and begin to imagine ways that friends can lead together.
In the Jewish community, this model is being explicitly advanced by two young rabbinic couples, the Mloteks and the Leeners, who are focussing on the act of friendship as the foundation of a movement called Base Hillel. Base is the home of a rabbinic family, created to build open, warm, and pluralistic Jewish community centered on hospitality, prayer, and service.
The Leeners and the Mloteks live their private lives in public. The doors to their homes are often left open as they cultivate a daily practice of welcoming in soon-to-be friends to cook meals for the homeless, Shabbat dinner, and parsha class. What has touched so many of us in their orbit, is not just being invited inside—in some ways, that is the easy part— but the intense joy and gravitas they bring to the act of friendship. The deep respect and adoration they have for one another extends organically to the relationships they have formed in their neighborhoods, at Jury duty, teaching in the community, and serving the needy. Some friendships are probable, like the ones formed within their age group or within similar religious and political affiliations. But more are improbable, bringing together individuals from across the political and religious aisle.
I have spent many holidays with the Mloteks and the Leeners, experiencing friendship that extends from the Bima outward. I have watched four leaders, Faith, Rabbi Jon, Yael, and Rabbi Avram, pray together in front of a room filled with a community they formed person-by-person throughout the year. I have looked on as these leaders, our moral authorities, respectfully disagreed with one another, embraced with joy, and beckoned each of us into the ties of reciprocity and obligation. They model friendship with every choice, and in so doing, place it as a value that unifies all others. This is the Jewish family version of the bromance and it brings the intimate relationship of equals to the foundation of a religious experience too often defined by the distance of hierarchy.
Rabbi Daniel Smokler describes this quality of Base as “dibuk chaverim.” Translated as cleaving to friends, this concept is expounded upon in Pirkei Avot and through the chasidic masters to explain the profound spiritual consequences of fraternity and friendship. The word dibuk comes up in moments of individual change through human and divine contact, when Ruth cleaves to Naomi in the Book of Ruth or when man cleaves to God. The space provided by that contact might be the necessary condition that allows for individual growth and change, be it political or spiritual.
These past months, our nation and our people, are ever more divided, torn asunder by life experiences, values, and policies. It would be easy today to ask only for civility and decency; it would be easy to give up on friendship. But then I think of what friendship can actually do in the world, what friendship in our leaders can actually demonstrate to us all and I want to ask for more. I want to demand that we take this commitment between people seriously and begin to model it for ourselves and our community. That we not just find for ourselves “a companion,” but that we ask that our leaders to do the same.