Amidst American Turmoil, What Can We Do To Help Turn the Tide
When I was a first year rabbinical student, I wrote the following in a journal: “My rabbinic mission is to make the simple complicated and the complicated simple.” Five years later, and I still resonate with this notion. There are a lot of things in the world that are inherently complicated, sometimes so much so that people think they’ll never have a chance to understand or to do anything about it. My job, in those instances, is to make things simple enough that we can actually wrap our heads around an idea and see ourselves as a part of the process. Meanwhile, there are other times when we think things are belligerently straightforward, that we can’t fathom anyone disagrees with us. In those moments, it is my job to expand our thinking, to push us to look for the nuance that makes a conversation meaningful in the first place.
We, as human beings, live in a world that exists in between extremes, that falls somewhere in the gray between the hard lines of black and white. We don’t always like that. In fact, in most cases, we are desperate for the world around us to fall into nice, simple categories so that we can understand them fully. A person is good or bad. To be complicated would be to render my understanding of them complicated. An idea is helpful or harmful, because if it can be both, it means it truly is neither. But try as we might, the world isn’t sharp, hard lines. It is an endless stream of nuance, balance, and subtlety. Try as we might, we can’t force these things to conform to our need for simplicity.
This hasn’t been the case in politics in America. In this country, we have drawn lines, and we have committed to them in deep, forceful ways. You are either with us or you are against us. You are either a patriot or a traitor. You are a Democrat or you are a Republican. And never the ‘twain shall meet. We often give lip service to wanting to come together as a nation, but we so rarely mean come together in the middle. Generally, we want to come together on MY side, we are willing to compromise as long as I get what I want. And so on and on we go, struggling to see eye to eye, struggling to find the lines in the vast grayness of it all.
It is important to pause here and acknowledge a disclaimer: I do believe there are hard-line issues, places where we need to draw a definite distinction between right and wrong. If you have to ask whether or not Black Americans deserve equal rights in this country, there is no room for nuance; you are simply wrong. If you believe a person who identifies in the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t deserve basic dignity and human rights, there is nothing to discuss, that is simply hateful. We cannot be flexible in our understanding of human rights, and cannot waiver on our moral obligation to ensure that everyone deserves the rights of food, shelter, and decency. What we CAN debate, and what we NEED to debate, is how to accomplish those things. It is likely a lost cause that there are some people in America with whom we will never be able to have a healthy conversation. But we need to amputate those relationships in order to save the integrity of our larger whole, to save the essence of what America stands for.
This week, we found where there was no nuance. We tripped over the hard line, and were left to look at the broken pieces. It is not only fair but necessary to say that breaking into the nation’s Capitol is an act of treason. The people who stormed Congress this week were not patriots, they were terrorists. There is no nuance to be found in a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, no defense for bringing a weapon to a government building because you refuse to accept the reality of an election. Pure and simple, the actions on Wednesday were a heinous hate crime that this nation will struggle to process for months and years to come.
In watching the coverage this past week, I couldn’t help but think of how on Earth we had gotten to this point. How was it that we had come to a place where citizens of our country believed they had the right to storm the Capitol and take what they wanted? When did we make it so comfy and cozy for white supremacists and hate mongers to run amok? And perhaps most importantly, what can we do about it to ensure that we can move toward a healthier, more reasonable future?
The answer, at least on some level, is because we are at a place in our nation’s history where we no longer can recognize one another. We “cancel” anything that doesn’t match our worldview. We claim “fake news” any time the facts don’t line up with our opinion. We have lost our ability to communicate our values in a way that others can hear, and we have lost our power to engage in thoughtful, considerate, and meaningful ways.
As always, we can learn a lot from this week’s Torah portion. At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we read that “A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) What is worth noting is that, in Hebrew, there are two meanings of the word “to know.” Normally, we would say that Pharaoh did not מכיר “Makir” him, that he wasn’t familiar with him. But in this the text, the word is ידע “Yadah.” This word is where we get the phrase “knew in a biblical sense.” It is often used as innuendo for intimate knowledge. Why, then, would our Torah use such a word when there was a much more typical alternative? Because in this case, it isn’t simply awareness of Joseph’s existence that the new king lacks. Rather, it is a personal connection to Joseph as a meaningful person in the story of Egypt that is missing. Pharaoh doesn’t have a relational connection to Joseph or the Hebrews, and thus is able to see them as other, as a threat, as a people needing to be “dealt with.”
We have created a similar paradigm in America. We are, at the same time, both Pharaoh and Joseph. We do not know the people who exist on the other side of our societally constructed barriers. We demonize the other, we impose our own theories on their motivations. We are not known, and we choose to double down on this ignorance of our fellow Americans, rather than investing in finding ways to appropriately convey our message. And we are paying the price that comes with failing to understand one another.
When was the last time we had a meaningful, calm, and rational conversation with someone who believed differently than we do? Again, I’m not talking about someone who rejects the basic values of life that are essential to another person’s reality. But when was the last time you debated the details of tax law, or discussed real issues of criminal justice reform, or offered another option for restructuring educational institutions? When was the last time you allowed someone else to share how they think and how they feel in a way that might change your answer? Likely, it has been far too long. And until we start offering one another real chances to discuss issues of importance, we are never going to know one another in our truest forms.
The sad fact of the matter is that I am equally guilty of surrounding myself with the echo chamber that matches my ideology. I likely don’t have any shared space with anyone who actually participated in the attack in DC this week. I can’t talk to them, because we don’t know one another, in recognition or meaningful connection. But I do know that the people I share community with are struggling to make sense of what has happened. We don’t know how to move forward and how to fix this. The answer is going to be in beginning to mend the situation in the gray areas before we get to the hard lines. We need to repair our ability to engage in conversation and discourse on topics that matter to us. We need to be uncomfortable with the thoughts and opinions of others, as long as we are willing to learn from one another (and assuming we agree to the basic dignity of everyone). We need to stop “canceling” conversations that make us upset, because the places that make us frustrated and hurt are also the places most deeply in need of repair. And we need to stop confusing the difference between being right and winning. We can be right about our beliefs all we want, we can be absolutely ironclad in the knowledge that our values are the correct way to go, but if we can’t articulate those beliefs and values in a way that are meaningful to others, we have no chance of winning over anyone else to see things our way.
One of the most dangerous expressions in our society today is that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” It’s true. Everyone is allowed to make an informed opinion about information that is presented. But these opinions can only exist when we share an agreed-upon fact. The attack on the Capitol this week was based on a false idea, that there was fraud in our election. An opinion based on weak information or untrue data isn’t an opinion, it’s spewed nonsense. Whether or not our system has an effective electoral structure is a perfectly reasonable debate with lots of opinions that we should discuss, debate, and share. We can discuss the rules of the game, but we can’t debate the game once it’s been played.
We are about to enter a new administration in America. And my sad prediction is that it is going to be four years of fighting, arguing, disagreeing, and grandstanding to prove a point. There are, though, a lot of things in this country that are broken that we can likely fix to please all Americans. There is lots of common ground if we are willing to work hard enough to find it, if we are willing to look out from our ideological trenches and really SEE one another. We all want schools that are palaces of knowledge. We all want homeless to end and food scarcity to go away. We all want our families to have access to healthcare. We just don’t agree on how to get there. The work is hard. It will require compromise. We should do it anyway, because hard work is work worth doing.
There is a tradition in Judaism that says that the Messiah will come when the world can’t get any better and it can’t get any worse. In essence, the Messiah will help break the logjam when we have fully stagnated as a world. We are not there yet. We have a lot of work left to do, because there is a lot of good we can still do to bring our nation back together. No, we can’t fix those who are too far gone, those who won’t listen to reason, those who won’t acknowledge reality. But we can listen to those whose beliefs are different from our own. We can show compassion to those who have a different struggle then what we go through. We can give kindness to those who feel threatened. And we can teach those who need more information. But we can only do those things if we are willing to reciprocate those allowances to others who want to feel heard, who want to be cared for, who want to feel seen.
We need to make simple the complex, and complex the simple. We need to know where the hard lines are and where there is space for nuance. We can debate allocation of funds; we cannot debate that police should not wantonly kill unarmed Black Americans. We can debate the implementation of welfare, but we cannot decide that Americans “deserve” to live on the streets. We can and must discuss the logistics of fixing this country. But we can’t do it at the expense of being able to look across the table and recognize our fellow Americans and those who are working to try to make this country better for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.
“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai. That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt. That there is a better place, a Promised Land. That the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way of getting from here to there, except by joining hands, marching together.”