In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson tells a story of going to dinner with a family friend. The friend is white, Wilkerson is Black. They are at a trendy, arty restaurant in a major American city. Their waiter is curt with them, takes their order and walks away. When an all-white couple arrives at the table next to them, the waiter scurries over, is quite charming with them, takes their order and brings their drinks immediately. The family friend, meanwhile, becomes angrier and angrier as the other table and other diners who arrived after them are served ahead of them. Calling over the waiter doesn’t help. When their entrées arrive, they are cold. The friend becomes incensed, recognizing it rightly as racism, and makes quite the white privileged fuss. She calls for the manager, who apologizes profusely, but she storms out of the restaurant, with Wilkerson following in her wake. Wilkerson noted that if she made such a fuss every time she experienced this type of racism, she would quickly die of high blood pressure. She was also glad that her friend had been radicalized by sharing the experience of racism.
Does it really take having to have an experience to recognize wrong? Can we, in the areas in which we have privilege, sense the hurt others feel, and take the responsibility to alleviate their pain, let alone their situation? And can we, in the areas where we lack privilege—as Jews; for some of us, as women—find the allies who will do the same for us? In this time of division, where do we turn? How do we move forward without being able to look the beast in the mouth—the racism, sexism, antisemitism on which our society was founded? If we can’t look at it, we can’t cure it.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the three components of the prophetic stream—that we experience love, especially divine love; that we can articulate what is wrong in our society; and, that we have the vision and desire to imagine a different way to be. Part of that is being able to talk across differences—as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Scalia did. To be able to engage in dialogue with people who are different from us—culturally, background, class, etc.
On Yom Kippur, I confess that I find it hard to hold a conversation with people who don’t share my moral values: the values of honesty, care for the vulnerable, shared responsibility for our communities and our own actions, commitment to making the world kinder, more generous and more just than I found it. The only times I have been successful is when I am ensconced in my role as a chaplain. Something happens then: I commit to listen to them, to engage in conversation that serves their best interests and not tell them how I feel or what I think in general. I listened to two Jewish couples in September 2016 telling me how lonely it was to be a Jew for Trump in the East Bay, how they didn’t trust Hillary, and thought giving a businessman a chance would be worth it. How much damage could he do? I commiserated about their loneliness in their congregations. I offered some gentle counter arguments, but we treated each other with respect.
I want so much to be able to sit and listen openly to people with whom I disagree, when I’m not the chaplain. Who can sit in discomfort and listen openly to opposing points of view.
As I’ve reflected on this over the many years I have still not succeeded, I think of our torah portion with its invitation and admonition—“I set before you this day life and good and death and evil…therefore, choose life, that you may live, you and your seed” and our haftarah, that eloquent piece of Isaiah 58 that asks us, “Is that the fast I asked of you?”
I want to live in a world where we recognize everyone’s divine spark, their inner worth. Where we eliminate our caste system, in which Black people are on the bottom, white people on top and Jews never in quite a secure place anywhere. Where Black lives are indispensable, rather than disposable, where antisemitism disappears rather than being on the rise, and where we worry less about property and more about humans. All humans. Where, as Isaiah admonishes us, we unlock the shackles of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share our food with the homeless poor, and clothe the naked.
That’s what choosing life is to me this year, this moment.
But how to get there? Given the world we live in right now. One answer comes from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dedicated her life to unlocking the shackles of injustice: “You just have to move forward and get to work, step by step, case by case.”
R’ Nahum Ward-Lev provides another way of looking at it. Looking at the journey each of us is on, a journey toward liberation, he described both the importance of listening—the chaplain’s primary tool, and of dialogue, in creating such a world. He noted that we become liberated from the limitations of our habits of thought and perception when we listen to another person’s perceptions, especially someone who is different from us.
But I keep getting stuck at the place where I hear the other person tell me that racism is okay because Black people are inferior or criminals, or Jews are good with money and control the media throughout the world.
Paulo Freire, the author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, noted that “Dialogue cannot exist…in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people…Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.” He also noted that dialogue cannot exist without critical thinking AND when one party denies rights to the other party.
We can’t really talk to people who are not engaged in critical thinking. And we must think critically as well. How often do we rely on our feelings without engaging our reasoning as well? I’ve been known to do that. I get so wrapped up in my righteous indignation, or my righteous anger (it’s always righteous, isn’t it?) that I can’t respond in that gentle, reasonable chaplain way.
Ward-Lev identified five character traits that are necessary to be in true dialogue with another person. These are curiosity, courage, vulnerability, respect, and empathy.
We need to be genuinely curious about what the other person thinks, not just to argue our point, but to expand our own thinking and to create a deeper bond with the person. Maybe even reach an I-Thou with the person. One of my Mussar sisters reminds us regularly when we are in a tense encounter with someone we serve—or a loved one—we should practice curiosity, and it works every time…
Courage allows us to put our own comfortable and settled worldview at risk. What if we learn something that will challenge us to re-think something core to our being? I remember when I worked at the Women’s Needs Center and a mother called to ask about abortion services for her daughter. She told me she didn’t believe in abortion—it was murder, after all—but her daughter was different—“she was a good girl.” I–and my peers in women’s health, have heard versions of these stories repeatedly, much to our chagrin. As RBG taught, “reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” Years later, I heard an analysis that when people who are antichoice actually meet people who have had abortions, it changes their point of view. The same applies to people who are homophobic: when they meet a gay person, and engage in real dialogue with them, their views are likely to change. It takes courage to allow such deep positions to be challenged.
At the same time, don’t think you need to roll over. We do not stand idly by. But, again, quoting RBG, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” In addition to courage, we need respect, empathy and vulnerability, so they can hear us.
Vulnerability is essential. During my chaplaincy training, training with a peer group that requires trust, we would spend the third day of orientation, for each of my 4 units, sharing a meal that resembled a Passover seder. Over a hard-boiled egg, we told stories of our origins. The candy evoked stories of childhood. The hard, salty nut invited stories of hard things in our lives. I sensed that this would require us to reveal the pain in our lives. I shared mine, with my voice wavering. At each unit, this allowed others to share their heartbreaking truths: sexual assault, parental mental illness, abandonment, and so on. And thus, we became a cohesive group who knew each other on a profound level.
And of course, how can you have a deep dialogue with anyone without mutual respect? I can’t imagine it. If you don’t think that person is as good as you are, they can’t talk to you. If they deny you your humanity, how can you talk with them? As I mentioned last week, if we don’t see each other as a servant of God, then we live in an unbalanced world, with hierarchies and power games. Respect also allows us to truly see and hear the other, and being seen and heard is so powerful.
Finally, we need empathy. We need to listen between the lines, in the empty spaces to really understand what the other is saying. We are social creatures—that’s how we survived back in the very very old days. And in the new days of neuroscience, we learned about mirror neurons that give us the ability to experience the feelings of others.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay not to be able to talk with people who don’t think Black lives matter, or trans lives, or Jewish lives. Maybe we can’t find a way across the chasm, because they are denying other people’s rights. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, we can find a place where we do share moral values. I can’t think of one right now, but there must be one or two.
Maybe, just maybe, I need to follow another of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s teachings: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
One step at a time. The Temple wasn’t built in a day. We may not be able to finish the work, but neither are we exempt from taking it up, said Rabbi Tarfon.
Let’s get started.
Let’s choose life.
Thanks especially R’ Nahum Ward-Lev and his wonderful book, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now. Also to Ruth Bader Ginsburg for both having done so much for the equality of all Americans and for her inspiration to keep fighting. And Isabel Wilkerson for her brilliant book, with its many openings to NOT have to experience something to feel it deeply.