Two young men on opposite poles of the political spectrum were in attendance for the High Holiday services I conducted. The two knew each other from our community and had argued passionately and heatedly online about the result of the presidential election. They were acquaintances and did not get along generally, but they prayed together.
As Yom Kippur ended and worshippers exited the synagogue, the one on the political right approached the other on the political left.
“Happy New Year,” said the right-winger.
“I won’t shake your hand,” said the left-winger.
“Wow, you really have mental issues if you can’t bring yourself to shake my hand.”
“Get away from me, you Nazi!” the left screamed.
“I’m a Nazi? My grandparents fought actual Nazis,” the right retorted.
And from there, the argument escalated until others had to come between the combatants.
I was heartbroken. As a rabbi, I felt I must have done something wrong if, after hours of prayer and reflection, one member of my community couldn’t shake hands with another. A colleague pointed out that at the very least these two men were able to pray in the same space. While that may be true, I also hope, perhaps naively, that our religious or spiritual homes might not always mirror the current toxic political climate.
I’m learning that any given community may not be for everyone, and that each one is a self-selecting group — a tribe, if you will, to use a term that is much bandied about these days to describe the country’s increasingly wide fault lines: red/blue, urban/rural, coasts/flyover country, college educated/high school grad, alt-right/antifa, Fox/MSNBC. But as the radicalization of the left and right becomes more extreme, I’m aware that as a religious leader I have a chance to help shape what my community’s norms might be.
I hold liberal and conservative views. I want my community to be pluralistic politically and, at the very least, civilly responsible and engaged when it comes to disagreement. I strive to model this in my interactions both online and in person, though I wonder if preaching to our echo chambers affects how we relate to each other in person.
I know these two men. Both are passionate. And while the “left winger” was wrong to ignore his nemesis, the “right winger” was wrong to take the bait and call names. That’s not the point. The point is that after the holiest day of the Jewish year, once provoked, they were able to retreat so quickly to their respective corners.
The challenge of encounter is not an easy one. I visited family recently in Louisiana. As I drove through Mississippi, I noticed a bumper sticker. The Confederate flag was featured prominently and the text blazoned, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1861.” I had to pause and think. Is this sign really saying that Abraham Lincoln was a terrorist?
As I drove with my friend, we wondered how might we actively encounter someone with whom we profoundly disagree. What’s the proper response to a bumper sticker like that? Is it to stamp a bumper sticker that espouses the greatest sign of inclusion and tolerance on your car? Is it to engage in conversation with the driver? How do you respond to someone if they seem to hold beliefs that run counter to the truths and ideals you live by?
Now on Yom Kippur, this social experiment became live, in a way, at least for our left-winger. Would he shake “the Nazi’s” hand? The tragedy in this episode, though, is that “the Nazi” here was a fellow Jew. Have we become so intoxicated with our own rhetoric, and so tied to our own tribe, that we can’t see the humanity before us?
And yet, we’ve seen the humanity before us — in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people lined up to give blood after the Las Vegas massacre; in the civilian rescuers in their own boats answering the call during Hurricane Harvey in Houston; in the federation officials on the scene in Puerto Rico handing out relief supplies to stunned Hurricane Maria victims. A teacher of mine said something recently that has stayed with me: If there’s anything to be gleaned from recent natural disasters, it’s to show us, at the very least, that we need each other, that we’re tied to one another.
Jewish tradition has us recite memorial prayers at moments of our utmost joy, including during the High Holidays. Yizkor asks God to remember our loved ones who have passed. But as we mourn our individual families and friends, it strikes me that we have something much greater to mourn: the breakdown of our larger family, the American family, what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.”
The trick, in this divided country of ours, and my prayer is that we can hold onto each other’s humanity and not demonize one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree or that we should equivocate about the political issues and values that drive us. It does mean shaking each other’s hands and learning how to share space together. As the rabbis of the Talmud taught, “You are not obligated to finish the task nor are you free to desist from it either.” We don’t need to solve complicated conversations about political extremes, but we can’t allow our fear of ideas to translate to fear of human beings.
As for the left-winger and the “Nazi,” they’ve been keeping their distance of late.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel in the Flatiron District.