Making a dent in polarization by seeing each other wholly...and holy!: Debbie Yunker Kail's Yom Kippur Sermon
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Growing up, you would have been safe to say I was not into sports. Aside from playing tennis, I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell you the first thing about football, baseball or basketball teams.
And then, In 8th grade, I asked my parents to buy me a Charlotte Hornets t-shirt, which I then proudly wore to school.
Why? I noticed a boy I had a crush on liked them and I thought it would help him notice me.
I thought I could send a message to someone by what I was wearing.
I even thought maybe I could change my behavior or interests by what I was wearing. Maybe if I wore this shirt, I would start caring about this team, paying attention, and having something to talk about! Or ideally, instead of having to start a hard conversation, someone would start it with me based on what they noticed about me.
Wearing our beliefs and our preferences can be fun as a conversation starter. Being from Boston, it’s in my Bostonian ‘contract’ that I have to say something everytime someone is wearing any NY Yankees gear…even though I couldn't tell you one player on either team right now. When I see you with a concert t-shirt of a band I like, I immediately want to tell you about the time I saw them too or ask you about your experience.
We gravitate towards those who we think will be like us- whether it’s because we see someone in a band or sports t-shirt, carrying the same brand of water bottle or bag as us, or wearing a shirt or sticker advocating for the same social issue or political candidate we are rooting for. In fact, many of us likely seek out these cues - knowingly or unknowingly - as we consider who we will schmooze with or befriend.
But here’s where it gets problematic – Just as someone’s clothing has made me want to talk to them, I can stand up here and honestly say that I can think of occasions when it has made me not want to talk to them, too. It could be superficial – “Wow there’s an early adopter of a fashion trend I’m not on board with!”
But more likely, I, and maybe some of you, have seen people wear things that feel like they are flaunting social/economic status or political beliefs that I feel uncomfortable with or maybe even disagree with..
Our brain needs groups to survive. In his book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein cites a 1970 paper by Polish Jew Henri Tajfel that “the instinct to view our own with favor and outsiders with hostility is so deeply learned that it operates outside of any reason…our brains know we need groups to survive, so when we feel cast out of our group, it triggers a massive stress response.”
There are parts of our personality that act like preferences but can act like identities when challenged; this could be when someone talks down about our favorite sports team or as Klein cites a 2015 paper from Patrick J Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover, “The behavior of partisans resembles that of sports team members acting to preserve the status of their teams rather than thoughtful citizens participating in the political process for the greater good.”
The leaders of our political systems know this about our individual behaviors. As Ezra Klein writes, “put simply, is this: to appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public. This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on. Understanding that we exist in relationship with our political institutions, that they are changed by us and we are changed by them, is the key to this story. We don’t just use politics for our own ends. Politics uses us for its own ends.”
What do we do then? When we see ourselves shying away from someone or something that is outside the scope of our personal comfort politically or socially?
Well, Rabbi Suzy’s first tip from last week - pause - works pretty well here too!
And then what? We are headed into another election cycle, and here I am leading a pluralistic Jewish organization where we are founded on the idea that we are literally open to all. That Judaism should unite us above our sports teams, our fashion status symbols, and our political persuasions.
When I first became interested in understanding this aspect of our society, I was actually comforted by understanding the sociological, psychological, and historical explanations of some of the polarization I see in my daily life. Maybe this helps you too!
And, as it turns out, Judaism does have some knowledge we can lean on.
Tip 1: Record the non-winning opinion. Or in our day to day life, this could mean, read from sources we think we might disagree with.
The Talmud, one of our main Jewish texts that helps us interpret the Torah, is essentially a discussion on the page. It records several opinions right there for us to read and wrestle with, even as it might present a final guiding principle we are encouraged to follow.
It says in Mishnah Eduyot 1:4:
And why are the words of Shammai and Hillel mentioned in vain? To teach future generations that one should not stand fast upon their words [i.e., that they should not hold too tightly to their opinion], for “the fathers of the world” [Hillel and Shammai] did not stand fast upon their words.
The Supreme Court does this too by the way, when they publish dissenting opinions.
In both places, a serious effort is made to record opinions that were not the “winner.” Hillel and Shammai famously debated all kinds of topics, and these debates are recorded for us to study today. And you’re at services with an organization called Hillel, not Shammai.
Why? Understanding the variety of perspectives out there helps us gain further insight into our own reasoning. It pushes us to give clear explanations for our perspective, and our tradition teaches us that we must study and understand opinions different not just from our own, but from the “winning” one! That our societal fabric actually depends on our ability to do this.
Tip 2: Our namesake Hillel says in Pirke Avot, Do not separate yourself from the community. A 16th century commentary on this by the Maharal of Prague defines community as society. With this, I would add to that - see your community with the broadest definition you possibly can.
Tip 3: Find some way to appreciate others’ views and ideas
Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in pre-state Israel talked about three forces wrestling within the Jewish people in 1912 – spirituality, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He saw these forces leading people to have different visions about the destiny of the Jewish people. He then brilliantly validates all three! He doesn’t say we as a people have to get together and rank them, or exile everyone who believes one that’s different from us.
“It is well understood that in a healthy situation all three of these ideals are needed together. And we must always strive for this healthy situation…that each should generously appreciate the affirmative task of the other…”
And he goes on – not only should we appreciate the hard work each of these three values would take to fully actualize! He says:
“This awareness should proceed to the point that not only does one recognize the affirmative task of each of these ideals, but it should proceed further to the point of appreciating specifically the opposition of the other ideals to one’s own ideal…;or each group must be influenced by the opposing force of the other…this will save each group from the defects of fundamentalism and extremism.”
I hate this and I love this!
This is not easy, what he calls for. Rav Kook teaches us that every human being needs to come to their own synthesis by following guidelines and the process of allowing ourselves to be influenced by views opposing ours. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because some of these people are our neighbors so we might as well try to get along.
This is what’s going to save us from fundamentalism and extremism. Pushing myself to not only appreciate, but be influenced by opposing views is going to save society?!
Wow. Why do I hate this? It’s hard!!
Why do I love this? Well, each time I have tried to talk to someone with a different perspective, I have grown. Notice I said talk - this is not advice to go fight with people who don’t want to understand you. As you can see in the sources I shared, these recommendations require two willing parties, not one.
I love this advice because this is Hillel in a nutshell. At Hillel, we believe deeply that there is no one way to look or be Jewish. We look around and see students of different colors, different Jewish backgrounds, different preferred pronouns, and wearing some sports and concert t-shirts I personally would not recommend :)
But anyone who has been a leader at Hillel knows that our leadership training is all about ways to learn each other's names and stories, not to assume anything about someone based on the color of their skin, hair or shirt.
We also encourage students to come as you are - there is no particular dress expected here.
My aim in setting our culture this way is that if new people come as they are, and student leaders engage with their stories, we will build a true kehilah kedosha, a holy community.
If students here are having that experience of being seen wholly, and of seeing each other wholly, I truly believe you will take that out into the broader world and engage with others outside of the Jewish community in the same fashion. Because once you’ve felt it, you know what it feels like and you can replicate it.
So, on today, this holiest of days – together in our holy community - I have to tell you. That Charlotte Hornets t-shirt I wore had no effect. I know, you’re shocked.
We can all stop sending subliminal messages and instead join ways to talk to each other. In your residence hall, in your classes, even at Hillel. Stop accepting these messages and engage.
Let’s agree to give ourselves grace for when we find ourselves judging someone by their appearance. Let’s give ourselves grace for the moments we have missed the mark in getting to truly know someone. And let’s together commit that we can make an impact in our broader community and decreasing polarization by pausing, staying connected to community, and finding ways to appreciate and be influenced by others’ views.
My hope is that when we meet back here again next year, welcoming in 5785, we all have stories to share about how we have all done our little part to bring our corner of the world closer to someone else’s.