As this year comes to an end, I am struck by how many papers, magazines and commentators are noting what a bad year it’s been. Read Facebook for a few minutes – you’ll see a lot of the same.
The exhilaration of the Cubs’ World Series victory seems long forgotten. Anger, sorrow, pessimism have taken its place.
To help you welcome the new year with a different outlook, I offer you this.
I urge you – as strongly as I can – to read an opinion piece in the NY Times Sunday Review of Nov. 26, by R. Derek Black, titled: Why I Left White Nationalism.
Then, read an article in the Washington Post that fills in the whole story: The White Flight of Derek Black.
In short, you’ll find that a young man who once was considered a leading light of the white nationalist movement – his godfather is David Duke – has rejected his former beliefs in order to embrace a pluralism that earlier he would have found anathema.
And you’ll discover that the event that began the change was an invitation to a Shabbat dinner by an Orthodox Jewish (fellow) student who decided that the best path was to include him – rather than ignore or confront him. Matthew Stevenson asked his friends – many of whom were neither Jewish nor white nor American – to treat Derek with respect, “like anyone else”. Through a slow and long process of respectful engagement, Stevenson and his friends were able to bring about a revolution in Black’s thinking.
Black recalls it this way: “Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there – people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me – I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it.”
I mention this not simply because it’s a story with a happy ending, meant to give hope and uplift during this season that is dark in so many ways. I mention it because at the heart of this story is the precept “love your neighbor as yourself”.
What is the great crime of white nationalism and other such movements? In the language of Martin Buber, the transformation of others into “others”, people who are no longer subjects, to be respected in and of themselves, but, rather, who have been turned into objects in someone other’s malevolent fantasy.
What Matthew Stevenson and his friends did was to reverse this. Rather than treat Derek Black in the same fashion, they refused and instead treated him with the koved, the respect, due any other person created in the image of God.
That is a powerful message to bring into a darkened world. That is behavior that will bring light into a darkened world. This is a story worth spreading . . . and emulating.
On this, the seventh night of Chanukah, as we think of the many times throughout our history that we, Jews, have been dehumanized and turned into an “other”, we commit to a different way of being, one that recognizes that there is humanity to be found even in the places and people where we least expect to find it. That is a way to shine light into the darkness.
Shabbat shalom and chag urim l’simcha,