Erica Brown

A Matter Of Trust

This article is sponsored by the letter “C” — actually by two words that begin with “C”: conspiracy and context. The more you work within the Jewish community the more you realize that Elvis and JFK are still alive. Evidence of this, you ask? We Jews love a good conspiracy theory.

When we don’t know a piece of information, we are all too ready to blame leadership for conspiring against us, hiding something from us or failing to be transparent. Sometimes there is truth to this. Leaders do make mistakes. When Jewish nonprofit leaders fail to communicate appropriately they leave themselves open to such criticism.

But very often we are too quick as a Jewish public to call out lack of transparency when we failed to read the memo that explained everything or almost everything. We jump to criticize. We use harsh, loaded words. We gossip. We tweet it out instead of talking it through. Someone else is always at fault. That someone has to pay. Leaders then have to defend themselves. It’s never the followers. Followers handle themselves perfectly.

The French philosopher Paul Ricouer (1913-2005) coined a term that explains a lot about conspiracy theories: the hermeneutics of suspicion; all interpretation reveals and conceals. Hermeneutics is roughly the study of theories of interpretation. We humans are naturally interpretive beings. Interpretation involves choices of how we frame what we see and read. Too often we suffer from a tendency to frame something in a negative light — to be suspicious instead of trusting. As a Jewish community, we have a bankruptcy of trust right now.

Purim is just behind us. Mordechai called out a real conspiracy against Ahashverosh; it was almost ignored. R. Eliezer Ashkenazi, a 16th-century scholar, draws our attention to one line in the Megillah that points to an imaginary conspiracy. Haman was at the height of his power but told his wife and friends, “all this is worth nothing as long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting there at the palace gate” (5:13). At the height of his power, Haman lost perspective. As a result of anger towards one, he was willing to kill an entire people.

R. Ashkenazi points to a similar theme in Genesis 21. Sarah threw Hagar and Ishmael out of Abraham’s house. She, too, was at the height of happiness celebrating an impossibly miraculous moment, the weaning of Isaac. In both these instances, Rabbi Ashkenazi regards high points as times when we can miss the larger picture. We focus on the one ugly thing that bothers us and take it totally out of proportion.

Beware the arrogance that underlines conspiracy theories, which are tools we use to help absolve ourselves of our responsibility to put things in context — our other “C” word. In “Ethics of the Fathers,” we are told to judge everyone with the benefit of the doubt. And yet some of the most “religious” people I know are the quickest to lose perspective, to judge, to ascribe bad motives, to ignore facts and to fail to check if their own assumptions are correct. It’s totally befuddling and anti-spiritual. Where is the context?

Jewish leaders and institutions can implode from the inside because of our capacity for conspiracy and our incapacity for trust. If Purim is to have an enduring message, it will mean more than girls dressed in Esther costumes and extravagant mishloach manot. Let’s finally internalize the demand to judge all people favorably, to trust more and to assume less.

Haman did not allow that. He criticized us precisely because we were a people of different laws and practices that failed to conform to his notion of Persian citizenship (3:8). Mordechai and Esther prevented a real conspiracy from downing Persia’s leadership. They also had a moral victory; they returned us to the wholeness and authenticity of a people allowed to self-identify.

The Talmud advises us to drink on Purim so that we don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, disastrous advice unless it’s telling us to do that which perhaps only alcohol and real kindness can achieve. Look at people without labels — or with the only label that ever matters: being human. Let’s name the conspiracy problem in our midst and redeem it by creating context. Trust more. Suspect less.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. Her latest book is “Seder Talk: A Conversationalist Haggada” (Koren).

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).