The rapper and performer Azealia Banks is a fairly difficult person. I say this with firsthand knowledge after having spent a full day in her company while interviewing her for a music magazine cover story. Banks can be caustic and confrontational on occasion, and also completely unaware of her being either. And in retrospect, of all the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with musicians over the years, I would qualify my session with her as my most combative.
That being said, Banks has just this week returned from Israel and in a Yelp-like Tweetstorm takedown, she detailed instances of racism, rudeness and harassment in the Holy Land that in more than once instance made her cry. Now, again, having spent some time with her coupled with the knowledge of just about every “beef” she’s been involved in, I’m certain that we should factor at least a grain of salt or two here.
But let’s say hypothetically that the story about a rabbi sitting next to Banks on her El-Al flight propositioning her for sex, or the haredi woman demeaning her or the Israeli shopkeepers who did not welcome her patronage…that one or two instances of her experience is true. Then that alone is problematic. An unparalleled Chillul Hashem has been broadcast across the world through the megaphone of the flame-fanning Twittersphere.
Since hearing of Banks’ shameful allegations, I keep wondering where this behavior could stem from. How are Jewish people capable of such conduct? And this bewilderment coincides with the deceivingly simple yet profoundly weighty question I’ve been grappling with specifically throughout the last two years: are we, the Jewish people, a good people?
And when I ask this question, I’m not factoring the amount of charity doled out to those in need. Nor am I considering the number of times in a day when one prays with a minyan. And I’m not even pointedly considering Banks story. Well, at least not in a vacuum. I am speaking of the unquantifiable. I am speaking of midot.
I guess this introspective journey all started in true measure only a couple months back when friends began circulating a meme in which the words of “Dayenu” were unironically replaced with all the alleged accomplishments of Donald J. Trump. Instead of listing Sinai, the Red Sea, the deliverance of the Torah, the originator of the revised Haggadic song appropriated and praised Trump for the release of Sholom Rubashkin, the relocation of the Israeli embassy, Trump’s disdain for the Iran Deal and so on and so on. And I remember reading this and thinking that some of these things were and are “good for the Jews,” whether they’re short term beneficial or whether the motivations are disingenuous, but the notion of praising Trump and holding him on a pedestal, appreciating him as a president in a way for which there is no precedent…it made me uncomfortable. Not as a liberal. Not as an American. Not as a human being. But as a Jew.
The concept of our current president’s disregard for morality is nothing new to anyone. And I need not list the transgressions ranging from his dalliance with a veteran pornstar to his overall braggadocious and misogynistic demeanor; the way in which Donald Trump acts, speaks or conducts himself, both privately or publicly, is the way that I had always assumed was antithetical to everything I was taught at home and in yeshiva.
Whether the president accomplishes things that we are objectively able to assess as a win, these purported triumphs should be celebrated modestly and not with free rugelach at a kosher supermarket or with an all night drinking binge. Which is what Evergreen supermarket in Lakewood, NJ did; Or as Chabad’s headquarters in Crown Heights commemorated the early release of an unequivocal criminal at the behest of Trump with cases upon cases of vodka (admittedly, the length of Rubashkin’s prison sentence was inappropriately harsh and so it was correct to cut it short, but that should not be seen as cause for momentous celebration).
In a few days time, we will celebrate Shavuot and the acceptance of the Torah. To many, this is the birth of our contemporary observance and a time in which we embraced a life of tenets and rules. And in anticipation of the holiday, I can’t help but think about the children’s book I just read to my daughter based on the famous story of Rabbi Hillel that we’ve heard so many time that it’s potency has perhaps lost meaning. Hillel is asked to explain all of the Torah while the inquisitor stands on one foot. Over the years and through the many iterations of the story, the response has always remained “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor.” That is a simple enough sentiment to understand but it’s uttered in the negative which is an unnecessarily convoluted way of conveying a core principle. Why say “do not do to your neighbor” when it is more evocative and communicable to simply state as Leviticusdoes, “love your neighbor as you love yourself?”
Before I answer that question, I’d like to publicly reveal something personal. For me, being nice, considerate and empathetic is a process. It’s work. It’s not something that comes to me easily and innately. This is a quality I know about myself and embrace and wrestle with. After decades of “Chosen people” programming, it’s not an instant conclusion for me to think of those who are not like me in an intentional and considerate way, through the determining gaze of equality. To realize that they, with their different cultures and languages and lifestyles and traditions, all deserve equal dignity. And so I make the conscious decision to be accepting.
But on a broader scale, and perhaps, also cynically, I feel that we–humanity, as a whole–are inherently isolationist and self-preservationists. We protect our own which consequently means we cannot protecttheirsat the same time. But when Hillel reminds us to “not do to your neighbor,”he is acknowledging our prejudicial inclinations when it comes to gauging whether to accept or not to accept, as an instinct of determination that has to be practiced and developed over time. It’s not easy loving your neighbor in absolute terms, so Hillel suggested seeing the world almost narcissistically, to consider those things that are hateful to you and through that assessment, make a personal commitment to your empathetic willingness. [Intentionally or not, the lawn sign reads “Hate has no home here” because as visceral creatures, it’s all too easy for us to hate. Hate is the thing we have to choose to renounce.]
We can argue over Azealia Banks’ stability, which I will be first on the witness stand to testify against, and we can acknowledge, as many of my Trump-supporting friends do, that politicians have never been examples of morality. In my mind, these sorts of responses excuse our propensity for coyly exchanging temporary political conveniences for the fraught position on a moral high ground. And by celebrating Donald Trump and his temporal accomplishments, we inadvertently celebrate Donald Trump. Just as those Ultra Orthodox wedding revelers did in a viral YouTube video all dressed in T-shirts that proclaimed “I Love Trump,” all dancing feverishly and non-ironically in a circle, yet also inadvertently gifting the thousands of viewers at home with a takeaway of the perceived partnership between the Jews and Trump.
All these moments, these cringeworthy and ill-advised moments, have brought me into an existential fog in which I wonder that despite all the good transactional things we do for one another, does anything more transcendental matter to us as a community? Or shall we keep feasting on the ignorance that comes along with marginalizing morality, which incidentally taste a whole lot like free rugelach?