I have a long-time friend whose company I enjoy; our families get along well too. We have always enjoyed talking about many issues, including politics — even when we disagreed with each other. But she recently said something that was beyond the pale, advocating a position that, to my mind, is undeniably racist. In reflecting on the conversation, I find myself questioning the whole friendship. I let her know how upset I was by her comments, but she didn’t back down — if anything, she seemed more committed to her position. Since then, I have also been thinking about other things she has said in the past that now seem offensive in light of our recent exchange. We are not the kind of people to have a casual or superficial friendship without getting into serious issues. We have not been together for more than a few minutes since that big conflict, and I just don’t know how to move forward. I do value this friendship. What do you recommend?
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi says…
It’s understandably upsetting to discover that people we like hold views that we find despicable. We want the people we care about to at least share the same core values.
Some might suggest that the best (and easiest) response to your dilemma would be to simply let it go, and to focus on the issues you care about and the people who do share more of your views. But the ancient wisdom preserved in the Torah teaches that, in order to build an ideal society, we have a responsibility to try to influence those around us when we perceive them doing something wrong.
Our responsibility for what those around us say and do has its roots in the biblical book of Leviticus: “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not hate him in your heart….lest you carry sin because of him.” Commentators discuss whether or not one should rebuke another if they are unlikely to be heard, especially if it might cause the other person to defensively hold onto their position more tightly. In your case, because you have a close relationship with this person, it’s possible that you could communicate well both your caring for her and why you believe that her stance is racist or otherwise morally problematic.
The ancient rabbis remind us to think carefully about how and when we might rebuke another person. It will be important to find the right time and place when you might best be heard, without inadvertently humiliating your friend or causing her to become further entrenched in the views that you find so problematic.
Sometimes we find it productive and energizing to be friends with people who see the world differently than we do, but in other cases such as the one you’ve described, it might be understandable to downsize the relationship–ideally only after you’ve made real efforts to explain why you are upset, and to redeem your mutual respect and your relationship.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions, President’s Scholar and Director of the Office of Community Engagement. Ordained at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary and served the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for 12 years as a Vice President and director of rabbinic leadership, lay leadership, and Christian leadership programs.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman says…
Our tradition’s most significant model of friendship is hevruta, the bond of study partners built by learning Torah together. These relationships are not all flowers and intellectual pats on the back; it is the very adversarial nature of the friendship that brings us closer to truth. The Talmud describes hevruta by comparison to iron: “Just as two pieces of iron sharpen each other, so too do two students of Torah sharpen each other in Jewish practice.” When his hevruta partner Resh Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan nearly died of grief, and a young Torah scholar who agreed with his interpretations was no consolation; he missed the friend who could challenge him at every turn. It is a very Jewish friendship that can be sustained by (rather than continue in spite of) conflict.
This kind of relationship is not for the faint of heart, and depends on deep respect. Resh Lakish died, the story goes, as a result of an argument about Jewish law which devolved when Rabbi Yochanan included a very personal insult. To pursue truth, both friends have to see themselves as part of the quest, and the minute an argument over ideas becomes a personal attack, the shared pursuit has ended. It is easy to get defensive when someone tells us (or even implies) that we’re being racist or sexist or any of the other varieties of biased and insensitive that we human beings are. I wonder if and how, in the spirit of the Avenue Q song, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” you might invite your friend into shared learning that would put you on the same side of the quest.
A friendship that only consists of challenge surely cannot stand; Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan’s challenging hevruta was sustained by a great love that served as a foundation for pursuing truth together. I wonder whether and how you and your friend could build an honest hevruta exploring racism among other things. The key is that you would also need to be open to the learning.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman is a rabbi and educator in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, she has served as assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation (MN) and of Congregation Kehillath Israel (MA).
Rabbi Allan Lehmann says…
You’ve already gotten some good, serious Jewish advice. While I wish I knew more about the particulars of the disagreement — was it about #BlackLives Matter? about Palestinians or Arabs? — whatever the specifics, the troubling perception of your friend’s racism leaves you with a problem. I’d encourage you to reflect on what specifically about her views bothers you, and on how and why you react to them. Do you see yourself reflected in her in any ways, even a little bit? That can be unsettling. Might she be speaking from values, opinions, or experiences that are also yours, even if you ultimately see things very differently? That might be comforting. I’d encourage you to explore what those commonalities, both troubling and reassuring, mean, both in understanding your reactions and in considering how to move forward.
When I’m involved in a controversial or difficult matter, I often identify voices on my own “inner steering committee” on all sides of the debate. That can help me understand other perspectives with nuance and subtlety, and have greater empathy with other people. At the same time, I’m not sure that is always necessarily a good thing. Might I sometimes be looking to understand, and thus to forgive, something really wrong and ugly? Only you can know whether this situation deserves that kind of stretching.
I’d like to think that were I in your place — especially with a long-time friend — I would try again. I’d try to make clear that both the subject and the relationship were important to me. I’d explain specifically what was offensive to me, and why. And if at all applicable, I would definitely describe both where I shared her values and feelings, and why I wound up in a very different place.
I hope that it is possible for the two of you to continue your friendship and grow in mutual understanding.
Rabbi Allan Lehmann counsels, teaches and advises rabbinical students at Hebrew College, Newton, Massachusetts. A New Orleans native and ordainee of the Reconsructionist Rabbinical College, he has served as president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, Hillel rabbi at Brandeis University, and rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Gainesville, Florida.
Now, what do YOU say?
How should you talk to a long-time friend about things they say and believe that seem to be racist, or otherwise deeply troubling? Weigh in by adding a comment below.
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Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.