I recently heard a fascinating and shocking story. Matthew Silverman is an Orthodox Jew from North Miami Beach, who while an undergraduate at the New School in New York City befriended Derek Black, a leading white supremacist. His father founded the largest White Supremacist website and David Duke was his godfather. This friendship began when Matthew simply invited Derek for a Shabbat meal. Derek for some reason accepted the invitation. Many other Jews looked at Matthew’s actions as scandalous. “You are inviting a racist and bigot to your table? We need to respond to hate!” Yet Derek was accepted at the Shabbat table and Derek found him enjoying the camaraderie. This professed atheist and white supremacist continued to attend Shabbat dinners weekly, and the topic of his racist views was assiduously avoided. “We were truly friends,” Derek said, even as he was still playing leadership roles in American white supremacy groups, groups that had engaged even in Holocaust denial. After two years of Shabbat dinners however, Derek began to doubt his ideology, and finally labeled his life’s work for what it was until now- the propagation of hatred. He and Matthew now speak together against hate, and even spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
What happened to Derek?
People tend to think about revelation, matan Torah, primarily as a day that the Jewish people received the Torah, but it is not. It is primarily the day that the Jewish people entered into relationship with God. It is the day of when God and humanity decided to come into fellowship. As such, every relationship has standards, obligations, and rituals to underscore the power of the relationship. Hence, one might look at mitzvot simply as our expression of that relationship. Without the understanding that we are in relationship however, the Torah becomes a lifeless, or even worse, oppressive, set of laws.
Martin Buber put it best. He talked about two relationships in life- “I-it” (Ich- Sie) and “I-Thou” (Ich-Du). The former relationship functions primarily in instrumental terms. I interact with others to advance my own goals and needs. Many look at our relationship with the Jewish tradition in an I-It manner. People look at doing mitzvot transactionally. God is supposed to advance our own goals and needs. If we do X, we will get Y. For this type of person, when we don’t get Y we ask why we ever did X in the first place.
Sadly, many people look at human relationships in the very same way, which is why our society is so broken on so many levels. The world is a collection of ‘its.’ The world is here to serve me- my needs, my interests, my goals. In an “I-Thou” relationship however, the presence of the other claims me in my entirety. I experience the other in their own unique totality, and experience the world through the lens of the other.
The revelation at Mount Sinai introduced this other relationship, one in which we experience God on God’s own terms. The experience of standing before God is as important as getting the laws. It is an ‘I-Thou’ experience writ large, experienced only once in history. We are commanded to remember Sinai every day of our lives. The Torah is based upon an ‘I-Thou’, relationship. The commandments and ordinances are expressions of the active relationship of love we have with God.
Thus, mitzvah observance is ultimately to be God-centered, not human-centered. It is focused on the object of our devotion, and not my own needs. When we look at religion in this way, we realize God is an end in Him/Herself. Similarly, when we see God in each of our fellow human beings, we see them as ends in themselves as well. Our service- whether to humanity or to God- is an expression of love. We experience the other in front of us on their own terms; we recognize their values and desires as having importance outside of us.
This idea is fundamental in our relationships in life. At Mount Sinai we had an intimate experience that our lives actually are not the center of the universe, and that we are called to live in relationship. Revelation combats the narcissism of our culture which puts me at the center, and sees others in their own holiness. Ultimately, any meaningful relationship we have in life in which we bear witness to the humanity and holiness of another is an act of revelation.
What was the key to Derek’s transformation? My guess is that Matthew saw Derek- his enemy- not as a target to be combatted, but as a human being with his own story and experiences. At the Shabbat table he was welcomed and embraced, and Derek’s humanity was affirmed. In time, as Derek understood this, he needed to confront the humanity of his so-called enemy.
It is a holy thing to bear witness to the holiness and integrity of another. We started to learn this lesson as Jews, when we were called to confront the reality of the ultimate Other.