The Elephant in the Room


This sermon comes with a trigger warning. Before I begin, I want to say that my purpose in this sermon is not to take a political side or to cast aspersions on any political figure or political party. On the contrary, my purpose is to begin to provide a path of healing and reconciliation among people of vastly different points of view. So, I ask you not to make assumptions about where I am going with this sermon until you have heard the whole thing.
During the election campaign then candidate Donald Trump expressed a sense of wonder and amazement at the level of loyalty of his core supporters. There was a moment in the campaign when lots of negative stories were coming out about Mr. Trump. Yet, the enthusiasm of his supporters seemed completely unaffected. And, at one point, he said, “I could commit a felony in the middle of Times Square and they would still love me.”
Many of Donald Trump’s fiercest political opponents would agree with that statement and it baffled them. For today, I am not interested in talking about Mr. Trump himself, pro or con. I am interested in what his statement tells us about how we make decisions.
There is a remarkable statement in the Talmud that a rabbi is not worthy to be a Torah scholar unless he is able to provide 49 arguments for declaring a reptile kosher. Imagine a kosher—keeping rabbi who has mastered 49 excellent arguments for declaring a pig to be a kosher animal. And, imagine this were a requirement for graduating Rabbinical School. What could possibly be the value in that?
And, I think there are at least two things going on here. First, the rabbis were telling us that the purpose of moral argument is to expose us to a different point of view than our own, not just to congratulate myself for what I believe. And, even if I am convinced that the other person is as wrong as a pig is kosher, I owe it to myself to see the world from his point of view. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I have something to learn from him.
Even more radically, the rabbis were telling us that in the end, our decisions about what is right and what is wrong are not made purely on the intellectual level. On the level of rational argument, it’s conceivable that a skilled debater can prove to us that a pig is kosher, that stealing is a mitzvah, and that murder is an ideal. And, therefore, if our goal is to change things, we may have to think beyond coming up with the best arguments of why we are right.
The person who has made this point most eloquently today is Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. Haidt is a social psychologist. He compares the human being to an elephant and its rider. The rider is our rational self. The elephant is our emotional, intuitive self.
Haidt says that most moral decisions are made at the level of the elephant. We may think that we/the rider/our conscious rational self are deciding what is right and what is wrong. But, Haidt says, most of the time, our mind is already made up for deeper, emotional reasons. That’s the elephant. And the function of the rider is to be the press spokesman for the elephant.
So, think of a press spokesman at a presidential press conference. His job is not to make the decisions. His job is to explain the decisions. And, no matter what arguments are thrown at him from the other side, this rider is always going to defend the elephant. And, it doesn’t matter whether the elephant is right or wrong. A skilled rider will always come up with 49 reasons to prove that he is right. And, this is true regardless of political party or ideology.
And, the rabbis say that this is what is going on in today’s parasha. On the level of the rider, it’s difficult to argue with Korach. He says: “ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim/all the people are holy, Moses. Why should you be the boss man?” On a rational level, this is a great argument. It looks like Korach is an idealist. He is a champion of egalitarianism for a people that has just left slavery. If you argue with him on that level, you are going to lose.
On the level of the rider, this is an argument about freedom. But, on the level of the elephant, there is a lot more going on here. The Jewish people have just been told that it’s going to be 40 years before they enter the Promised Land. And, the generation that left Egypt is not going to enter at all. Their children will.
So, the Jewish people are frustrated, and they are afraid, and they are tired and thirsty in the hot desert. No wonder these feelings are bubbling up to the surface in the form of a rebellion. Address this elephant and you might get somewhere. Engage Korach on the level of the rider, and you’re going to be spinning your wheels.
What does this mean for us today? We have a choice. We can address the rider or we can address the elephant. Let’s take the example of ‘fake news.’ Even conservative columnists like Bret Stephens have criticized the president for casting aspersions on the bedrock American democratic institution of the free press.
But, this is an argument on the level of the rider. Engaging the rider might make us feel good. But, it’s not likely to change anything, regardless of what team we are on. But engaging the elephant would require us to ask: Why does this phrase ‘fake news’ resonate with millions of Americans? What is the source of the distrust, the alienation, the suspicion that makes so many Americans feel like they live in a completely different universe from their political rivals?
We have a choice. We can pick the news outlet that will be our press spokesman. And, that might make us feel very righteous, but it won’t change anything. Alternatively, we can bypass the rider and speak directly to the elephant.
And, this is true in many areas of our lives. Very often, when we hear anti-Israel rhetoric, we respond with talking points, logical reasons the other side is wrong. But, that’s addressing the rider. The other side also has a rider. And, their press spokesman is just at good at talking points. This is a recipe for eternal frustration.
AIPAC has a different approach. AIPAC doesn’t send us into a lobbying session with our senator armed only with talking points. By the time we have that session, AIPAC has already had a relationship with that senator for 20 years since she was student class president of her college. They have taken her to Israel. They have formed an emotional connection with her and between her and the State of Israel.
AIPAC understands that we don’t make decisions purely on a logical basis. If we already feel we are part of the team, then logic can reinforce that. But, the elephant must be addressed if the rider is going to have a fighting chance.
Intuitively, we understand this. Why do we send our kids on Birthright? Why do we send our kids to Jewish summer camp? We understand that Judaism is not just an intellectual argument. It’s all about relationships.
In our Muslim-Jewish group, we have built relationships with our Muslim neighbors over a five year period. Does that mean we have convinced each other to change each other’s minds? It’s not that simple. But, I do think we have created an atmosphere in which we are more inclined to listen to each other and to take each other seriously. There is some hope for the rider, because we’ve addressed the elephant.
And, that’s why at HNT this coming year, we are going to do something incredibly challenging and incredibly hopeful. We are creating a series on Civil Discourse where people of vastly different political points of view can discuss their views in an atmosphere of acceptance, tolerance, and mutual respect. If we succeed, perhaps it will inspire others to do the same. We need this to happen all over America. Our country is deeply divided. Families have been disrupted. Friendships have been ruined. This is no way to run a democracy.
The key to fixing it is relationships. We need a change in orientation if we are going to move forward as a country. It’s tempting to stay on the circular track of battling it out with the riders. But, the riders on both sides have 49 ways of proving that the other side is wrong.
So, we can continue to be baffled that the other side can believe a pig is kosher. But, if we really want things to change for the better, we need to address the elephant in the room.