Last week, CNN hosted a prime-time town hall featuring former President Donald Trump. The conversation lasted seventy minutes and garnered very strong reactions from both supporters and critics alike.
One critic of CNN wrote, “Platforming Trump was irresponsible given the lies he was always likely to spew at the town hall.” A supporter shared, “CNN performed a valuable journalistic service this week by hosting a spirited town hall with Donald Trump. Like it or not, Mr. Trump is one of the two people who are most likely to win the presidency next year.”
Anderson Cooper defended his network, saying, "The man you were so disturbed to see last night, that man is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. You have every right to be outraged today, angry and never watch this network again, but do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?"
Whatever you think of Trump and the moderator, this debate about the town hall raises an important question, not only about CNN, but about each one of us. Are we stuck in our silos and echo chambers, only exposing ourselves to those we agree with and only platforming people who match our mentality and perspective? If, on the other hand, we do allow ourselves to listen and learn from diverse sources, where do we draw the line? What behaviors and beliefs are so out of bounds that we must not provide a platform or pay attention?
New research from UC Berkeley shows a startling number of Americans exist in "partisan echo chambers," where they only consume news that reinforces their existing political and social biases. David E. Broockman, one of the study’s authors, describes the concept of selective exposure and suggests that many people choose to isolate themselves in a bubble because that constantly reinforces their views, in effect providing a defense against a complex, unstable world.
Clearly there are people and ideas that are out of bounds, beyond the line. While we may disagree on where to draw that line and whom to exclude, we can likely agree that there is a large, beautiful, Jewish and Torah world made up of people and perspectives that differ from our own but are certainly legitimate. The question is, how often do we read, listen to, or engage those with whom we may not agree or agree entirely? Do we listen to opinions or conclusions we don’t fully identify with but that can help broaden our thinking and ultimately solidify our own?
This week, I spoke to seniors at a local high school about Jewish communal life and leadership and finding your mission in this world. Almost all of them are going to seminary next year in Israel and I challenged them: Each of you will likely have somewhere comfortable and convenient to go for Shabbos: maybe a sibling, or aunt or uncle or grandparents or close family friend. They will have American-style beds and a shower, delicious and plentiful food, and a Shabbos table that feels familiar. Go to them, enjoy, spend time with family. But don’t go there exclusively and don’t even go there mostly. Use your year or years in Israel to explore the beautiful tapestry of Klal Yisroel. Spend Shabbos in Geulah and the Gush, in Ramat Eshkol and Ranana, in Bnei Brak and the Carlebach Moshav. Meet Jews who dress differently, think differently, and serve Hashem differently. See the splendor and richness of Hashem’s children, decide what you will embrace and incorporate from each and identify what doesn’t speak to you and why.
I told them that no matter what seminary you attend, you will have rebbeim and teachers who will speak right to your neshama, who will inspire you, and what they say and how they live will resonate deeply. But you will inevitably also be exposed to someone who will say something that rubs you the wrong way, that upsets you or turns you off, that doesn’t sit well with you, or won’t be consistent with how you were raised or how you want to raise your family. Don’t be upset, don’t conclude you are in the wrong seminary or you are in the wrong class. Ask yourself, why are you upset, what is the core of your frustration? How can understanding what you disagree with help you understand more about you and what you believe in?
The truth is, the message I shared with these young students is relevant to all of us. Not only can we travel to different communities and expose ourselves to different experiences and ideas, but thanks to technology we can journey without going anywhere at all. Whether in Hashkafa or l’havdil politics, don’t only listen and read people you agree with and who feel safe and secure. Challenge yourself to expand your mind, your thinking and your perspective.
Someone I admire greatly, a big Talmid Chacham who is a broad thinker, once put it to me this way. We each have a home address and place we live most comfortably. But isn’t our life enhanced if we have a passport and travel, if we explore and see the bigger world. We likely want to go back home, but perhaps we bring a souvenir or a tradition back with us. We need spiritual passports. While we should have a spiritual home address that anchors us, we should want to get our spiritual passport stamped by visiting other destinations.
Of course, we need more intense “selective exposure” when it comes to ideas, images and ideals that are foreign or hostile to our timeless Torah but perhaps we could all benefit from more exposure to the range of beauty in the Torah world.
Our practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah comes from a Gemara in Yoma (53) which states, “Hamispaleil tzarich she’yafsiah shelosha pesios l’achorav v’achar kach yitein shalom. The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace.” R’ Menachem BenZion Zaks (in his commentary on Pirkei Avos) explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. After stepping back, we ask “Oseh shalom bimromav, God, who creates peace, please bring peace,” and we then turn to the right and to the left. Explains R’ Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.
Maintaining the capacity and the will to bow, recognize, listen to and learn from those on the right and left of us religiously and politically is the key to the greater peace with others that we desperately yearn for. But it may also be the key for peace of mind and peace within ourselves as well.