Americans disagree about healthcare, tax reform, foreign policy, immigration, the president and whether football players should kneel during the national anthem.
How can we mend an evermore-divided nation?
A few years back, a friend invited me to start attending Jewish Shabbat dinners at Shabtai: The Jewish Society at Yale. The experience proved to be a true locus amoenus during a season of life that my wife Holly and I fondly refer to as the “graduate school gauntlet.”
Presided over by a wise, wry-witted rabbi, Shmully Hecht, and his equally intelligent and winsome wife, Toby, the couple curated the kind of conversations around the Shabbat table that brought together secular and sectarian, poor and rich, Muslim and Jew, student and scholar, Mormon and pagan and jock and genius.
As you might imagine, there were strenuous disputes and genuine disagreements.
But as ideological foes shared soup and served each other a succulent all-Kosher spread, something seemed to change. Intellectually opposed interlocutors encountered each other face-to-face. While they broke bread and observed Shabbat rituals, debate morphed into dialogue and disagreements became, well, more agreeable.
By the end of the evening, former foes evinced goodwill and mutual respect.
“The first word of the face is the ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” writes the Jewish philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. “It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all.”
Put another way, when we truly encounter and engage the “Other” — those we might deem enemies — their faces speak to us, they oblige us and move us to empathy and understanding.
In an age of digital debates — carried out on social media or cable news channels — faces are pixels, names are "handles," and the Levinasian ethic of the “Other” is too often obscured to the point where we struggle to see a fully fleshed out soul, finding instead a megabite, sound bite or stereotype.
In the Academy Award-winning film "Babette’s Feast," two Danish sisters take in a refugee fleeing a war in Paris. Life is simple for the three women until one day Babette, the refugee and former French culinary master, sets their spartan Protestant village abuzz by promising to put on an extravagant feast after unexpectedly coming into 10,000 francs.
“The little neighborhood guests gather, not knowing there is a culinary genius in the kitchen,” writes former BYU philosophy professor Truman Madsen, describing the film. “During the dinner she never appears at the table, but remains perspiring in the kitchen, performing with meticulous skill and artistry. The group savors her meal. Men and women who have been guilty of estrangements begin, impulsively, to revel in mutual forgiveness and fellow feeling.”
The parables of the Shabbat table and "Babette’s Feast" are as much about the power of good food as they are about how encountering another’s face, in the words of Levinas, begins a “primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.”
When we look at our news feeds or check our social media pages, it’s easy to become discouraged by disagreements and differences. There’s no better way to restore hope than by encountering the “Other,” by breaking bread and conversing face to face.
There is much worth praising about a culture of shared values and commonalities. But, if we avoid encounters with the “Other,” or altogether jettison uncomfortable exchanges that seek mutual understanding, we risk never coming to see the similarities we share. Indeed, if we really yearn to stand united as a nation, we might first start by sitting divided for dinner.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.