This week, I read a USA Today article about a young woman who, because of her political Facebook posts about the election, was uninvited by her mother to the family’s Thanksgiving table. Sarah-Jane Cunningham will apparently be spending today with her own private turkey and her two cats in Boston. I assumed that ugly politics divides the holiday guest list in rare and isolated cases, even after reading a similar piece in The New York Times. It was only when I eavesdropped on a conversation last week that I came to wonder if this is a wider problem than I realized. “We were going to go home for Thanksgiving, but I just can’t respect people who voted for ______. I don’t want to be there for the holidays, and a lot of my friends have made the same decision.” Yikes.
This week, I also came across the famous Talmudic discussion of “hon’at devarim,” oppressing another with words, that is based on a verse from Leviticus above. The verb “to mistreat” is open to much interpretation. A few verses earlier, the same term in Hebrew is used to discuss financial mistreatment of another, usually regarding monetary exploitation. When our verse is used a bit later, the sages of the Talmud figured that money was covered so that left this new prohibition to mean something else: oppression with words.
There are a lot of ways that we can oppress someone with language, and this range is well-represented in the Mishna and accompanying Talmud that discuss this transgression [BT
Bava Metzia 58b].
One may not say to a seller, ‘How much are you selling this for?’ if he has no wish to purchase the item. If one is a penitent, someone should not say to him, ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If someone is the child of converts, one may not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.
Let’s look at the last two examples first. While a person may volunteer information about his or her past, it is prohibited to “out” such a person. We leave that choice up to the person who has undergone a significant religious transformation. Some people may speak with ease about their spiritual journeys. For others, it is a source of shame, insecurity and vulnerability. It is not our place to expose someone else’s past and potentially compromise his or her dignity without prior consultation and permission.
The first case would seem, on the face of it, unlike the others in intensity and scope. Asking a seller the price of an item seems harmless enough. That’s true in today’s consumer market, but it may not be true even today, for example, at an art fair when the artist has not only made the paintings but is also trying to sell them. Creating false hope is not fair and, in some ways, can be an act of oppression for the thin-skinned who sees the failure of a sale as a rejection of talent.
The Talmud adds cases and details. One such case is to tell a person with an illness or one who lost a child that the suffering was brought on by his or her negligent religious behavior. The proof-text is one of the most difficult verses in Job, when Job's friends judged his suffering as a result of his spiritual deficiencies: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished being innocent?” (4:6-7). Suffering only happens to the wicked, they believe. Job must have done many wrong things to deserve his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I would un-friend these guys on Facebook.
Put the newspaper articles and the Talmudic passages together into a halakhic (legal) question: can questioning someone’s political judgment be considered “hona’at devarim,” oppressing someone with words? In other words, should Sarah-Jane Cunningham have consulted the Talmud before speaking to her mother? Disrespect works both ways, but since Mrs. Cunningham had the upper hand through her ability to withhold her invitation because of conflicting political views, I believe Sarah is the victim of this biblical transgression. I say, pack up the cats, put the bird in the freezer, and go home. And when poor Sarah enters her childhood home - which should always be a place of safety and love - she can make an agreement to keep the table peaceful by not having any discussion of politics.
People with the same political agenda might also want to give each other a break. Haven’t we talked about all this enough? Don’t we all need a Thanksgiving that is politics-free? I do.
And if your table cannot be a politically neutral zone, consider these three questions before the conversation starts:
- Can all sitting here express their views comfortably and respectfully?
- Can everyone here listen with curiosity and not with judgment?
- Can we agree that we live in a remarkable country and that our chief task on this day is to be grateful?
Don’t forget that in the holy Temple of old, God also had a “shulkhan,” a table. Our tables are supposed to mirror God’s table: a place of gathering, a place of abundance, a place of holiness.
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom