Avraham, Hillary and GroupThink
Recently Gerald Seib, a Washington reporter from the Wall Street Journal wrote:
In February 2016, some nine months before the presidential election that upended American politics, Rahm Emanuel called it. The Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff predicted that Donald Trump would not only win the Republican nomination but also beat Hillary Clinton in the fall. I recall him saying, “With this blue-collar, screw-you appeal he has, why should anybody assume that Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan are safe for Hillary?” One of the Democratic Party’s wiliest pols, Mr. Emanuel didn’t just nail the outcome; he even got the specific states right.
Did I believe him? No. Why? At least in part because the Washington consensus said that a Trump presidency simply couldn’t happen. My resistance to Mr. Emanuel’s views was a perfect example of the perils of being trapped in conventional wisdom, which has, in the past few years, driven so many to get so much so wrong.
Conventional wisdom? Not a Jewish concept.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced in earnest to the founder of Judaism, Abraham. Last week I wrote of the difference between Abraham and Noah as one of the hallmarks of the Jewish people. Namely, that Abraham took responsibility for humankind whereas Noach felt no such obligation.
But there is an even more basic notion that animates Abraham’s life and it has to do with how he is referred to in this week’s parsha. He is called an עברי Ivri
which is traditionally translated as “Hebrew”.
There are a few meanings behind this title. One is geographical – Abraham came from “the other side of the tracks” or river actually (the Euphrates) relative to where he ended up – Canaan/Israel. The root of Ivri is a’v’r which means “to cross over”. Another reason has to do with his genealogy and how it relates to the Ev’erlineage from Noah.
But the most telling meaning comes from the Midrash. Abraham and he alone stood ideologically on the other side and apart from everyone else in his time. While there were some individuals who believed in One God, most didn’t and Abraham was the only one who challenged others on this false belief.
In essence, Abraham was a radical. He went against and really didn’t care at all about “conventional wisdom” or its cousin Groupthink. He was an intellectual in the truest sense of the word and if something was true, that is what he would do and follow no matter what everyone else was thinking or doing.
And this is what it means to be a Hebrew. It means to be an outlier, to buck conventional wisdom and go against the grain. Abraham was the consummate Renaissance Man who looked beyond the lemming mentality of everyone around him.
Indeed this has always been a hallmark of the Jewish people – not to accept the status quo, to think outside the box and to view things from a different angle. Being an Ivri means not walking lockstep with any worldview that is convenient but forging out on our own. It is why Jews have been at the forefront of creativity throughout history and often alone on the side of moral issues.
Today it has created Israel as a “Start Up Nation”. Or that Israel and Israel alone is the sole supporter of Kurdish independence. This noble, hard fighting ancient people who have been the West’s greatest supporter against radical Islamic forces and nations cannot even get backing from the US or Britain. But it does from Israel.
Groupthink, Conventional Wisdom, Echo Chambers – the ruin of even the smartest and most powerful people who made the mistake of surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and never challenging themselves to see the other side and perhaps hear uncomfortable truths. It was the downfall of Hillary in writing off half of America as a “basket of deplorables”. It was the downfall of Mitt in writing off half of America when he said 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes and will vote for Obama no matter what.
If you want greatness and if you want truth you need to be like Avraham and do what God told him at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion – Lech Lecha/Go. Leave. Move from your land, your birthplace and father’s house. You need to uproot yourself from everything you are comfortable with and cross over – LaAvor and see the other side. Even if it means you are alone on that other side.
Be like Avraham. Be an Ivri.
There’s an ocean in my mind
I’d give the world if I could find
A sailing ship and leave the past behind…
You will see the light of change
Come shining through your windowpane
Though money, fame, and riches are
For fools and kings or anything
That turns them on