Deep Canvassing with Jonah
September 26, 2022
White supremacists marching in Charlottesville. Orwellian rhetoric about “good people” on “both sides.” Lies about a deadly pandemic. Lone wolf shooters who are hardly alone. Conspiracy theories. The call for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” An attempted coup. Possible espionage for foreign enemies at the highest levels of our government.
To be sure we must vote out and root out the fascist movements rising in our country. And we must prosecute to the full extent of the law those who undermined the security of our country.
But what are we to do about the rank and file of a vile movement that hates what we love and loves to hate?
- Of the one in five Americans who believes in QAnon conspiracy theories.
- Of the one in three Americans who believes in the xenophobic and antisemitic great replacement theory.
- Of the millions of gun fanatics who have built up stockpiles befitting a military operation.
We cannot simply wish them all away or lock them all up and throw away the key. We cannot deport them. We cannot engage in hate or violence of our own. Our only option is to persuade them to change their ways.
It is a daunting task. But during the High Holy Days, our tradition forces us to look beyond our own change work and to acknowledge the profound potential that others have to return to a path of righteousness.
That is why each year we read the Book of Jonah.
Much of the story may be familiar: a prophet named Jonah is called to go to the city of Nineveh and proclaim the need for its inhabitants to change their wicked ways. Jonah is overwhelmed by this task and tries running away from God.
Through a fantastical twist of fate, he ends up in the belly of a great fish. After three terrible days and nights in the proverbial belly of the beast, the fish spits him out on dry land, and Jonah receives God’s call once again to go to Nineveh and proclaim its impending downfall.
Despite Jonah’s initial assumptions, and his ongoing lackadaisical efforts, the people of Nineveh hear Jonah, heed God’s warnings, declare a fast, and put on mourning attire in acknowledgement of their wrongful ways.
We read in Jonah 3:5 that this was true from the mightiest to the humblest, mig’dolim v’ad k’tanam. Even the king got down from his throne, took off his finery, donned a sackcloth and sat in ashes. When warned of impending doom in, the people changed their ways and saved themselves. They performed t’shuvah en masse.
Yet this story does not exist in a vacuum.
According to the commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, Jonah is comparable to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – but one with a wholly different outcome. The difference in outcome is not only because the people of Nineveh show the capacity to change, but because God does, as well.
In some respects, the stories can be read together as an example of Divine T’shuvah, brought about because of Abraham’s patience and determination in supporting God’s evolution away from violence and towards compassion. If the Eternal can change, so too can many whose paths are well-trodden.
Both stories are about urban areas rife with wrongdoing. God is outraged that the beings God created are using their free will in such horrible ways. But Abraham fundamentally changes how God interacts with humans in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Listening with care and responding in a measured way in Genesis 18, Abraham famously asks God whether the cities are to be destroyed if there are 50 righteous people. Then 45. Then 40. Then 30. Then 20. Then 10 – the size of a single family unit at that time.
Many view this interchange as Abraham arguing with God or a formal negotiation. But notice the subtlety and softness of Abraham’s response. He does not decry God’s impulse for brutality. He does not abandon God or their special relationship. After listening deeply to God’s declared intent to destroy the cities, Abraham simply asks, ha’af tispeh tzadik im ha rasha – will you destroy the innocent along with the guilty?
Abraham asks a thoughtful question that evokes God’s own sense of justice.
Because of Abraham’s listening and careful reasoning, not only does God spare the innocent, but God’s belief in humanity grows by the time of Jonah.
In the Book of Jonah, God expands the scope of t’shuvah, of change and turning to righteousness. Rather than focusing upon the few who were easy to transform, God believed that many could change. It did not matter that the city of Nineveh was massive or far away. It did not matter that its inhabitants were gentile. God believed in them.
In our own time, it is easy to play the Jonah who writes off those who are different from us politically or geographically. It is easy to burrow into our circles of likeminded friends and feel validated by our unanimity. It is easy to continue working on ourselves, being good to those we know, and engaging in personal change work within the microcosm of our own lives.
But our mandate as Jews is to look to the horizon and venture to places where nobody looks, sounds, or seems like us – and where almost nobody agrees with us. Our mandate is to exemplify goodness, discuss open-mindedly, – and perhaps most powerfully, to listen.
For Abraham not only models an ancient approach to changing others – but one that social scientists have honed in recent years. It is called “deep canvassing.”
In contrast to typical political canvassing, which is about sharing materials and affirming a particular perspective or candidate, deep canvassing involves taking an approach that focuses on questions:
Asking people about their views on LGBTQ rights, immigration, gun violence, or any number of other issues – and then listening nonjudgmentally.
From there, you can ask whether your interlocutor knows anyone from the impacted community, or you can share a personal story about your connection to it.
Then you return to listening.
American Civic Life
Some have described it as a “public form of therapy.” But perhaps it is closer to the rabbinic method of inquiry, or the Socratic approach of many law schools. Your goal is not to tell people what to think, but to accompany them as they think themselves into a new way of being – gently nudging and encouraging their reflection.
It takes time and tremendous emotional energy – often far more than typical canvassing techniques. But according to studies published over the past five years in American Political Science Review and the journal Science, deep canvassing can inspire lasting changes in the people with whom we speak, no matter how intolerant we find their initial perspectives.
This is not a call to put ourselves in harm’s way, either emotionally or physically. But it is a call to take reasonable chances on the people we might be tempted to write off. It is to walk in the ways of Abraham – as he might do in our time. For our tradition does not allow us to simply write people off as irredeemable.
Our mandate is to do more than fly over middle America and await its self-destruction, but to see it firsthand and understand what is going so wrong for many therein. And for that matter, our mandate is to venture beyond the gold coasts of Lower Manhattan and understand what is going wrong for many in our own city.
COVID certainly did not foster a spirit for adventure or dialogue with strangers. But now is the time for us to reemerge from seclusion with higher purpose. It is time to go to Pennsylvania and register people to vote – as we will communally on October 9th.
Deep canvassing can inspire lasting changes in the people with whom we speak, no matter how intolerant we find their initial perspectives.
It is time to train as election monitors to ensure a free and fair election coast to coast.
It is time to reform the Board of Elections here in New York, which for too long has been a sinecure for the well-connected.
It is time to meet with and organize alongside gun-owners who believe in universal background checks.
It is time to see who among the religious right has the moral consistency to stand for laws guaranteeing parental leave and fuller supports for infants, children, and their caretakers.
It is time to build and rebuild coalitions with unlikely allies and to abandon utopian notions of universal agreement on all issues.
It is time to counter our own atomization at the behest of social media, television, and social inertia in the wake of COVID – and both make new friends and foster dialogue with people we might not otherwise encounter.
The dual lessons from the Book of Jonah are to believe that we can help others change – and to venture forth to places that make us uncomfortable so that we, too, might change in the process.
Sometimes we can best measure our own growth in a new environment – and sometimes the places that feel least hopeful can come to exemplify the fullness of human potential.
May we, in this New Year, venture forth as bridge-builders. May we make change in others – and, in so doing, change ourselves.
Ken y’hi ratzon.