This past Friday, as Americans processed the news that Donald Trump had contracted COVID-19, I witnessed a deluge of rabbis and various other Jewish professionals appeal to their followers on social media and elsewhere. The appropriate response to this news is compassion, they suggested. The Jewish thing to do is to pray for healing.
Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s column at religionnews.com is full of representative admonishments: “Let me say what particularly troubles me about those who snicker at the illness in the White House — especially those who are Jews, and even devout Jews… Five days ago — five days ago! — on Yom Kippur, we sat at our screens and prayed that God would help us raise ourselves above our baser instincts.”
Even if we set aside the implicit assumption about the moral superiority of “devout” Jews, the overall tenor of these messages strikes me as insensitive, a useless move to rush past the mess. Rather than take the opportunity to meet me where I’m at, to help me sift through my mixed emotions for some sort of wisdom, I am condemned for acknowledging the full range of my experience.
I was awake when the news alert about Trump came across my phone screen, and over the next day and a half and on until now, I have experienced a range of evolving and commingled emotions: fear, confusion, anger, guilt, and yes, satisfaction. It’s a lot to make sense of, and a lot to process. And yet, for those of us looking for a Jewish response to this particular curveball, it seems to me that cautionary reminders about which reactions are and aren’t appropriately Jewish amounts to glancing contact that sends the ball back-spinning into the bleachers behind home plate. We’ve entered foul territory.
(I should pause here to note that not every rabbi I saw on social media was contributing to this deluge — there were moments of nuance and reflection that further illuminated the patronizing dross being served up elsewhere. It’s also not just rabbis, of course, who are offering up these admonishments.)
I learned in therapy about meta-feelings, which are the feelings we have about our feelings, and are, for me, useless culs-de-sac of neurotic self-judgment and existential anxiety. Figuring out how to feel about how we feel is a fool’s game, as is setting boundaries around which feelings are appropriate. There is no intentionality to feelings; we simply feel them until we stop feeling them. I didn’t read about Trump’s illness and then take a beat to decide what my emotional response would be — I just had an emotional response.
When I am shocked or dismayed by my own emotions, I take a step back to catalog my feelings. Rather than judge myself for them, or rush to superficially persuade myself that I feel a set of different, more virtuous feelings, I ask myself, “Why?” What is it in me that causes me to feel this way?
Setting aside, for a moment, the other emotions I am feeling at this news, I’ve settled on the two main reasons that I felt a sort of satisfaction in learning that Donald Trump has COVID-19. I contend that they are not worth the meta-feelings of guilt that the social media rabbinate is determined to heap upon me.
1. The clarity. The Trump presidency has been defined by the sheer volume of deceit and graft flowing through the country. This goes hand-in-hand with a shameless attempt by Donald Trump to enforce his bankrupt worldview upon our shared reality. So yes, there is a certain satisfaction in demonstrable proof that some facts are irrefutable. Trump’s infection clearly illustrates that the line dividing truth from bullshit still exists. Perhaps my satisfaction is related to this, a sort of joyful response to the sudden clarifying of reality.
2. The irony. This is the big one. I recently began an MFA in creative writing, and as a life long devotee of fiction, I believe that we are hardwired to appreciate narrative irony. Michael Corleone, assuming responsibility for the family business that his father Vito wanted nothing more than for him to leave behind. Gollum finally snatching the thing he wants most in the world, and in doing so pitching himself into a volcano. Avon learning that while he was selling Stringer out to Omar, Stringer sold him out to the cops. A man denies the existence of a plague, and then contracts it. In life, things come full circle so infrequently that we invented storytelling, in all its forms, to feel the sweetness of a plot resolved — the people returning to the Promised Land. Narrative irony meets a need fundamental to the human spirit. We appreciate it instinctively. So excuse me for experiencing this same thrill when that irony visits itself on none other than Donald Trump.
Note that neither of these reasons are connected to Trump’s level of suffering, or contingent on the path his health takes from here. But I am not puzzling out the source of my feelings to discover whether or not I lack empathy. I want to understand my feelings because that is how I learn who I am. Why would I attempt to negate them — didn’t I just harangue against denying reality (see # 1 above)?
I know we’re all processing the news differently and expressing a wide range of takes. Far be it from me to suggest it is out of bounds to express compassion for someone who is sick, even if he is also terrible. What I take issue with — what I resent — is the tone of admonishment and the suggestion, from a position of spiritual authority, that Judaism dictates how we are to feel, and that we are only to feel one way. The rush to simplify a complex tangle of moral-emotional impulses might make your job easier, but it offers no insight to those of us who use our emotions as signals about how we are in relationship with the world and with ourselves.
Because the fact is, I don’t conceive of (nor practice) a Judaism that tells me how to feel. Judaism, as I see it — as I live it — helps me make sense of my feelings, and teaches me what to do about how I feel. After all, the 12 tribes are not named after Abraham, who blindly dragged his son up a mountain to offer him to God. No, they are named after Jacob, who erred, who lied, and wrestled with God, with himself, when he was called to his task.
Like me, you might find yourself wrestling with the news that this bad and powerful man is sick, with what it means for our country, with your emotional response to it, and what it means about who you are. But that’s okay. In fact, that’s the point: Judaism is in the wrestling.
Header image design by Emily Burack. Photograph of Donald Trump by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images.