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The Halacha of Despair in the Age of Trump

What have we given up and how can we get it back?

It is easy in these times to feel despair. How can the Jewish tradition help us deal with it? Despair is present throughout the chumash: in the travails of Joseph, a boy who makes good and a immigrant who never quite knows who he is, a man without a stable home. There’s the despair of Sarah, who has a child only to see him stolen away by incomprehensible ritual; and of Moses, who never makes it where he thought he would.

In halacha, yeush is the stance taken by a property owner without any hope of recovery, as opposed to abandonment or giving the property away. Our contemporary despair is the effect of Trump on what was already a deeply imperfect America; a natural reaction is to throw up one’s hands. It is philosophically inaccurate to call this “nihilism,” but that’s my favorite pejorative. To equate Trump and Clinton, or to be passive before a threat to American principles, is a belief that our country doesn’t matter.

The Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Metzia, considers the question of an object that is lost without the owner’s knowledge.

Yeush without knowledge, Abaye says — it is not despair [yeush], while Rava says, it is Yeush.

We have lost so much in the past year. Some losses are obvious and concrete (voting without foreign interference; the freedom to pursue rigorous journalism; access to reproductive health; leaders who eschew corruption). Others, no less important, are more abstract, beliefs and hopes whose promise our country has never achieved: that any human deserves respect no matter what group she belongs to; that pluralism makes us stronger. But there’s much that is less tangible whose loss we haven’t realized. What if there are so many missing pieces to our imagined America that we are left with a vague sense of unrightness rather than a clear mark of absence?

The Talmud continues to explain the dispute (translation thanks to Sefaria).

When [Abaye and Rava] disagree, it is with regard to an item in which there is no distinguishing mark. Abaye said: Despair that is not conscious is not considered despair, as he did not know that the item fell from him; therefore, he cannot despair of recovering it. Rava said: Despair that is not conscious is considered despair, as when he discovers that it fell from him, he will despair of its recovery; as he says upon this discovery: I have no distinguishing mark on the item. Therefore, it is considered from now,when the item fell, that he despairs.

When an object is found whose recovery the owner has despaired of, the finder can keep it. Are there distinguishing marks to American democracy? (The electoral college, or the separation of powers? Or something more ideological about the glory of human difference?) When did we realize our loss, or is our knowledge still incomplete?

Who is the “we”? In the year 2017 and the late stages of the American democracy, there are many groups whom Trump has hurt. It seems clear that African Americans are the population from whom the most has been taken, both in the past, and as part of the racial animus which has driven Trumpism.

Is yeush, despair, the proper category for this political loss? We might think a more fitting rubric is gezeilah, theft by force. Indeed there is much in the American political experience to which that category applies. The experience of slavery, segregation, and plunder, extending to our own day, is theft which requires recompense.

But less concrete losses accumulate from day to day.Taking note requires sustained attention, and much of the time it’s not even clear what we should be paying attention to. We are despairing at these losses. We can point the finger at Trump — but while he has done evil, he is not solely responsible for this state of affairs. The illusions of our democracy have collapsed, and it has taken more than one person to undermine them.

What if we are not sure about our knowledge regarding what has been lost? Maimonides describes the practical law in his Laws of Stolen and Lost Property, coming down on the side of Abaye in the Talmudic dispute.

Unconscious resignation, even when the lost object has no mark of identification, is not considered abandonment of hope of recovery. If, for instance, one dropped a denar without being aware that he dropped it, although he is likely to abandon hope of its recovery upon noticing that he dropped it, it is not deemed abandonment of hope as yet, until the owner is aware that it fell out [and disappeared]. If, however, the owner still says: “I may have given it to so-and-so,” or “it is lying in the chest,” or “I may have made a mistake in figuring,” or something like this, it is not regarded as abandonment of hope.

In applying the halachic category of yeush to our own day and Trumpian circumstance, we have to ask ourselves a number of questions. If democracy in the US somehow never achieved its promises of equality and pluralistic flourishing even before Trump, and this era has worsened that gap between dreams and reality, what has happened to those promises? Did we know they were gone? Are they gone forever such that we should despair of their recovery? Which promises are essential to the democracy that makes the US unlike other countries? Have we gone about this all the wrong way?

Have we entrusted our system to the wrong combination of political forces? If we have lost our American dream without hope of repair, should we remake the Constitution entirely, restructuring our entire approach to our nation, and making sure some higher promises are written into a new system so that they might actually be achieved?

If yeush, on the other hand, is not the appropriate comparison, we should ask what the right one is. Have we been mugged by Trump and his politics? Who is the gazlan, the violent thief, in this situation, and how do we get back what’s been stolen?

Whether despair is the only appropriate reaction is open to question, but it’s definitely a category we should explore as we feel our national ideologies disintegrate around us.