There is a famous story about Hillel the Elder, a Jewish religious leader from the first century BCE whose ideas seem to have influenced Jesus Christ, and who therefore serves as an entry point for those wishing to identify the intersections between the Jewish and Christian faiths. The story goes that a gentile approached Hillel and told him he would convert to Judaism if the renowned teacher would explain the entire Hebrew faith while standing on one foot. Hillel proceeded to do so with the following aphorism:
What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor: This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary — go and study it.
I kept this anecdote in mind for two reasons during my interview with Charlotte Pence, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence. She is the author of a heartfelt tribute to her dad, "Where You Go: Life Lessons from My Father." In an era when bipartisanship and open dialogue are in short supply, the younger Pence deserves credit for agreeing to an interview with Salon.
Indeed, one of the major themes of Pence's book is that she has developed friendships with people of all ideological persuasions, and talking to her I could tell that this desire to reach out was genuine. It is easy to preach the virtues of bipartisanship but much more difficult to practice it; everyone expects the first concession, to be taken by the other side. It requires courage to make that step yourself.
As a result, I did my best to treat Charlotte Pence the way that I would hope to be treated in her situation.
The second reason I thought of Hillel the Elder his because his lesson speaks to the difference between me -- a secular, liberal Jew -- and conservative Christians like the Pence family. There are many ideas and moral edicts included in Jewish and Christian dogma that may have made sense when they were first written but today seem outdated or even oppressive. I don't believe that inherently discredits those religions; it merely demonstrates that, as Hillel pointed out, the specific doctrines are commentary surrounding a fundamental moral message.
(To be clear, this interview took place last week, so we did not discuss the mass shooting that occurred over the weekend at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.)
This is why I believe it to be entirely possible that God exists, and that he spoke to many of the men and women whose stories are told in the Bible, but that today he would urge us to embrace members of the LGBT community, women who choose to have abortions and others who are frequently condemned by conservative religious groups. Compassion is at the core of any religion that claims universal validity; all the rest is commentary, some of it as ageless as the central creed and some of it badly in need of revision.
There is a section of Charlotte Pence's book which details a trip taken by her family to Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge in East Jerusalem where it is believed, as Pence writes, that "the Messiah will come — for Christians, where Jesus will come back." She goes on to explain that an Israeli tour guide named Roni told her, "It is believed this is where the Messiah will come back. When he comes, we will ask him, ‘Have you been here before?’ If he says yes, we’ll know the Christians were right. If he says no, we’ll know the Jews were right. And that will be that."
Since many Jews (myself included) are concerned about powerful Christians who believe that members of the Tribe of Israel will be either forced to convert to Christianity or sent to Hell on that day, I decided to broach this issue with Charlotte Pence, as delicately as possible. When I did, a funny thing happened: Our call got dropped. Perplexed, I called her back and tried again, and although Pence apparently heard my question (and the recorder picked up her answer), I couldn't hear anything and eventually neither could she. Only after a third try did the fates permit me to ask this question and hear her answer without incident.
Coincidence or divine intervention? One can never be quite sure. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m sure you know that Salon has a reputation as a liberal website. I noticed that your book discusses the importance of reaching out to people with different ideologies and I’m wonder if that led you to agree to this interview.
Yeah, absolutely. I talk about in the book how I think it’s important to talk about our opinions openly and to have conversations with one another, even when we don’t necessarily agree. I think that’s something that my family has definitely taught me, and my parents have definitely taught me -- how to just have open conversations in a respectful way while disagreeing with people, so yeah. Absolutely. I’m more than open to talking to lots of different people with lots of different viewpoints. I write about that in the book as well.
At one point in you write that at your family's dinner conversations, your father always stressed that not every debate has to have a winner or a loser, and that you personally feel that conversations shouldn’t always have a winner and a loser. You extended that to describe your thoughts about your dad’s performance during the vice presidential debate in 2016.
Yes. One of the best things I got to do on the campaign trail, I think, was help my dad with the prep for the vice-presidential debate and that was a really special thing we got to do together. Specifically, in the book, I talked about how he was framing his argument surrounding women’s rights and his pro-life views, and I wanted to help him frame that in a compelling and compassionate way.
I remember when he was starting to come up with debate points, he was leaning on a lot of legislative points and certain topics, and I remember just telling him to speak from the heart and just to speak with the compassion that I know he has for people on both sides of that issue. And that culminated in him telling the story about a speech he saw Mother Theresa give, and I think that was just a really moving part of the debate.
Do you understand why many people people are pro-choice, including a majority of Americans, despite what your father and you may believe about that issue?
Something that in our family has definitely been stressed is just seeing the humanity in other people and understanding that people do have their reasons for believing certain things. I think it’s important to have lots of friends with lots of different opinions. I think that that only helps to create a situation where those biases kind of fall away and preconceived notions about people fall away. I think that’s the best way in which to not demonize other people for their views, is to just have those personal relationships. I think that everybody has their own reasons for believing what they do, absolutely.
[At this point I initially asked Pence about her personal views on what will happen to the Jews if Jesus Christ returns. She apparently didn't hear the question because the call was dropped. We resumed the conversation shortly thereafter.]
I was referring to the Mount of Olives anecdote in your book, which I will quote it in my article. My question is, what do you think will happen to Jewish people if the Messiah arrives and says that he has been here before?
I’m probably not going to get in the theological arguments. I think that I go into this in the book a little bit, just about how I think that people of faith can really come together and can find just a lot of common ground. I think the quote you’re referring to in the book is when our Israeli guide showed us around the Mount of Olives and talked to us about how people of different beliefs think about what will happen if the Messiah comes back on the Mount of Olives. When he told me that, I really just found the commonality with him and common ground that I think is really amazing and an important thing that people of faith can share.
In another section of your book that I thought was interesting, you say it can be difficult for you to know that people in the media or online are talking about your dad and his policies. What would you like to say to those people, and what do you hear them saying to you?
I do talk about that a little bit in the book, and honestly, I think that it’s all part of public life. I actually get into this quite in depth in the book, just talking about how in my family we’re taught to remember that being in public life means you’re going to take criticism, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll feel good. It never feels good when someone you love is talked about in a negative way, whether it’s in a classroom or in a public setting. I think something that’s really important is just remembering that our country and the freedoms that we have mean that people can speak out against their elected officials and can feel safe and comfortable doing so. And that’s a privilege. I hope that this book sheds light on a little bit more of who my dad is and who my family is. At the end of the day, people are allowed to have their opinions, and that’s a good thing.
What was your favorite personal experience with Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign?
Well, actually, I met him for the first time in Bedminster, New Jersey, at his resort there. My parents and I got to go out there and meet the Trumps. This is actually before my dad was picked to be his running mate. It was just really special. I went out there with them that weekend thinking that I wouldn’t get to meet Donald Trump and probably wouldn’t get to spend time with him in person, and he actually made time in his schedule to meet with me and my parents and have breakfast with us and to actually talk to me. He asked a lot of my opinions about the 2016 election and how it was going. It was really cool to see. He’s always treated me with just a lot of kindness, and I’m very grateful for that.
At another point in the book, you talk about being an introvert and how it’s often difficult for you to speak up when political conversations occur. That’s something I think people of all ideologies can relate to. What advice would you have for other introverts who feel overwhelmed or intimidated during political discussions?
I think that once I figured out that I was an introvert, it was kind of enlightening for me. I felt like this weight was off my shoulders in a way because I realized that I just got energy and gave energy in a different way than some other people. I think that introverts can definitely find a lot of energy and creativity in other ways. We can express our opinion, maybe like I do in writing, and just in taking time to really know about issues and read about issues.
What would you like to say to people who are critical of your father? Your book depicts him as being a very warm father and someone who has played a very important and positive role in your life. What would you tell people who are critical of him about his positions on various issues or about his work for the Trump administration?
I think with this book, I just want to show people how great of a person he is, how great of a dad he is. He has taught me by example in so many ways. He has shown me what unconditional love really looks like. He has extended grace to me when I didn’t deserve it. He’s been patient with me when I certainly didn’t deserve it, and I think that’s just something that anyone can learn from. I really wrote this book for everybody. I didn’t write it with any political opinions in mind, although my family is a political family. I purposefully tried to not include a lot of polarizing issues because I wanted people to be able to get something out of this, even if they don’t necessarily agree with my dad’s politics.
I’ve pretty much gone through my list of questions. I am tempted to return to the question that kept getting cut off. I wonder if that question is cursed.
Going back to the Mount of Olives anecdote, you said that you didn’t want to get into the theological aspect of it, but I'm curious about that, given that you are a graduate student studying theology [at Harvard]. As a Jewish person, this is something that my community is often concerned about: The idea that many Christians believe we aren’t going to be redeemed when the Messiah comes, or that we aren’t going to a positive afterlife. In terms of your own view of Christianity, how do you perceive what will happen to Jewish people?
I think that really what I got into in the book, we all kind of turned to our Israeli guide Roni, who I just really connected with, and he said that when the Messiah comes back, we’ll know, like, “who was right.” I think that’s an important perspective to have. I think that people from different faiths can definitely come together. We can all find common ground, and I think that’s really important. I think that faith is a uniting force and that’s something that my dad actually said at an interfaith meeting in Jakarta. Actually, that meeting was kind of what made me want to go to grad school and study theology and learn more about other faiths and to find common ground with people who have a faith, but it might be different from mine.
I've had a lot of fun during this interview. I will ask you one more open-ended question. What would you like to say, in general, to liberals -- to people who you know disagree with you but who you still hope will reach out by reading your book and trying to have respectful conversations with you?
I’m always open to conversation. My family had people from all different sides of the political aisle. We all have spirited debates and we all have differing opinions sometimes, and we just have always maintain that conversation and an open dialogue. I can call my dad at any time if I have an issue with something that I read about in the news, and he always answers my call and he will continue to do that. I think that that’s something everyone can kind of learn from. I think that maintaining those conversations is a really important thing, so I welcome conversation, and I welcome questions about my family and about my beliefs.