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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Beyond Us and Them.....How Do We Create a World In Which There is Only the One?

Bloggers Note:  This is a VERY lengthy post, as I felt the need to deal with so many different issues which have arisen over the past months.  Please take your time to read it and to respond, privately or on the blog itself, if you would like.  I'm sure you won't agree with everything, but that's not the point is it?   
L'shalom/In Peace,
Steven
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I would like to apologize for my lengthy absence from this blog. When last I wrote we were still reading about the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau in the middle of the book of Bereshit/Genesis. Now we are in the middle of the book of Shemot/Exodus. This past Shabbat we  read the Parashah/Portion called Yitro (Jethro), which is the name of the High Priest of the nation of Midian who is also the father of Tzipporah, Moses' wife. In this parashah he comes to see Moses (and one would hope, his daughter as well, though the text seems to ignore this....hmmm) for he has heard of all the wonders which God did for the Israelites; so he declares  publiclythat the Israelites' God is indeed greater than all the other gods.

Yitro then notices that Moses is adjudicating all disputes among the people by himself. Yitro tells his son in-law that this is not good and then describes how to set up a system of trustworthy men to handle the minor decisions, thus allowing Moses to focus on the more difficult ones. Moses sets up this legal system recommended by Yitro and it remains in place throughout the years of wandering.

After Yitro leaves, the people remain in the wilderness of Sinai for three more month and eventually they receive the Ten Utterances of God, long been (mis)translated as the Ten Commandments. This is the central mythic event of the Torah which represents the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, later the Jewish people.   Here ends my synopsis.

It would be easy for me to focus this commentary on the Ten Commandments. But so much has been written about them already, I don't feel like there's much I could add at this moment. Nor do I feel like I have anything special to offer in terms of commentary on Moses, Yitro and Tzipporah. Rather, what prompted me to write about this parashah was simply the fact that I felt the time had come for me to begin writing again. For I realized that, to some degree, I had been avoiding this because so much has been happening in the world and I didn't know how I could connect these events to the Torah. And yet, I knew I would feel I had shirked my responsibility as a rabbi and a blogger were I not to at least try to find a way to comment on and connect the two.  And so, in what is clearly becoming more of a stream-of-consciousness commentary, I would like to at least begin this task.
Over the last few months there have been so many tragedies in our country and in our world which have been disturbing, infuriating, disheartening and inexplicable. These include, but are not limited to: the events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island NY and Cleveland, OH involving the deaths of black men – and one 12 year old black boy - at the hands of white police officers, the subsequent protests and demonstrations in response to these killings, the unrelated ukilling of two on-duty police officers in NYC, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murders in the kosher supermarket in Paris, kidnapings, beheadings and other atrocities committed at the hands of ISIS, Al Qaida and other Muslim extremist groups, the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram, as well as the other kidnappings and murders taking place in Africa, the continued fighting in the Ukraine, missile attacks by Hezbollah into Israel, violence in Gaza and the West Bank, other terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere, violence and unfair treatment of  many Palestinians and Bedouins at the hands of Israeli Jews, the brutal murder by ISIS of women seen as dressing or acting improperly and of gay men for simply being or appearing to be gay, the murders of transgender people (especially of color) in the USA  elsewhere for expressing their gender identity (which gets far too little press).......the list goes on.

In looking at this list it's easy to see why the task of writing felt particularly daunting. But then something clicked when I was reading this past week's parashah/portion and then suddently thinking of a favorite song of mine. What clicked was the underlying theme of what appears to be a human need to create separations, dichotomies, polar opposites, etc. in our world. We see it all around us: black/white, straight/gay, man/woman, Muslim/non-Muslim, Jewish/non-Jewish, Christian/non-Christian, believer/infidel, Israeli/Palestinian, majority/minority, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, oppressor/oppressed, superior/inferior, and this list too could go on. In the end, all of these dichotomies, which are utterly and totally a creation of the human mind, can be summed up by one simple dichotomy, which is the name of the song I mentioned above: Us and Them.

We humans seem to have an intense need to glorify those we label as “us” while either ignoring, denigrating, oppressing or abusing those we label as “them.” And yet the reality, which is found in the teachings of so much of religion, especially in the mystical realm, is that there is no Us and Them. There is not even a You and an I. Those are all constructs and labels of the human mind. For in truth, there is only One. We are all part of the One. We are all “Us.” What causes suffering in the world is the rejection of this eternal Truth, which is then replaced with the labels which I mention above.

In the powerful lyrics, written by Roger Waters and performed by Pink Floyd, of which he was a part, long a favorite song from perhaps my favorite rock album, The Dark Side of the Moon we find the following:

Us and Them
And after all we're only ordinary men
Me, and you
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do
Forward he cried from the rear and the front rank died
And the General sat, as the lines on the map moved from side to side

Black and Blue
And who knows which is which and who is who
Up and Down
And in the end it's only round and round and round...

Though on the surface this song is about war, the deeper message is that when we live our lives based on these false dichotomies, rather than acknowledge that we are all connected, then we create suffering, violence, war and terror. There is a sense that in war, as well as other disputes and violence, we do not create these labels and separations because it is what we want to do, nor what God would want us to do (however one chooses to understand that concept). Rather, it is something which has become ingrained in us through the millenia, causing the strife of which the songs speaks. But in the end the need to constantly separate and define also leads to chaos and confusion, where those who are fighting may not even know “which is which and who is who.”

But how does any of this connect to this week's parashah? For me, the answer is simple, even though I never thought of it before now. For within Judaism, the Us/Them dichotomy is forever affirmed in the covenant at Sinai represented by the giving of the Ten Commandments. At that central mythic moment, the Israelites are designated (read: labeled) an am segulah/treasured people; they are chosen and told that they are to be am kadosh/holy people and a mamlekhet kohanim/kingdom of priests. This is the culmination of an endeavor begun generations before in the moment when God called to Avram (later Abraham) and told him to go to the place which God will show him.  From that point on, the Torah is focused on the creation of a new people dedicated to the worship of the One God and which now is designated as God's special possession.

I am not saying whether this designation is good or bad, for those are the labels of the false dichotomy which we create perhaps more than any other. Rather, I would state simply that this is what it is. It is the “Truth” of the Torah. It is, in many ways, its essence. The same can be found in the holy texts of other religions where the labels of Us and Them are very much present, though the players and the roles are different (or reversed).

Something else which struck me is that, this parashah, which is a central narrative of the Torah, is named after a non-Israelite priest.  Someone who could easily be that of as "other" or part of "them". Certainly, giving his name to a Torah portion is a way to honor Yitro's role in helping Moses to set up the new judicial system. And so one would imagine that this sense of honor would also be extended to his people, the Midianites. But this is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true. For ultimately, Yitro's people, the Midianites are another “them” or “other” who become demonized as an enemy of Israel. In Bemidbar/Numbers chapter 31 Moses commands the Israelite men to slay all of the Midianites, for it was the Midianite women who had led the Israelite men into illicit sexual and religious involving the worship of their god, Baal Peor.

As if this were not enough, when the soldier return to Moses with the women, girls and boys still alive, rather than killing everyone as Moses/God had commanded, Moses is furious. He tells them to kill all the women who were not virgins, as they had led the Israelite men astray (amazing how men seem to have no willpower, but it is THEM, the women as “temptresses,” who always get the blame and punishment for the the men's actions). He also commands them to kill the boys, but to spare the girls or the women who were still virgins. I won't even address the implications of the last part of the commandment at this time, except to say that it is but one of many disturbing aspects of this narrative.  But these commands could have been given and eventually obeyed if all of the Midianites were viewed as “them,” or as “the other.”

Only a few decades after Yitro advised Moses, Midian, the nation of Yitro the High Priest, had become Midian, the nation which tried to lead the Israelite men astray and which needed to be annihilated. Even the magician Balaam, who earlier in the Torah had praised the beauty of the Israelite encampment (the words of the Ma Tovu prayer) when the Moabite king Balak wanted him to curse them, is now portrayed as evil. For the text states that it was he who ordered the Midianite women to tempt the Israelite men, and so he too was put to the sword. I suppose he was always really a part of “them”and not “us,” but it is only now that this is recognized and his services are no longer needed, that he is treated as such.

Whether one believes the Torah to be written by God, human beings, Moses or some combination, the message of these texts is clear. There is an Us and there is a Them. Those labelled as Them are evil and against God. Those labelled as Us are good and are God's people. And yet the perhaps more subtle transformation of the image of Balaam and all of the Midianites from others who were allies or helpful to others who were evil and must be annihilated truly bothered me. For this kind of transformation is is something which has happened throughout history and still happens today.

We can all point to times when nations, people, even each of us, has praised, lauded, even befriended someone who could be seen as “other” as long as they are either serving our needs or helping us in some way. But should that change, the positive traits of those people is forgotten and they are simply seen as “other.” Ultimately any society or system which is based on a strong belief in Us and Them, risks becoming a society which becomes based on the dichotomy of majority and minority (often based on perception and not actual numbers) which can eventually lead to the dichotomy of superior and inferior, worthwhile and worthless, human and sub-human.

Look at the abomination of slavery in the United States. Even though it was based on the belief in superiority and inferiority, human and sub-human, it was also common for some white slaveholders to treat certain black slaves as special because of how they served the household. At times, it might even appear that there was a friendship between master and slave. But these were never true relationships or friendships. How could they be when the dichotomy and the inequities were so ingrained in the system. And so, if that particular slave were to do one small act which displeased the master, or if they were no longer useful to them, the slave would be cast out, beaten or even killed. This was easily done because the slaves were seen not only as “other,” but as sub-human. And that is the danger of dichotomies.

The Holocaust is another example. It is evident that Hitler, the Nazi party and many German citizens clearly saw the world as Us vs. Them. They could easily turn their backs on, imprison and kill Jews, Roma, Gays, and others who had lived among them, and been acquaintances or even "friends" because, deep down, they had always viewed these people as “other.” The tragedy was compounded by the fact that they Jews did not see this. They saw themselves as part of the German people. So many believed that they were part of Us and not Them. So many German Jews could not bear to see themselves as “other” and the land of their birth. And so, many of them clung to that belief, until they realized it was a charade which they had been playing all those year. But by then it was too late. It did not matter how they viewed themselves. In a dichotomous society it is only the perspective of the “majority” which really matters in the end.

The legacy of the inequities slavery in the United States continues to have dire effects on our society. Many of these have become evident during this past year to those who for years preferred to keep their eyes closed . And yet, still there are many who deny or ignore the reality. For here in our own streets we have seen African-American men and boys killed by police. This is something which the African-American community has taken for granted for many years. But only recently has it entered the public sphere in such a profound way.

For many, the debate has been about whether or not the police officers who shot these unarmed black men and one unarmed boy were blatantly racist or acting in what they perceived to be self-defense. But as so many have written, that is not the main point. For even if the officers believe that they didn't have a racist bone in their bodies and were acting out of self-defense, there was something deeper and more sinister at work. For we must remember that the society in which we live has it's roots, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not,  in White European Christian colonialism, which was inextricably linked to the slavery of Africans, the subjugation of Native American and later to Jim Crow laws and the inequalities between Whites and People of Color which still persists today. 

We may teach that our society is based on the belief that all men (sic) are created equal. And this is a goal for which we must strive.  But in truth, it is also based on a deeply ingrained Us/Them dichotomy, in which there cannot be true equality. Many whites don't like to acknowledge that there is such a thing as white privilege, nor do white men like to admit that there is such a thing as white male privilege. We also don't like to acknowledge that there is institutionalized racism which pervades our society and which we all need to fight against, especially if we are the ones who benefit from the inequalities of the system which we have inherited. The white people who marched in solidarity with people of color shouting “black lives matter” or “I can't breathe” this past summer and fall realized that, at least to some degree. But those of us who benefit from white privilege must acknowledge that we can never know what's it like for African-American parents who need to teach their children (especially sons) at an early age how to behave around police officers in order to avoid unwarranted arrests, harassment, and even death. We cannot know what it's like to be afraid that our sons might be killed for no reason on the streets of their city nor what it's like to simply not be able to hail a taxi on the streets of our cities because people fear us due to the color of our skin.

As a gay Jew I know very well that there is homophobia and antisemitism in the world, as well as other prejudices. And I know that antisemitism has been on the rise in many places. However, I am “lucky”that when people look at me they don't know my identity unless I chose to share it with them.  I am able to pass, should I so desire.  In addition, these prejudices, though very real, are not things which I fear every day, as do African-Americans and other people of color. And even should it become that, God forbid, that would not give me the right to claim my persecution is greater than yours, or to ignore the persecution of others. Rather, it should mean that all of us who are persecuted should join together to fight against hatred and against a system which perpetuates false dichotomies which create prejudice and intolerance.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine that gave me yet another perspective on not only the dangers of viewing people as “other,” but how easy it can be to go from being seen as one of “us” to being one of “them”in an instant.

This friend is a secular/agnostic Muslim from a place in the middle east which, though predominantly Muslim, is still a diverse and tolerant society, which is not dominated by extremists.  He is a valued member of this society, as he is a surgeon who, among other things, has saved the lives of soldiers fighting for freedom against the extremist forces in the region. He has gone to the front lines and worked to save as many as he can. He is a bright, creative, caring man who is dedicated to helping others.  However,  no one there, including his family members,  knows that he is gay. As he stated to me numerous times, he has no doubt that if it were discovered that he was gay, he would be dead within 3 days.  Being gay is against the norms of his culture to such a degree that it is punishable by death, sometimes at the hands of family members! This is only possible because the LGBT community is viewed as totally “other, as Them and not as Us. He may well be praised and admired by his people as a hero who has risked his own life and saved the lives of countless others fighting for freedom on the front lines, as well as in hospitals. However, that would mean nothing if it were discovered that he was gay. He would instantly become “other” because of his sexual orientation. He would no longer be seen as part of his society, part of his people, let alone as a hero or a person of value. And soon he would be dead.  And it is for so many in our world.

Returning to the lyrics of the song, we may think we may think that we know who is Us and who is Them, and to which group we belong, but it is rarely so clearcut. In any given moment we may assume we know which is which and who is who, but that may change in an instant. In the end the result is chaos and violence,  it truly is round and round and round. The only way to stop the downward spiral is to rid ourselves of the need to create dichotomies. This may seem an impossible task, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to acheive it, even in little ways.  We can start individually with something as simple as not trying not to label things, people or groups as right and wrong, good or bad, even when we might disagree with their beliefs. Starting there we may some day reach the point as a society, here and throughout the world, where we realize that we are all human beings. We are all a part of the One, which I choose to call God.

This does not mean we should deny the fact that we each have our own religious, ethnic, sexual, gender, racial, political and other identities. Rather, it means that we need to simply look at each of those as an aspect of who we are, as the things which make us unique, but not better. And yes, they also create a sense of connection to others who identify similarly. However, we must learn to do this without feeling the need to compare ourselves to those who belong to other identity groups. For once we do that, we begin to create a dichotomy which can then become a hierarchy (whether or not we want it to) and which can lead us back into the spinning circle of mistrust and hate which is at the heart of conflict, war, hatred, terror and violence in our world.
When Al-Qaida extremists stormed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, executing their staff, the world was in shock. Whether or not one agreed with the political positions of the magazine or even liked anything about it, people gathered together and proclaimed Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie. When the terrorists entered a Kosher supermarket when trying to evade capture and killed innocent Jews, people then proclaimed Je suis Juif, I am a Jew. And as condemnation of Muslim extremists quickly turned into condemnation and hatred of Islam and all Muslims for so many, the world also became aware of Muslims who saved others and who gave up their lives in the Paris attacks. One of them was name Ahmed. And so we saw signs of Je suis Ahmed spring up as well.
These were all beautiful sentiments, but they were only the beginning. For slogans such as these often fade away, as do their meaning. But we must not let that happen.

Just as Jews, Christians, Muslims and others joined together in the streets of Paris, and white Americans joined together with African-Americans and other People of Color on the streets of Ferguson, New York and elsewhere, so we must join together with all human beings around the world to remind one another that we are One. Cries of I am Charlie, I am a Jew, I am Ahmed, Black Lives Matter, I Can't Breathe must eventually be replaced by cries of I am a Human Being, I am Your Sister, I am Your Brother, I Am a Child of God, All Lives Matter. We must all be able to breathe the same air. We are One.

When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds after the Israelites escaped to freedom, the Israelites sang a joyous song of praise and thanksgiving to God. In a midrash (rabbinic legend) the angels in heaven began to sing a song of joy as well. However, God immediately ordered them to cease their singing saying to them “how can you sing a song of joy when my children (the Egyptians) are drowning in the sea?”

There are always innocent victims, pawns in any war or struggle, as we continue to play the game of “Us vs. Them”. But the message of the midrash is clear. The angels, who are just a little lower than God, should know better than to celebrate the death of any human being, for we are all God's children. In Psalm 8 we read that God made human beings just a little lower than the angels. In that case, I believe the time has come for us to strive to be a little more angelic and a little less “human” (at least based on the qualities of being human of which I have written above). Only by doing so can we bring an end to the senseless hatred and violence which continues to destroy so much of our world.

Some of you who read my words might say “we didn't start these problems” or (as I could say) “my ancestors were half way across the world when slavery began. As Jews, they were not part of the White European Christian colonizers and expansionists who created the system of inequity which still exists today. My people has often been discriminated against as well.” We might also say that you are not guilty of creating this system and you can't help it if you benefit from it.   We might also proclaim that it's impossible to do much in order to end a system which is so ingrained in our society and our world. In response to these spurious arguments, recall for us the words of the great prophetic voice of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing) who marched next to Dr. King in Selma and who protested against the Vietnam War and other injustices:  "in a free society, few are guilty, but ALL are responsible."  Remembering these words, let us remember that it is not about acknowledging our guilt, but rather, embracing our responsibility.  May each of us find the strength to act responsibly together, in order to repair the world and bring together all of humanity as One, as we are truly meant to be.  As deep down we have always been. Amen.

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