An “Us” Without a “Them”

If CBJ is not already your safe place, make it so. We are here for you. We are your community. We are your “Us”.

How many of you ever play the “Is he Jewish?” game with yourself? You know, when you meet someone, or read about someone, and you try to guess if that person a Member of the Tribe?

Those of us who play the game (and I admit that I do), have different feelings about it. We might relish it, we might feel a little embarrassed about it, we might not like to admit to ourselves that we do it. But still, there’s that ping of pleasure when you get a hit — yes, he’s not just Jewish, he’s actively so!

But it’s not a uniquely Jewish experience. It’s one of the privileges of identifying with a minority group, that thrill of recognition when you meet a person of the same group. Even people who don’t identify with a minority group, can have a similar pleasure when they meet someone who attended their alma mater, or who grew up in the same part of the country, or, even just traveling abroad and meeting other Americans.

Sparks of pleasure like that are always the sign of some basic need being met. In this case, it is the innately human need to feel connected.

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah studies the subject of identity, and especially group identity. Here is how he explains the origin of this need:

Human beings are deeply and profoundly social…We evolved…living in very small groups. And the psychology we evolved… is deeply sensitive to the distinction between insiders and outsiders. This (psychology)… made these groups evolutionarily successful.

So that need to feel connected is primal. It’s different from the need for personal relationships, although that need, too, is basic and primal. I’m talking about the need to be part of something larger than ourselves, to feel like you belong to a group.

And this need does us good. Professor Appiah argues that group psychology is what allows us to organize into functional groups at every level. In his words:

We could not have an America, if we did not all have some sense of what it means to be American.

BUT — this need has a dark side. In Professor Appiah’s words:

…it is an ‘Us/Them’ distinction that puts ‘Them’ down…Prejudice, the stereotyping of the other, and, for that matter, the stereotyping of the self, these are parts of the psychology that we have to manage.

We have to manage it — not deny it. Because the need for a sense of “Us” is real. In this age of individualism, it’s not popular to talk about it. But actually, I think our need is stronger than ever it was before. So many of us are transplants to California. Our families — the most basic unit of “us” — are scattered. Even if you do have family nearby, the faces and landscape around us change at an unprecedented pace. Many of us enjoy that fast pace of life, in some corner of our consciousness, a part of each us remains, in the words of Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik,

…a villager who belongs to the soil that fed him as a child, and to the little world into which he was born.

That soil — we don’t live on it anymore. That little world, it’s gone. The people who saw me toddling about in diapers, who passed around the news when I became engaged, did not get to celebrate my son’s bris, or see him become bar mitzvah.

So we, the people in this room, have to fulfill that need for each other. We witness one another’s lives. We give each other a sense of belonging, the feeling of being part of community that transcends generations.

I grew up in a tight Orthodox community, and I can tell you — few groups do community as well as the Orthodox. That’s because being in community requires commitment. You have to show up, to feel that you belong.  You also have to be willing to tolerate the annoying habits of your neighbors — people you might not have chosen as personal friends, but are still part of your community — and sometimes, tolerate communal decisions that are not the ones you would have made.

The payoff, at least for those who are able to fully immerse in the community, is huge. As an Orthodox girl, I felt myself surrounded by adults who were invested in me. We were in each other’s lives weekly, sometimes daily, and I felt part of a network broad and deep, tightly committed to one another.

When my mother was hospitalized for a brief time, the community brought us meals for weeks. We had all been guests in each others’ homes so often, many of the people cooking for us knew exactly which foods we kids liked.  I was too young to appreciate the danger my mother was in, so I thought it was a great time getting all my favorite dishes every night!

When we had a simchah, and tens of guests came from out of town, there was never any thought that they would have to stay in a hotel. The community put them up in their homes. We didn’t feel bad asking one another for help, because we knew that that’s what people do for each other.

Does this level of connection feel unattainable for a liberal community? I don’t believe it is. It’s just a matter of committing to one another. To opening to each other as an “Us.”

And I believe we can do that without the dark side of the Orthodox “Us”. Because I can tell you, as an Orthodox girl, I also grew up with a VERY strong sense of THEM, the other, the outsider. Christians were “Them”, the persecutors. Arabs, were certainly “Them” — and, by extension, all Muslims. Even other Jews were “them.” I cringe when I remember my own attitudes, as a 19 year old freshman at Harvard, meeting Reform and secular Jews for the very first time, how superior I thought I was because I knew more Hebrew and prayed more times a day. Now, as a liberal rabbi, I encounter this divide too often from the other side. People tell me all the time they feel alienated from Jewish community because they don’t know Hebrew and can’t identify with the prayers.

Obviously, such a stark view of “Them” — the outsider, the other group — is bad. But does that mean the desire for an “Us” is bad as well? I don’t think so. A midrash — ancient rabbinic teaching — tells that the evil inclination (yetzer ha’rah) and the good inclination (yetzer ha’tov) — were created together. When we try to repress the evil within us, we lose the good that came with it. And then, often as not, that evil worms its way back in, while the good remains locked outside. Instead, we must learn to recognize the snakes lurking within, and manage them.

The sense of “Us” is strong in every Jewish text. Our ancestors really got the importance of belonging. Some of our texts fail to manage the evil half of that good. The “Us” is sometimes defined by distinction from an ugly “Them”.

But many of our central texts teach a different model. The Torah opens not with the story of Abraham, but with the story of the creation of the world, and humanity created in God’s image. According to our Torah, every human being is a reflection of God.

The revelation at Sinai was seen by some of the ancient rabbis as a quintessentially Jewish moment. But others saw it differently. As just one example, Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud taught that the voice of God emanated from Sinai and divided into 70 languages. The divine voice divided! Each nation has its own language, its own divine truth. Our deepest truths we can only hear in our own language, the language of OUR people.  But we don’t begin to hear the whole truth until we listen to other nations.

I’d like to share with you an experience I had this year, that drove home for me Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching. After the horrible massacre in Orlando, the rector of Transfiguration Episcopal Church of San Mateo, Reverend Matthew Woodward, invited Rabbi Ezray and a Muslim leader to speak at Sunday services. Rabbi Ezray was not available, so he sent Matthew to me. Reverend Matthew is openly gay, and acutely aware that the victims in Orlando were targeted for being gay. I think that awareness drove him all the more to reach out to Muslim colleagues, to resist drawing the lines of “Us” gays and “Them” Muslims.

The sanctuary of Transfiguration Church has an aura of holiness that I could not help recognizing as soon as I walked in. But dangling from the ceiling, front and center, was a giant cross, big enough to actually crucify someone. I tried not to look at that cross. I tried not to imagine what my father would say if he could see me at a Eucharist service, wearing my kippah. I tried not to think about the crusades, the Inquisition, the blood libels of medieval Europe. It became harder to keep those thoughts out when the Associate Rector, followed by two other women, processed into the room. They were gowned in long, white robes, with hoods hanging down in the back that reminded me of the robes of medieval monks, and one of the women was carrying a cross larger than herself. The similarity between the procession with the cross, and the way we process with the Sefer Torah, was unsettling. I reminded myself that the old Church that vilified Jews as Christ-killers would not have welcomed a gay man as Rector or even a woman as Associate Rector.

Matthew had asked each of us to prepare a few remarks, and then plan to engage in dialogue. I chose to speak about the need to actively pursue peace. The great Hillel of the Mishnah demanded that we become rodfei shalom, that we literally “chase” after peace. Sometimes we must push ourselves outside our comfort zone, take risks to bring peace.

In response, Matthew asked me, in front of his community, “Is participating in the service today taking you out of your comfort zone?” I waffled. “It’s not what I’m used to,” I said. And Matthew said — and I can quote him precisely because the service was recorded on video:

I went to Israel with a Jewish group, and we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and one of the things that was really sobering was going into that place that reflects on the death of Jesus, with Jewish colleagues. And thinking my goodness, this place of holiness for me has often been used as a place to be violent towards Jewish brothers and sisters. And my hosts were incredibly gracious. And so I felt uncomfortable being there with them, but also they made me feel more comfortable.

Matthew had guessed exactly what lines of “Us” and “Them” were being pushed for me. And here he was, a Christian minister, teaching me a lesson about growth, change and compassion that he himself had to learn from Jews, and that I had to learn from a Christian.

That morning was filled with learning for me. I want to share with you one more snapshot, not from the service but from the reception that followed. I was approached by a woman whose in-laws were Holocaust survivors. She told me regretfully that she wants her son to connect to his Jewish roots, but her husband wants nothing to do with it.

From there we launched into a long conversation. At one point I asked her what she thought of that day’s service, and she said it was a very good thing. And then she confessed that she felt uncomfortable when the Muslim guest chanted in Arabic. She didn’t realize that Arabic chanting made her uncomfortable until she heard it that morning in her church. And, she said, it is good to confront our biases. It is good to confront our biases. Considering my own reaction to the crosses, I knew exactly what she meant.

She also told me that Transfiguration Church was her “safe place”, the only place in the world where she feels fully accepted. Here, too, I knew exactly what she meant. She attends every week because the church is the place where she feels she belongs, but then, the church also became the place where she belongs because she committed to attending every week.

We can all learn a few things from this woman. One is to confront our biases. I’m sure we all have them, lurking just beyond our awareness. I encourage you to spend some time during the High Holidays, probing your conscience, finding which other groups are a “Them” for you. And then start working on those biases, breaking them down.

Another is to spend more time building our own sense of “Us”. Commit yourself to being here — YOUR synagogue — more often. Build your sense of belonging in this synagogue. If CBJ is not already your safe place, make it so. We are here for you. We are your community. We are your “Us”.

And, we are an “Us” that rejects the impulse to define ourselves by a “Them”.

Shanah Tovah.