The Share in our Human Story Because of our Fundamental Dignities:
Overcoming ‘Other-ness’ — Rosh Hashanah 5779
Rabbi Evon J. Yakar
While some of this may be apocryphal, the gist of the story remains. That is the story of how the United States Information Agency decided to send a theater production to other nations in the late 1960s choosing a show that most represented American values and beliefs. One piece, it is told, debuted in Russia, was show cased in Germany, Austria and its tour concluded in Japan. This production, this musical, was none other than Fiddler on the Roof. Following the debut, a Tokyo theater critic wrote, “Still not quite sure why this would be so popular in America.” Following this, he continued to write, “Because the story is so Japanese!”
Stories often have a life of their own. From one perspective, the tale of Fiddler is one of old and new country, it is a tale of minority and majority. Yet, it is also a tale of family, a family drama that is, apparently, ubiquitous across cultural divides and one that bridges over language barriers. Story telling is, while not uniquely so, a fundamental Jewish activity. It is through stories, those from our Torah to those of our lives, that we embrace important values and are embraced by their plot. We are embraced because when we hear them, and perhaps when we tell them too, we feel a part of the story, we envision ourselves as part of them, as one of the roles, perhaps more than one of the roles throughout our lives, over our life span.
Since last December, a youth opera program wrote and ran multiple showings of “Moses.” An opera based on “The Story of Moses.” It is the story we know well of slavery and freedom, of oppressor and oppressed of refugee and the search for home. This national epic of ours holds various perspectives and engages its readers, in this case the audiences, in recognizing that these perspectives can be viewed as our own OR belonging to others. Yet, without the whole story, without each role following its script, the story fails, it comes apart at the seams. Without Pharaoh as head taskmaster and without God hardening his heart a stitch comes loose. Without Moses demanding a shift of paradigm, of power and of control the threads come further undone. Without a promised destination of a better tomorrow, yet another stitch comes loose. The story of Moses works precisely because it can be told from all of these perspectives. The sense of “other-ness” is a reality in the tale and yet only once that other-ness fades, and each player recognizes each other player as human, as valuable, as honorable, as unique can that promised destination of a better tomorrow come into view.
I read about this opera last month in the New York Times. While it may come as a surprise, it is from the Bavarian State Opera’s youth program in Munich. It is a production embracing the stories of born and raised Bavarians as well as the Kurdish, Greek, French and Arabic speaking refugees and immigrants. These youth actors embrace this production and the roles they play in the story because, as they say in their own words, “We tell the story of Moses because it is actually our story.” And others chimed in: “The story of Moses is also my story,” echoing in their various mother tongues.
For some of us when we heard about what we may view as the co-opting of our Moses, our Exodus, our national origin story, we may distance ourselves, we may create division and other-ness. In Germany, of all places, where we, the Jews, were distinguished as so much of an ‘other’ this opera was written, produced and show-cased. Even more, the realities of the embattled international debate surrounding refugees, immigration and residents around the globe being exposed through our story may make it even harder to embrace. Yet, this is just the purpose of such an exercise, of art imitating life. It is in the sharing of the story, the stories we hold and the stories our lives create that other-ness can be supplanted by same-ness. We can share the story by telling our own and listening to others’. Yet we can go even further in sharing of the stories themselves; sharing especially the human story, a story that belongs to each and every one of us. Regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, of gender, nationality or value perspective we are all part of the creation we celebrate on this Rosh Hashanah, we are all included when our ancient rabbis command us Kavod HaBriot - to Honor all Creations. We are all included when we say that humans are B’Tzelem Elohim - created in the image of God. And from these Rabbi Yitz Greenberg points out the way our Jewish tradition argues that every human being is endowed with the same three fundamental dignities of infinite value, equal value and infinite uniqueness.
Uniqueness, however, does not mean separate. When we separate ourselves with walls rather than link with bridges, when we focus on us and them and when we fail in sharing our stories we remain as eternally other rather than knowing that we are empowered by what ties us together. On this Rosh Hashanah, we must use the words our tradition provides us and the texts before us to honor all others, to treasure the divine spark in each other and to notice these fundamental dignities.
In the beginning of our story, in the stories of Abraham we know well the model of hospitality our ancestor creates for us. At the moment of his vulnerability, after his own brit milah, Abraham runs out from his tent to greet three seeming wanderers in the desert. From this our tradition codifies a blueprint for how we ought to engage with others. Abraham and Sarah are consummate hosts as they wash their guests’ feet, feed them and provide a place to rest. Yet, these wanderers share in this story because we can understand the tale as guests too. Our recent guest Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, points out in his time on the podcast Judaism Unbound that Abraham in that moment didn’t even realize they were bringing something to him. From his perspective, he was bringing warmth and welcome, yet as it turns out, as the story unfolds they were coming to change his life. In this story of hospitality we can recognize overcoming that sense of ‘other-ness’ and embracing all others as valued creations; we discover it is a two way process. Jacobs illustrates for us the Reform Jewish principle of Audacious Hospitality with this Torah story. He goes on to teach us that when we embrace others and share in the experience, as Abraham did, we also welcome their ideas, even their agitation, their insights and their love. This is sharing in the story of being alive - the human story. This sharing is a way of honoring both our part and that of others in our world. This is what our rabbis strove for with this principle of Kavod HaBriot - Honoring all Creations. This ideal is borne out of our deeply held belief that we are all B’tzelem Elohim - created in the image of the Divine.
We each hold within that divine spark and for that reason alone each and every person is more than ‘other’, we are in a way, the same. The unfolding story of human life and experience must include the ways we share in the inheritance of being in God’s image. It cannot stop at that wall, that barrier of being ‘other’.
Rabbi Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, recently wrote an important piece charging us to overcome this inclination of ‘other-ness’. In the context of opining our obligations to others - to strangers, refugees, neighbors, to the world he wrote:
The tradition teaches that Jews bear special responsibilities to those nearest to us—family, community, and the “stranger within your gates”—and have obligations as well to all human beings, every one of whom is created in the image of God. Identity in this vision of the self is not a zero-sum game: me versus you or the group, our group versus all others. The human heart has many chambers. Our minds are enriched from multiple sources. So too our souls.
The complexity of being Jewish demands of us an allegiance to our peoplehood, and we surely treasure this connection. Rabbi Eisen also argued that we are part of larger wholes: Our city, our country, humanity, our world. He puts before us the balance we must discover between our identity as part of the Jewish people and our identities connecting us to the wider community and beyond. This balance is one way we honor all creations. We fail when we act cruelly, when we degrade the other. Not only is this a diminishment of the divinity of our neighbors, it is a degradation of our own selves too. It diminishes our humanity as the opposite of the example Abraham and Sarah provide us. In not acting to honor all others and recognize this spark we lose the opportunity to gain their ideas, their agitation, their insights and their love.
In our own time, this is even more consequential. In our charged reality of division, of walls and tribal-like identities, we are quick to distinguish and point out ‘other-ness’ in place of the possibility of connection. Our obligations to all human beings begins with Kavod - honor, it grows from recognizing the reality of B’Tzelem Elohim - being created in the image of God, and demands of us a different strategy than this label of other. Even in argument and debate, we have something to gain by striving for sameness, for connection rather than ‘other-ness’. When we focus on what divides it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern positive and healthy ways forward. Yet, in the sharing of our human experience, our shared story, we can gain more and more clarity of that promised destination of a better tomorrow. Our Jewish tradition teaches us with the instruction that the angel of victory and the angel of learning cannot be in the same room at the same time. Our rabbis are cautioning us to strive towards learning, to leave behind the drive to win, to be right. When we engage with our neighbors, our fellow human beings for the sake of understanding, for truth, for learning we all gain. As the sage Rabbenu Yona teaches: If I argue for the sake of truth, then if I win, I win. But if I lose, I also win, because being defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory. I am enlarged. I learn something I did not know before. When we acknowledge and embrace the possibility that we share with others and overcome that sense of ‘other-ness’ we engage in that two way process Rabbi Jacobs teaches, and as Eisen writes, we are enriched from multiple sources, and so too our souls.
This is difficult, and often seems impossible. We are challenged when our neighbors, those we often see as ‘other’, come with different perspectives, alternative views and values. Yet, as Jews, we are moored to first principles that guide our decision making, and our approach to how we honor creations, how we recognize the divinity within all human beings. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a modern authored rabbi whose storied career includes bridging the divide between Judaism and Christianity. Much of his teachings rest on the concept that every human being, every soul has three fundamental dignities. Drawing on our sacred Torah and ancient texts, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg contends that Judaism endows each soul with three fundamental dignities. We are all of infinite value. We are all of equal value. We are all infinitely unique.
From this premise, it must be recognized that bridges are better than walls; that same-ness overcomes ‘other-ness’ and it must be that we have a share in the same story. It is not far off from the insight offered to us from the late Senator John McCain when he wrote: We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
This is certainly no easy charge. That of Senator McCain, nor the demand of our Jewish tradition as Rabbi Greenberg elucidates to see past the ‘other-ness’ and recognize the infinite and equal value as well as uniqueness of all. When confronted with human beings that cause us to raise our guard against the other, we must find, or better we must create the way around that divide. It is not only the responsibility of our neighbors to come towards us as the desert wanderers in the Abrahamic story, but also upon us to, like Abraham, rush out to meet them. When contention enters our sphere of life, we must use the many chambers of our human heart that Rabbi Eisen reminds us reside within. It is upon each and every one of us to mine within ourselves our innate ability to uphold these fundamental dignities, to see the divine in all and to honor.
On Rosh Hashanah and during these Days of Awe we are given this gift of renewal, of re-adjustment and a time to focus inward so that we may rise to build those bridges and honor those connections we share in our human story. If we leave this place unchanged, or unready for it, or if we come back next year at this time unchanged, unable to overcome, just a little bit, our anxieties of ‘other’ then this, not my words, but this work of these High Holy Days, has not worked. We must work for that promised destination of a better tomorrow.
We do this when we hold fast to our values, our beliefs and stand up for them, while opening our hearts to learning from all - even others. For that is the path to overcoming that ‘other-ness’. This challenging task is possible when we know that our story of Moses, our people’s origin story is one holding many perspectives that ought be recognized and treasured and shared. Our sages ask the question in the Mishnah of ‘Who is wise?’ And to this they respond, ‘הלומד מכל אדם’ - the one who learns from everyone - not just from every Jew, not just from every one with whom we agree, but every one. It is so, because of the infinite and equal value of all and the uniqueness of all. So, as we turn the page in the Book of Life into this new year of 5779, it is upon us to respond, not with apathy, with disconnection nor with ‘other-ness’; but rather with connection, with an extension of heart to share our story, the story of being human so that we may recognize what is possible, that another’s ideas are gifts that enrich. May we overcome the sense of ‘other-ness’ that divides so that we may all be strengthened and so too our world. May we return to this place next year changed because we have learned from those who were once other.
Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah