Making strangers

Making strangers

My father was born and raised in Washingtonville, NY, a farming community in upstate New York, not far from West Point. His father and mother, newly arrived from Belarus via Paris, lived in a railroad apartment above the store run by my grandfather. 

They were the only Jews in town, a fact that I think shaped Dad’s relationship to his Jewishness for the rest of his life.

I rarely heard him talk of any vicious anti-Semitism, although he would tell us about playing ball with a group of friends, and sliding into second base. “Yer out!” said the second baseman. “I was safe,” Dad complained. “You were out, you lying Jew.” My father said he remembered thinking, “Yes, I am lying, but what does my being Jewish have to do with it?” 

I think experiences like that helped shape his views on religion in general. For all his pride in being Jewish — and growing up, our Long Island synagogue was the center of my parents’ social life — he regarded religions as systems that only worked to separate people from one another. When the kid called him a lying Jew, my father didn’t ask why Jews were so often the brunt of bigotry. Instead he asked, why do we — we humans, that is — organize ourselves in ways that define us as “insiders” or “outsiders”? Why do we turn private beliefs — whose veracity, after all, is almost impossible to prove — into a certainty that encourages one boy to dehumanize another?

Most religions do a few things very, very well. They are great at turning sacred impulses into public rituals, and in transforming private anxieties into shared community experiences. They help followers mark the calendar in ritualistic ways and honor the rhythms of the month, of the year, and of a lifetime. They mobilize people in support of their neighbors, at celebratory moments like births and weddings, or around sober phenomena like illness and death. I have watched my own Jewish community leap into action at times like these, and it is a beautiful thing to see.

But there are many things religions don’t do so well. I’m not talking about the fanaticism that drives so many to kill, conquer, and subjugate others in the name of faith — although such violence and monomania is of a piece with what I am about to say. While followers of religion excel at treating their own with kindness and dignity, they often fail at extending these impulses outside of their own communities. And no matter how magnanimous your scripture — no matter how many times we are enjoined to welcome the stranger and do him no wrong — all faiths describe an “us” and a “them.” And as soon as you do that, you have created two classes of people, one superior, the other inferior.

My dad was baffled when, shortly after college, I chose a way of being Jewish much more intense than his — essentially, I became a private and a professional Jew. Why, I think he wondered, would I choose to emphasize my differences from other people? It is a challenging question, and one that has shaped my own thinking about Judaism and the role of religion ever since. 

I know the pleasures in particularism, of learning distinct languages and rituals. I love the countercultural aspects of Jewish practice, which tells you to honor a distinct tradition when so much of popular culture aspires to homogeneity. And I love being part of a community with shared values, shared history, and shared burdens.

For most of Jewish history, we didn’t have much choice about this particularism — unless you consider our disappearance a choice. And if you consider how many Jews we lost to persecution and genocide, our insularity can be forgiven as a survival response. With assimilation shrinking our numbers, the last thing I’d argue for is a little less particularity.

But all of us who care about Judaism should acknowledge the tension between “us” and “them,” between being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” on one hand, and a “light unto the nations,” on the other. We can be elitist and welcoming at the same time, strengthening our own institutions and working in interfaith coalitions to make the entire world a better place. Our synagogues should be places of deep Jewish learning for the highly literate, and welcoming venues for those who lack the background for study but have the impulse to learn more.

In 2004, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg wrote that the key to aligning Judaism and modernity is incorporating the best of the general culture with our own distinct identity — that is, a Jewish identity that is not dependent on the belief that “goyim are goyim.” To do so means taking seriously the idea of tzelem Elokim, that we are all created in the image of God. When we do take that notion seriously, we learn, writes Yitz, that “they are human beings, they are ethically attractive, they are physically and mentally beautiful.” 

And if tzelem Elokim is too heady a concept, consider the old joke about the Jew who gets an audience with God and asks, “God, is it okay to love strangers?” And God replies, “Yankel, what is this ‘strangers’? I don’t make strangers.”

(In memory of Irving Carroll, z”l, Nov. 21, 1918-Jan. 25, 2015)

read more: