Friday, December 10, 2010

The Dignity of Difference


Well...Hanukkah has come and gone, which means that Christmas is right around the corner.

I imagine that we all navigate through the month of December differently.  For those of us who grew up in a home with a non-Jewish parent - or for those who are currently in a relationship with a non-Jewish partner, then Christmas is/was perhaps an annual family tradition - either in your home, or in the home of your grandparents (or other family members).  Or maybe you have a close friend who celebrates Christmas, and you're often invited to join them as they mark their holiday season.

Maybe you just enjoy this season - because of the lovely lights, the stirring music, and the message of peace and hope that surrounds us.

Or: maybe you're like me, and you have a hard time getting through the month of December.  Not because of the stresses of shopping (see last week's posting!), or family...but because of the existential angst that I experience every year around this time.

(Okay: let's be honest.  I'm a recovering neurotic East Coast Jew.  I've got existential angst about pretty much everything, not just being a Jew around Christmas!)

Be that as it may, my honest confession is that I struggle with my own Jewishness during this time of year - because this is the one time of the year when I really feel different from the rest of the community that I live in. 

And since no one likes to stick out like a "sore thumb" (at least I don't), I've typically seen this angst as a bad thing...something I wish I could get rid of.

Well...the good news for me, and anyone else out there who struggles with this as that this week's Torah portion (Parshat Vayigash) addresses this existential dilemma.

The portion presents us with the epilogue of the Joseph narrative.  He formally reconciles with his brothers, and they immediately make plans to bring their father Jacob and the rest of the clan from Israel to Egypt to weather the rest of the famine.

In our portion, Joseph gives his brothers VERY PARTICULAR instructions about what they should say to Pharaoh, upon arriving in Egypt (see Gen. 46:31-34).  He tells them that they should identify themselves as shepherds, knowing that Egyptians object to the practice.  Joseph correctly predicts that the Egyptians will want to make sure that Joseph's family lives separately - outside of any Egyptian settlement.  And so it is that the family is "sequestered" in Goshen - the Jewish designated ghetto of Egypt (so to speak).


Chiddushei HaRim (a 19th century Chasidic source) remarks that Joseph was "establishing a pattern for his successors to follow in every generation: […] Neither emulate their [non-Jews’] ways nor mingle with them socially.  […] Knowing that the animal-worshipping Egyptians detested shepherds, Joseph had them introduce themselves as herdsmen.  Thus, Pharaoh would shun them and let them settle in the relative isolation of Goshen" (cited in Artscroll Chumash).

Our tradition validates Joseph's inclination to keep his family separate from the Egyptians.  He is, in effect, role-modelling a certain kind of behavior for all future Jewish communities: that it's safer if we never mixed with those who were different from us.

Now - to be sure - there is something problematic and offensive (to us) about the way that Chiddushei HaRim frames its comments.  Don't mix with them socially?!  Except for the ultra-Orthodox, all Jews have basically let that one fall by the wayside over the last 200 years.  Diversity is something that Western society celebrates today.  There is value in having friends and neighbors that are different from us.

But what are the limits to this approach?

The image of the melting pot (shameless plug for one of my favorite restaurants) is useful here.  We often cite the melting pot as an example of America's greatness.  That America's magic is derived, in part, from the unique blend of populations who have come here to call this land home.  The cultures of those populations have been mixed together here...and voila!  Presenting: American-ness.

But if you think carefully about the cooking metaphor, you will realize that individual ingredients typically "disappear" into a recipe.  To be sure, they contribute a unique taste or consistency.  But - when the cooking is over and the food is ready to be eaten, most of the individual ingredients are no longer in tact.  They have been absorbed into the larger dish.

That is the danger of assimilating.  If we strive to be more like the larger whole, we run the risk of losing ourselves - the essence of what makes us special, or unique.

And so it is with this December season.  The social pressure to "fit in" and "do Christmas" so that we can look more like our neighbors - and, indeed, be more like our neighbors - is all well and good, until our Jewishness: the undefined essence of who we are as a people, religion, culture, ethnicity, etc....begins to disappear.

For me, the message that being different is OKAY...that it is, indeed, necessary to be different in order to maintain the Jewish tradition is somehow comforting.  It gives me the strength and courage to wish others a Merry Christmas, or Happy Holiday, without wishing that it was my holiday as well.


Let me end by recommending an incredible book: The Dignity of Difference by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  In it, he writes that: "Universalism must be balanced with a new respect for the local, the particular, the unique.  There are indeed moral universals [...] but they exist to create space for cultural and religious difference: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, and the freedom we need to be true to ourselves while being a blessing to others.  I will argue that the proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God, therefore one faith, one truth, one way.   To the contrary: it is that unity creates diversity.  The glory of the created world is its astounding multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the hundreds of faiths, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of God telling us something we need to know.  That is what I mean by the dignity of difference."

For Sacks, that is a long way of expressing the value that comes from minimizing assimilation and the melting pot phenomenon.  For him (and for me), the more diverse our world remains - the more different we are from one another, than the more possibility there is that we can learn from each other...not by imitating the rituals and practices of those who are different from us, but by respectfully learning about them, and experiencing them as honored guests.

I'm interested in hearing how you navigate December.  Is it easy or hard?  Why?  I hope you'll consider posting your comments publicly (just click here) so that others can join in our conversation.

Wishing you a very meaningful rest of December,
Rabbi Brown

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. It is for so many of us an emotional, social, and spiritual conundrum that can drive one coo-coo(or eat chocolate which ever comes first).
    I was raised Jewish and I am raising my children Jewish and I married a non-Jew. My childhood memeories during this time of year were quite nice and I don't have any strong negative feelings of being "left out" of the whole XMAS thing. Oh sure, there were times when I wanted to know what it would be like to have all that stuff in our house and smell a pine tree in the house, but I didn't feel like jumping off the Jewish ship. My parents were comfortable with my brother and me going to our friends house on XMAS morning and sometimes we went to church with them. I didn't grow up in an super observant Jewish home, but we knew our roots and I am sure that's why my folks were comfortable with allowing our participation.
    Growing up in Ventura there were not a lot of practicing Jewish families so there were only a handful of kids that I went to school with. Looking back, it was pretty cool to be a Jew because all the other kids that how awesome that we got 8 nights of presents!!! Now I know that presents have absolutely nothing to do with Hannukah, and I knew that as a kid, but it did make me feel proud of my heritage.
    As an adult, I am trying to pass that along to my children and present it in a way that different is cool. We encourage others to join us for candle lighting, food, games, etc. and the neighborhood kids ask every night if they can come and light the candles(puts a big smile on my face and my kids).
    However,I am now faced with Mr. SC and all that comes with him. My challange is to keep the Jewish enthusiasm up while the neighborhood kids are just gearing up!
    Regarding assimilation and the melting pot(I also love their food), I agree and disagree. I think to some degree we loose our individualism when we try and be a part of a mixed society. But if our personal sense of self as a whole is well grounded then the "fear" of becoming someone that we are not should not even matter. One could live in an entire Jewish world and still have insecure feelings of who they are as an individual. I think that encorporating Jewish practices in your families life on a daily basis(even the things that seem simple)make for a strong foundation and sense of heritage.
    I think it is more about how to hold onto and pass along the Jewish heritage than how to distance ourselves for fear of losing our children to the man in the red velvet suit.
    Now I need to go to the store because I am out of Oreo's!!!