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Who’s In, Who’s Out?

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When my spouse and I merged our libraries nearly twenty years ago, we discovered that—despite his PhD in Physical Chemistry and my background in Talmud and Jewish Education—we each owned a well-loved copy of Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf.   Steinberg’s life was cut short before he could publish his second novel, so this book stands out among the many achievements of his brief career.   It chronicles the life experiences leading to the apostasy of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuye, whom the rabbis of the Talmud refer to as “Other.” His life story remains a defining narrative of my rabbinate.  I am constantly struggling with the question of otherness; seeking opportunities to blur the distinctions we make between “us” and “them.”

Today I heard a review on NPR’s Morning Edition of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Clybourne Park.”  I was struck by the comment of Northwestern University professor Bill Savage: “Neighborhoods can be communal places that support the members who live in it or tribal places that attack outsiders, or they can be both.”  I have found this to be true not only of neighborhoods. When we organize ourselves in communities—whether they are religious institutions, professional organizations, political parties—we decide who’s in and who’s out.  Sometimes we are aware that our decisions hurt others, but often we overlook the ways in which we also damage ourselves.

What compels us to define our communities using the stark dichotomy of insider/outsider?  Why do we draw our lines in black and white, resisting the beautifully-blended shades of gray?

My goal is not to answer these ponderous questions. Instead, I hope that my career will be defined—like that of Rabbi Steinberg—by compassionate words and acts of kindness which help us live in the gray.

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Comments (6)

Of all the posts you have written, this may be one of my favorites. I aspire to achieve that feeling of belonging that comes with being part of an “us,” as well as that feeling of connection that comes when we reach out an arm to someone who is “other,” and they reach back, forming a new “us.”

Corey-Jan, of all the people who commented on this post, you may be the one who has most influenced my feelings in this regard! You also make me smile, because you remind me of me, when I start a d’var torah or class by saying, “this may be my favorite parashah in the Torah.” 😉

Lovely reflection. If I merge it with my own current worries, it reminds me that it’s challenging to live in multiple communities that don’t always respect each other.

Thank you, Laura. This piece was definitely inspired by our conversations at CLAL office about how we confront these challenges.

Pamela
This question of who is in and who is out and one that keeps popping into my life and work and is disturbing. On the one hand there are aspect of life where I find it so crucial to set boundaries and on the other hand, if we are not skillful and aware, we could find ourselves not only deprived of voices and souls we need to be in relationship with but guilty of hurting those we keep out as well.

Pearl, you have summed up the challenge of creating boundaries/structure w/out imposing impermeable borders. Also the delicate balance between maintaining one’s integrity without alienating those who don’t agree w/ you or adhere to your standards. It makes me think of the line in Avenue Q song, ‘there’s a fine, fine line between ‘I love you’ and ‘goodbye.'”

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