Too Many “Others”

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

The year was 1827 and the place was right here in Charleston. While the details of what happened are unknown, an outline remains: One Dr. Edward Chisolm, presumed to be “a gentleman of respectability and honorable feeling,” made an “illiberal expression” to a certain G. P. Cohen (most likely a member of this very congregation) which left the latter feeling dishonored and insulted. So Mr. Cohen demanded an apology and, if that was not promptly given, then “the only redress that Honor [has] long established as the practice in these cases” — he demanded a duel.

Yes, this really happened. Charleston’s own Hamilton and Burr. But Dr. Chisolm would not engage. Mr. Cohen, he explained, was a Jew and he did not “conceive any Jew to be on [equal] footing with him!” Well!

Mr. Cohen posted a Notice to the Public in the Charleston Courier, the preeminent local paper.

It therefore becomes my painful duty — he wrote — to intrude these remarks on the public, in order to expose [Dr. Edward Chisolm] to the community in which I live, the place of my nativity. The Constitution of the U. States, and of my native state, give me and every citizen, of every religious denomination, equal rights and equal privileges. Religious distinctions are not known in this country. Members of the same community are valued only according to their conduct in life, and none but a bigot and a Coward, like Edward Chisolm, would attempt to insult a whole nation, by refusing that satisfaction which every gentleman is ready to give, and to receive.[1]

Oh, my! Mr. Cohen is “a Jew;” Dr. Chisholm is “a bigot and a Coward.” Something transpired between these two individuals — an offense of some sort, an insult — and the result was this: Both parties turned into something “Other” to one another — and, rather than strides toward reconciliation, tension, animosity, and division only grew.

There’s a lot of that going around right now, isn’t there? Rather than our common humanity, otherness is being emphasized wherever we look. “Others” based on religion, race, or sexuality. “Others” based on nationality, culture, or creed. “Others” on the socio-economic spectrum. “Others” on the political spectrum.

How many times does Judaism implore us to do away with this sense of Other-ness? To see the common humanity in both our neighbor and the stranger alike, to love him as ourselves, recognize her hopes and fears as our own? And the more fractured society is, the more vital it becomes to be able to look into the face of both neighbors and strangers; citizens and immigrants; someone with whom we tend to see eye to eye and someone with whom we invariably disagree; and recognize in that person a brother or sister whose humanity is completely equal to our own.

 Yet, as important as this mitzvah is — loving the stranger is the most repeated commandment in all of Jewish tradition — that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. When it isn’t — when those we encounter seem wholly Other and unloveable to us — we do well to remember that curiosity, empathy, and a touch of mercy go a long way.

Albert Einstein wrote that one should “never lose a holy curiosity.” The holy curiosity that led Abraham to see the ram in the thicket, Pharoah’s daughter to notice a baby floating in a basket on the river, Moses to gaze upon a burning bush. Holy curiosity helps us go deeper into the world around us, including our interactions with the people we meet — even those whose demeanors do anything but encourage us to draw closer.

Atul Gawande shared the following story with UCLA’s graduating medical students:

One night, on my surgery rotation, during my third year of medical school, I followed my chief resident into the trauma bay in the emergency department. We’d been summoned to see a prisoner who’d swallowed half a razor blade and slashed his left wrist with the corner of the crimp on a toothpaste tube. He was about thirty, built like a boxer, with a tattooed neck, hands shackled to the gurney, and gauze around his left wrist showing bright crimson seeping through.

The first thing out of his mouth was a creepy comment about the chief resident, an Asian-American woman. I won’t repeat what he said. Suffice it to say that he managed in only a few words to be racist, sexist, and utterly menacing all at once. Understandably, she turned on her heels, handed me the clipboard, and said, “He’s all yours.” …

The man’s vital signs were normal. [He’d done damage, but not too much.] … I’d heard that inmates sometimes swallowed blades wrapped in cellophane or inflicted wounds on themselves that, though not life-threatening, were severe enough to get them out of prison. This man had done both.

I tried to summon enough curiosity to wonder what it had taken to push him over that edge, but I couldn’t. I only saw a bully. As I reluctantly set about suturing him back together, … he kept up a stream of invective: about the hospital, the policemen, the inexpert job I was doing. I don’t do well when I feel humiliated, [and] I had the urge to tell him to shut up and be a little appreciative. I thought about abandoning him.

But he controlled himself enough to hold still for my ministrations. And I suddenly remembered a lesson a professor had taught me about brain function. When people speak, they aren’t just expressing their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it’s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man’s words and tried to listen for the emotions.

“You seem really angry and like you feel disrespected,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am. I am angry and disrespected.”

His voice changed. He told me that I have no idea what it was like inside. He’d been in solitary for two years straight. His eyes began to water. He calmed down. I did, too. For the next hour, I just sewed and listened, trying to hear the feelings behind his words.

I didn’t understand him or like him. But all it took to see his humanity—to be able to treat him—was to supply that tiny bit of openness and curiosity.[2]

 “Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. … To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone. … Curiosity is the beginning of empathy.”[3] And empathy is the key to seeing a situation from another’s perspective, to being open to hear and feel another’s story. There is always another perspective.

There’s a wonderful cartoon by Paul Noth that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago.[4] Two medieval armies are drawn facing one another; shields in front, swords and spears at the ready. “There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God,” declares one fighter to another. Their army marches beneath banners with pictures of a duck, while the other army marches beneath banners with pictures of rabbits. However, the reader sees that the banners look exactly the same: a circle head with two bars — a rabbit’s ears or a duck’s bill, depending on your perspective. Of course, not all disputes are simple misunderstandings (though it’s amazing how many are). But when we find ourselves looking at someone, treating someone, like an “Other,” if we take a moment to try and see things from their perspective, it can do much to help us remember our common humanity.

This is the most significant contribution of Yossi Klein Halevi’s recent book on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, entitled Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. “A helicopter crosses your hill,” he writes. “I feel an involuntary relief: We are being protected, especially on this day [Yom HaAtzma’ut – Israel’s Independence Day], a tempting time for terror attacks. But then I think of you: How frightening it must be for you and your children to hear helicopters hovering over your home. This is the curse of our relationship: My protection is your vulnerability, my celebration your defeat.” To be sure, there’s a long journey from empathy to peace — but empathy is nonetheless a vital, significant, and powerful first step.

So curiosity and empathy can help broaden our perspective. But what about when it’s not a matter of perception? When a person has clearly done or said something so terrible that considering them to be “Other” feels not only right, but just? After all, they’ve brought our condemnation on themselves. Here we would do well to remember the sage insight of Bryan Stevenson, echoing Jewish tradition: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Let it be our goal to temper our judgment with mercy.

“We’ve divided the world into us versus them,” says Gawande, “an ever-shrinking population of good people against bad ones. But it’s not a dichotomy. People can be doers of good in many circumstances. And they can be doers of bad in others. It’s true of all of us.” The worst thing we have ever done can never sufficiently describe us, nor can the best. Good and bad — whatever we have done, we are all of it.

Imagine if Abraham were known only for binding Isaac; Moses for killing an Egyptian; David for his adultery with Bathsheba, or killing her husband, Uriah. People in Torah study always like the patriarchs and matriarchs, because they’re fallible. Their transgressions make them relatable, accessible. Why then do the human sins of others do the opposite, make us strip away their humanity?

There’s a story in the Talmud about some neighborhood ruffians who were causing Rabbi Meir a great deal of trouble. So he prayed — that the young men would die. His wife, Beruriah, noting his disproportionate, extreme response, asked him: “What is [the scriptural basis for this prayer]? Is it because of the verse ‘may sin disappear’? Does the verse say chot’im (sinners)? No, it says chata’im (sins)! Moreover, look at the end of the verse, where it says “and the wicked be no more.” This means: because their sins will cease, they will be wicked people no more. So pray not against them, but for them that they should repent and be wicked no more.” Rabbi Meir did, and they repented.[5] And is not such repentance and acknowledgment that all of us are capable of changing our ways what this day of Yom Kippur is all about?

 A rabbi once asked his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?” … The first and brightest of the students offered an answer: “When I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that’s when night has ended and day has begun.” A second student offered his answer: “When I look from my fields and I see a house, and I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor.” A third student offered another answer: “When I see an animal in the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a horse or a sheep.” And a fourth student offered yet another answer: “When I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red or yellow or blue, that’s when night has ended and day has begun.”

Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi’s face. Until finally he shouted, “No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all the others. Is that all we can do—dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world split into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it’s not that way, not that way at all!”

The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. “Then, Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”

The rabbi stared back into the faces of his students and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”[6]

It’s time for a new day to begin. A day in which we are guided by curiosity, empathy, and mercy to recognize the common humanity of every person we meet. A day in which we treat everyone as sister and brother; and stand up for those who have been condemned as someone “Other.” It’s been said that the bottom line of all conflict is about simply not making the table bigger. So, in this new year, let us make space, for everyone — at our tables, in our sanctuaries, in this country, and in the world. Amen.


[1] Charleston Courier, July 25, 1827, with gratitude to Dr. Gary Zola and the American Jewish Archives for the introduction.

[2] Atul Gawande, “Curiosity and What Equality Really Means,” New Yorker, June 2, 2018 (adapted).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “An Army Lines Up for Battle,” Paul Noth, New Yorker, December 1, 2014.

[5] B’rachot 10a.

[6] As it appears in Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, from Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman at Kol Shalom in Maryland, pp. 388-389 (adapted).

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