Identity, Justice

Multicultural Bookshelves and Monochromatic Speed Dial

Brent Chaim Spodek is the rabbi of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, a wonderful, funky synagogue in New York’s Hudson Valley. He’s currently looking to hire an amazing, creative director of family education. This post originally published on his blog.
My wife and I are both graduates of one of the most famously liberal colleges in the country. I learned many valuable things there, including how to read and understand theorists on racial violence and colonialism, such as Cornell West, and Franz Fanon.
That’s part of why it’s always so striking when I show my kids our wedding album. Most of the faces there are white, and most of the ones that aren’t belong to friends of my mother. My mother, who at the time was a guidance counselor at PS 217 in Brooklyn, doesn’t know who Cornell West or Franz Fanon are. She just knows her friends, and some of them are black.
Most people, most of the time, seek out people who are like them, who reflect back the image they want to see of themselves. Sometimes we seek a reflection of race, sometimes gender, sometimes religion, sometimes world view, and on and on.
I have multicultural bookshelves and a monochromatic speed dial.
Of course, why we are friends with the people with whom we are friends is tremendously complicated. But a big part of human relationships is seeking a screen in which we can see our own reflection. In the words of Proverbs, “just as a face sees its reflection in water, so is one heart reflected in another / כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם לָאָדָם”
We rarely encounter people on their own terms, even when their terms are obvious.
One of my closest friends is a Christian minister, and I’m occasionally surprised when he professes his love of Jesus Christ. This really shouldn’t be surprising – he is, after all, a Christian minister, but since I want to see myself in him, I subconsciously filter out anything that gets in the way of that.
The disconnection between right words and right action felt accute last Thursday, when my social media feed, which was last month filled with declarations of solidarity with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, filled up again with statements of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists in France and then somewhat less emphatically, with the murdered Jews in France. Many of thousands of people to whom I am connected on-line had powerful, heart-felt words to share about these atrocities.
On the evening of that same Thursday, members of our synagogue community gathered together with members of other local houses of worship for the first of eight sessions discussing the book of Exodus. One of our partner churches is predominantly white, one is predominantly black and one is predominantly Hispanic. The 60 or so people who gathered for the discussion comprised one of the most racially diverse gatherings I have been part of in the six years or so I have lived in Beacon, though admittedly, that is a low bar to cross.
There, in conversation with other real people who have other real, lived experiences, I was reminded that I am not French, I am not Charlie, I am not Michael Brown, I am not Trayvon Martin, I am not Tamir Rice. I advance no justice by mouthing words that suggest I am.
I’m a somewhat middle aged Jew, a father of two, a husband, a rabbi, a resident of Beacon, NY. I believe in justice and have spent much of my career trying to advance social justice, and I’m scared when I’m in my local bodega late at night to buy milk and two hooded black teenagers come in.
Martin Buber wrote in I and Thou that “All real living is meeting.” Do I have the courage to meet someone on to whom I cannot project my own sense of self, who will not reflect my righteous sloganeering right back at me? It takes a certain courage to truly encounter someone who is different than us in significant ways, and yet we beggar ourselves and the world we live in if we don’t.
Buber wrote further that when we fully encounter someone outside of ourselves, we encounter a little bit of the Divine. Indeed, in those moments when we are able to connect with someone for who they are, not for the story they allow us to tell about ourselves, we experience a revelation no less profound and no less illuminating of the Divine, than Sinai itself.

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