PARASHAT BALAK: 2011/5771
THE DIGNITY OF DIFFERENCE
How shall I curse whom God has not cursed, and how shall I execrate whom God has not execrated?... Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations. (Num.23: 8-9).
At first blush, it would seem that isolation and radical difference from other people are curses rather than blessings. A child with a withered arm will tell you how it feels to be different, how he tries to conceal his deformity under long sleeves, how he fears rejection when he reaches out to a girl. A young woman with a squint is painfully aware that she is the only one in the group who is afraid of looking anybody directly in the eyes. Ask a young man how it feels to be called effeminate because he prefers esthetics to athletics. Which child wants to be self-conscious, excluded, lonely or hated because he or she is different?
God declared that loneliness is an intolerable human condition. Aware of the isolation of Adam, He declared: The lonely condition of the man [heyot ha-adam levado] is not good. I shall make a support for him. (Gen.2: 18). Many people choose to remain in tolerable but unfulfilling relationships because they are afraid of living isolated as mature singles in a society of couples. The drive for sameness and acceptance is universal.
Groups are governed by the same powerful drive. Minorities yearn to assimilate into the dominant majorities. The experience of the Jewish people is perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon. Its history is punctuated by hatred, massacres, isolation in ghettos, expulsions and extermination. Their religion and culture set them apart and made them objects of curiosity at best and of hatred at worst. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee was unable to fit the survival of this radically different people into his scheme of historical logic. Their outlandish customs and radical difference from western values made them the fossilized remains of a primitive bygone age. Small wonder that many talented writers and artists chose conversion to the dominant faith as their moving staircase out of Jewish difference and isolation. Bil’am’s blessing: Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations (Num.23:8-9) was clearly experienced by them as a curse.
Western Jewry has long dreamed of freeing itself from the curse of isolation—and their dream has been realized to a remarkable degree. They are now largely indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors. They dress the same way, eat the same food, choose the same schools for their children, enroll them in Saturday little leagues, relax in the same facilities and share the same values.
But the removal of the curse of difference is proving itself lethal. In the past quarter century the majority of young Jews chose to marry out, and over a million children of Jewish origin are being raised as Christians. In Benjamin Disraeli’s self-definition, most of the others can be described as the blank page between the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.
The divestment of difference has had another grotesque consequence. Assimilating Jews have become even more politically correct than their neighbors. They are vocal in their support of current prejudices, even when those prejudices undermine the survival of many other Jews. They are often the most vocal and passionate critics of Israel, even when innocent Israelis are victims of terror and naked aggression, justifying the obscene behavior of the attackers simply because it is the “correct” thing to do.
George Santayana famously declared that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to relive it. The holocaust experience should have shown Jews the limitations of the Western cultural tradition. Jews were murdered regardless of the extent of their assimilation. One did not even have to be twenty-five percent genetically Jewish to escape the Jewish fate.
People like Roosevelt, whom they had uncritically embraced, refused their hapless brethren refuge, and justified their not bombing the railroad tracks that led to the factories of death.
The Shoah was the collective failure of both Christianity and the ethical tradition of the so-called enlightened Western world, but many who were spared extermination naively believed that the world had learned its lesson. They stubbornly held on to their dream of acceptance, even at the cost of the accelerated disappearance of the Jewish community, granting Hitler a posthumous victory. Astonishingly, they were still prepared to join the chorus of the politically correct critics of the notion of a state that dared to be different by being unapologetically Jewish..
Prof. Kurt Lewin was rescued from the holocaust. He was a distinguished social psychologist and an astute observer of trends within the Jewish community. In his famous essay on Jewish self-hatred, he pointed out that affirmation of difference [Ja Sagen zum Judenthum] was the most adaptive response to anti-Semitism. He was merely asserting the psychological value of the dignity of difference. After Toynbee had publically dismissed Jews as fossils, in 1961Ambassador Yaakov Herzog engaged him in an internationally televised debate. Herzog demonstrated convincingly that Jews had impacted Western civilization in innumerable ways, precisely because they maintained their uniqueness, producing philosophers, theologians, poets, statesmen, scientists and artists of the first rank. Notwithstanding repeated attempts to exterminate them, they had become one of the most successful and productive communities in the world—largely because of their commitment to education and the values of the spirit.
Several years ago I was interviewed on South Korean national television. The Koreans were fascinated by the success of the Jewish people, and eager to learn about the Jewish strategies for success. They were impressed by Jewish intellectual prowess that they presumed stemmed from their tradition of analytical Talmudic study. They were fascinated by the role of religious practice in maintaining a strong sense of history and destiny. It is ironic that the study of Jewish sources is becoming increasingly widespread in the Far East even as the descendants of Akiva, Saadia and Maimonides are abandoning their involvement in Jewish learning.
Sadly, others recognize what we ourselves have failed to affirm, that Bil’am’s blessing was a blessing after all: Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations. (Num.23:8-9).