Navigate to News section

Learning From Each Other

The mosaic of Jewish identity is a beautiful thing, but we must recognize and respect our differences before we can come together

July 28, 2015

This month I had the great honor (and pleasure!) of being part of the cast for the show Kaleidoscope, produced by none other than Vanessa Hidary, the Hebrew Mamita herself. It was an amazing eclectic cast of twelve, each one of us with our own unique story, with no two tales alike. Yet the driving impetus behind our pieces was simple: to reflect on the different ways people of different ethnicities fit into the Jewish community.

As you can imagine, that’s a difficult message to get across, particularly if you take into consideration the pathological cognitive dissonance of those American Jews who acknowledge that there were twelve distinct yet equal tribes, yet simultaneously see different Jewish ethnicities as different spots on a totem pole. Or those who celebrate when Jewish communities from India to Ethiopia aren’t destroyed, but get shocked when they see someone who is both brown and Jewish. Or those who debate about whether or not white Jews are white, yet Jews of color are looked at suspiciously because…they’re not white. You get the point.

Of course, this isn’t terribly surprising given that Jews can’t really get along with the Jews that already look like them. After all, a cursory glance at the American Jewish denominational landscape reveals that we’re moving closer and closer to Judaism-“inspired” religions, and further away from Judaism itself. Until all that gets sorted out, the rest of us don’t really have a shot.

Actually let’s take a closer look at the messy American Jewish world: Every successive denomination—from Reform to Orthodox to Conservative to Reconstructionist to Humanist—has defined itself in negatives, moving in one direction in response to one or many other denominations moving in a different direction. And each denomination, rather than looking solely to the Torah or the Talmud—some more or less than others—has taken Judaism into its own hands, injected subjective social norms, and self-defined what makes a “good Jew.” Ideological clashes between socially-conscious Jews who pursue charity and philanthropy and social justice while eschewing the ritual observances and demands of the religion, and the more traditional, observant, ritualistic Jews, who value insularity over positive interaction with the non-Jewish (or even lesser observant) Jewish world, are framed in the context of who is the “better” Jew. Meanwhile, neither side takes a moment to consider that, perhaps, both sides are doing Judaism wrong, especially if they’re not acknowledging the right that the other side is practicing.

There’s a midrash that explains that the Ten Commandments were listed on two separate tablets for a reason. The first tablet, with the first five laws including Shabbat, idolatry and the like, represent those commandments concerning the relationship between Man and G-d. The second tablet, with the last five decrying theft, adultery, and lying, represent the commandments of the relationship between Man and Man. But when the Reform movement broke off from what was then just known as “Judaism” in the early 19th century, it did more than just break away from the traditional Jews it would later label as being “Orthodox.” Each “side” of the break ideologically took only one tablet and began declaring that it was more “whole” for it, rather than realizing that they were both equally broken.

What we—as American Jews, and as citizens of global Jewry—need to understand, and actually ingest, is that we all have something to learn from each other. We all have something to contribute to the mosaic of Judaism. Some of us more than other, some of us less. But no one has the full piece or the full picture. More observant Jews might learn more how to interact with the non-Jewish, or even secular Jewish world, and put the concept of derech eretz (social decency) into actual practical use. Not-as-observant Jews could glean the deeper aspects of Judaism— the ones that many Jews flock to Buddhism or Yoga to find—but are right in their backyard. And all of us could learn that injecting our ethnicity into our Jewish practices isn’t an anathema to anything except the contrived Jewish monolith that is invoked to pound square pegs into circular holes when we’re confronted by a Jewish too exotic for our tastes.

And that was the beauty of being a part of the Kaleidoscope cast. We all came into that dramatic space with our pieces, our stories, our lives. Some traditionally observant. Some not. All Jewish. All respectful. Whatever our religious or social leanings, we didn’t put them aside or ridicule them. Instead, we owned them, we meshed them together, and we formed not only a beautiful production, but a beautiful community as well. Because, like any good doctor, G-d said “Take these two tablets, and call Me in the morning.”

Maybe we should start taking that advice. Powerful things happen when we do.

This article is part of a collaboration between Tablet and JN Magazine, a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.