We have a crisis in this country, and frankly in the world.
We have once again gathered at a Jewish federation rally, this time in the aftermath of the violence against the Jewish community in Monsey, during a Chanukah celebration. Once again, we try to cope with the symptoms of this crisis — and the symptoms are terrible.
Human beings hating other human beings, targeting us because we are in a category (this time religion), that makes some of us seen as being different than others. And it is resulting in human beings attacked, wounded, killed. There is no respect for the sanctity of human life.
Yes, we need more security. And we are extremely grateful for the coordinated actions of our first responders and our community leaders. The excellent relationship we have with local law enforcement has been a source of deep comfort for me.
They are targeted toward the symptoms, as they must be.
But, somehow, we — all of us together — have to figure out how to get at the heart of the crisis.
In today’s culture, we define ourselves by our differences. The words “them” and “us” creep into the way we speak. We need to begin to see how we are alike.
Our faith tells us that God made each of us in God’s image. In each of us, there is an aspect of the divine, and in that way, we are all alike. Each one of us wants to be loved and understood.
Each one of us wants someone we can talk to, someone who accepts us, someone who has our back. Each one of us has to negotiate the world and figure out how to live in our complex society. We all need food, clothing, housing. We all need people around us with whom we can celebrate and, when necessary, with whom we can mourn. We all need respect. We all need kindness.
Our faith tells us: Do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Each one of us is multifaceted. We wouldn’t want someone looking at us as if we were only our religion, or our ethnicity, or our sexual preference, or our disability. We have to keep that in mind when we’re faced with someone who seems different from us on the surface, and we must treat them the way we want them to treat us.
Our faith tells us: Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have stood in his place. There is more to another’s story than may be visible to you on its face.
One of the best ways I’ve seen to fight against the hatred of difference is to show solidarity with those being targeted. In Billings, Montana, in the 1990s a Jewish family was attacked — a rock was thrown through the window in their 6-year-old’s bedroom, where their Chanukah menorah was displayed. All their non-Jewish neighbors reacted by putting menorahs or pictures of menorahs in their own windows, showing deep respect and thwarting those who target difference. (A PBS film of this event called “Not in our Town” is well worth seeing, if you haven’t seen it yet.)
During the Holocaust, when the Jews were required to wear a yellow badge to label them as Jews, there were a few places where the entire town professed to be Jewish, and suddenly there was no “other” to target.
And after the terrible shooting in the mosque in New Zealand earlier this year, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, declared about the Muslim community, “They are us.”
Let me tell you about the 20th-century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He said that the face of the other — another human being — is the source of our sense of responsibility. He sees our relationship to other human beings as the most basic thing, the building block of both religion and ethics. Seeing the face of the other is necessary before we can understand God, or how we should live our lives.
Levinas says that when we look into the eyes of another human being, the Torah’s commandments become obvious to us. In his words, “to see a face is already to hear ‘You shall not kill,’ and to hear ‘You shall not kill’ is already to hear ‘social justice.’”
In the words of Jacinda Ardern, “We cannot confront these issues alone. None of us can. But the answer to them lies in a simple concept. The answer lies in our humanity.”
As we begin 2020, let us agree to work together, on an ongoing basis, to engage our humanity, and to get to the heart of this crisis. That’s how we will heal.
Jill Hackell is the rabbi at West Clarkstown Jewish Center. She’s also a physician; she earned her medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she also did her pediatric residency.