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Can We Love The Stranger?: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

Last year, novelist Dara Horn spent several months studying Holocaust education in America.  In a time when more school districts require Holocaust education than ever before, why is it, she wondered, that incidents of antisemitism continue to rise?

Her deep dive into Holocaust education brought her to a number of local Holocaust museums, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.  According to the Center’s mission statement, its founding principle is to “Remember the Past; Transform the Future.”

During her visit, she saw a docent guiding a group from a Catholic middle school.  “The docent motioned toward the pre-war gallery’s photos showing Jewish school groups and family outings, and asked how the students would describe their subjects’ lives, based on the pictures.

“Normal,” a girl said.

Isn’t that what we wanted her to see?  Jews are normal.  We’re just like everyone else.  We’re just like you.

Embedded in this week’s Torah portion are the immortal words: “V’Ahavta L’Reiacha Kamocha – You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)

I continue to return to something I learned from Elana Stein Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute.  This verse, she noted, commands us to love our neighbor – She Hu Kamocha – that is like you.

Hatred arises from seeing a group of people as “other” – as different or strange.  If we could just see our neighbors as “like us” – as “normal” – then we ought to learn to love them.  And in turn, if our neighbors could just see us as “normal” – as just like them – then they ought, in turn, learn to love us.

But Dara Horn notes there is a dark side to this. “Teaching children that one shouldn’t hate Jews, because Jews are ‘normal,’ only underlines the problem: If someone doesn’t meet your version of ‘normal,’ then it’s fine to hate them.”

Which is why Dr. Hain teaches that we find another commandment a little later in the portion. “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” (Lev. 19:34).

Here, the Torah pushes us harder: “you have to love the stranger – She Hu Lo Kamocha – who is not like you.”  You have to love the people who are not “normal” as much as you love the people who are.  You have to love the people who are different as much as you love the people who are the same.

Part of what has become so disturbing on college campuses, and in the larger world in which we live, is our refusal to perform this second commandment.

We sequester ourselves in bubbles where everyone is the same – where everyone shares the same beliefs and opinions and who look at the world through the same set of lenses.  People who don’t conform, or take a different stance, are labeled as problematic – mocked, silenced, or shunned.

We have a remarkable need for validation, to be told that yes, your ideas are correct, and their ideas are not just wrong, but ignorant, or even dangerous.  Some even say that just hearing ideas that contradict our way of seeing the world are injurious to the point of inducing trauma.

In our living rooms, this gives us permission to turn off channels that don’t tell us what we want to hear.  On college campuses, this endorses a right to shout down or cancel a speaker whose views and ideas we find to be noxious.  In some of the campus encampments, like UCLA, students created checkpoints, barring anyone from entering who did not profess the “right” beliefs, based on a commitment to “keeping each other safe.”

This week’s Torah portion commands us: “Kedoshim Ti’hyu – You shall be holy!”  And if we are to answer God’s exhortation, then we need to get a lot more curious about those we would see as “other.”

In looking at the writing of theologian Howard Thurman, columnist David Brooks wrote: “When status categories are frozen, people in different groups meet as enemies. But you can scramble status categories by asking deeper questions of one another: How have you decided to live your life? What are the questions you have had to answer? These inquiries begin the process of seeing others in their full dignity. They initiate a process of sharing mutual worth and value.”

In a world of growing intolerance, this is what we must not tolerate:

 

We cannot tolerate those who arrogantly claim a monopoly on the truth.

 

We cannot tolerate those who objectify, erase, or dehumanize the other.

 

We cannot tolerate those who embrace hypocrisy and reject moral consistency.

 

We cannot tolerate those who in the name of loving their neighbor, refuse to love stranger.

In a week where Yom HaShoah calls us to remember the Holocaust, we need to remember how dangerous it is when we only love those who are like us.

If we are truly to “transform the future,” as the Illinois Holocaust Museum suggests, we must remember that six million Jews were killed not because people didn’t see Jews as “normal,” but because so many thought it was okay to hate those whom they saw as different.

A holy society is built on a foundation of love – when we cease attacking each other with weapons or war, when we cease attacking each other with vitriolic shouts of hatred, but instead when we open our hearts in love – to ourselves, to those who are like us, and to those from whom we have so much to learn.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”

 

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