Embracing Our Differences
A posting on Facebook this week came to my attention, causing considerable consternation.
Posted on October 12 under the heading “Thoughts on the debate…,” it depicted John Wayne landing a series of punches to the face of Adolf Hitler. The allusion was clear. This was a comic representation of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s perceived victory over President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate.
What was most disturbing was the characterization of the two presidential opponents in terms of ultimate good and evil.
The idea that any American running for political office be aligned with a brutal mass murderer who obliterated 20 million human beings, including six million Jews, is offensive beyond expression.
Yet, it reflects a trend within the current election that discredits a basic Jewish principle; that there are many sides to any discussion, and each needs to be respected.
The Midrash, our ancient collection of stories and wisdom, tells us that there are “seventy faces to the Torah.” That means that within any discussion, it is incumbent upon us to study all sides of an issue, similar to the way we examine the facets on a diamond.
For indeed, we can only understand an issue, whether it be moral, philosophical or political once we have examined it from all perspectives.
It is perhaps why this week’s Torah portion, Noah, provides an interesting lesson in how diversity rather than conformity needs to be embraced within society.
Each of us knows the story of Noah and the great flood, but what is equally interesting is a vignette which appears towards the end of this week’s Torah portion.
Humankind, buoyed by self perceived greatness, decides to build a tower to the sky. This was known as the tower of Babel. Higher and higher the tower climbed.
The Midrash comments that in their quest to reach the heavens, planners and builders turned their backs on humanity. It notes that during construction, when a worker fell to their death, no one noticed, but when a brick fell everybody cried.
The text also notes that “everyone on earth had the same language.” (Genesis 11:1). This created as author George Orwell would later term “groupthink” causing ideological conformity and moral bankruptcy.
This uniformity of thought catches God’s attention who scatters society into seventy nations speaking seventy languages.
And from there, true human progress begins: Different people, different perspectives, different opinions. It is the Torah’s way of reminding us that humankind requires a diversity of thought in order to function to its full potential.
The concept extends across the tapestry of humanity. It also means that even during political debates, a richness of respectful discussion should be valued. Indeed, no one is a Hitler. No one is evil. No one is a murderer or an abuser, a taskmaster, an alien or a devil.
God asks us to honor our differences, even if another’s viewpoint sounds to us like babble, for Judaism embraces respectful debate and discussion. Better to ask a good question, than to impose an incomplete answer.
It is also interesting to note, that we are still building towers of Babel. We still bank our happiness on the acquiring of wealth, and builders still set their sights on the sky.
In 2010, construction was completed in Dubai on the 2,723 ft. Burj Khlifa. It was noted that this structure, which extends more than a half mile into the sky, was built amidst reports of abuse towards migrant workers earning, on average, between $4.50 and $7 per day.
The Torah had it pegged thousands of years ago when it reminded us that people of all backgrounds and the ideas which they espouse need to be respected.
In particular during this election campaign which seems to be permeated with discussions on percentages, social status, privilege and even race, we need to take a step back and realize that healthy discussion and debate is the stuff which peculates at the heart of our nation.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Let mutual concern replace remnants of mutual contempt
As we share the precarious position of being human.
It also means that discussions around the water cooler, dinner table or even on Facebook need to center on ideas, rather than on diabolic stereotypes.
It is up to each of us when this occurs, to raise our hands and say “let’s move to another topic,” or “let’s move to higher ground.”
For within the current political campaign, there is no good and evil, only a variety of points of view which need to be turned and studied in seventy ways or more. That is true democracy.
Indeed, within each political debate, there exists a remnant of God who, thousands of years ago, injected diversity into this world.
Let us therefore, as sparks of God, embrace the many faces and backgrounds which live, love and toil at the heart of this country.
For they are all precious in God’s sight.
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman