Not sure if you are the address for this but let me give it a shot. I was feeling like people were always putting me in a box, presuming I am a certain way by virtue of the way I dress or the company I keep. I really want people to see me for who I am. Once I started to really think about this I began to notice: Gee, I do the same thing to others. Then I really started noticing it everywhere. We all put groups of people — ethnicities, religions, even fellow Jews — into boxes. Is this prejudice?
A wonderful conversation-starter for the High Holiday season. If we had to sum up what is at the heart of what is wrong in the world, some might say that if we could solve this particular issue, world peace and the Messianic age would be right around the corner. The ability to connect to and honor fellow human beings both on a community and worldwide scale is no small task. It can truly be the challenge of a lifetime. The first step is to acknowledge the problem; the next is setting out to tackle it!
This core theme of not seeing others for who they truly are, but instead heaping upon them external preconceived notions, emerges throughout the Torah narrative. Many times what one heaps onto the other is in fact one’s own fears, projections, and inner demons. What was Cain thinking of Abel when he committed the first fratricide? The text is silent, which might be telling us that it is less about the substance of the conflict and more about the idea of conflict.
Joseph’s brothers have him pegged as one who seeks to lord over them. Whether or not he does is unclear. Ironically, though, the brothers actually fail to recognize him years later when he is Egyptian viceroy. Talk about not seeing the face of the other.
The central thesis of renowned French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is this notion of “seeing of the face of the other.” He writes:
The face, for its part, is inviolable; those eyes, which are absolutely without protection, the most naked part of the human body, none the less offer an absolute resistance to possession, an absolute resistance in which the temptation to murder is inscribed: the temptation of absolute negation. The Other is the only being that can be tempted to kill. This temptation to murder and this impossibility of murder constitute the very vision of the face. To see a face is already to hear “You shall not kill,” and to hear “You shall not kill” is to hear “Social justice”....For in reality, murder is possible, but it is possible only when one has not looked the Other in the face.
Though he speaks of murder, I remind you that there are many forms of murder that require no physical weapon. Many a reputation, a living, and an institution, is destroyed not by the knife but by the word of mouth. The Talmud puts it this way: “The talk about a third person kills three persons: Him who tells, he who accepts it, and he about whom it is told.”
Levinas asks us to consider the face of the other before we strike, a seemingly simple exercise that would demand of us to look — truly look — at the other. An authentic gaze would preclude objectification, labeling and placing the other in a box.
All this talk of people in the box brings me to the People of the Book – I mean of the Box. We Jews as a community and as individuals are often placed in the proverbial Jewish box. Few of us have navigated a life free of the sporadic slur, the prickly pun, the off-the-cuff comment.
Getting to the heart of this objectification is an exhibit in, of all places, Germany’s Jewish Museum Berlin. The goal of a controversial show, “The Whole Truth…Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jews,” is to debunk myths around Judaism and to confront various questions about Judaism and being Jewish. In a country where most people have never met a Jew, this is critical. The museum explains that it seeks to “examine issues that might make the questioner uneasy, some are politically incorrect, while others betray something about the person who asks them…With an even-handed and witty touch, we present questions through extraordinary objects and installations taken from religious practice, everyday life and contemporary art.”
One particularly provocative installation is a box-like area with a seat for an actual Jew to sit in — on display. Visitors have an opportunity to interact with the Jew-in-the-box and to even ask questions of them. This exhibit, as you can well imagine, has triggered many a reaction, not all positive. Though the stated goal is to educate, one cannot help but feel some degree of disequilibrium: A Jew on display, is this a zoo? Perhaps if they had not murdered their Jews they would not have to put one on display as a novelty.
How must it feel to sit there, answering people’s questions? Are those questions not Shylockesque — “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Or perhaps the questions are real and sincere, Germans of today truly wanting to know and understand the Jewish People. This was the approach of those who undertook to sit on that pink bench and put themselves out there. Our daughter, Gilah, who had been studying in Berlin for the summer was one of them. She felt “that as a Jew, and as the grandchild of two Holocaust survivors, it felt peculiarly empowering to actively place herself in a box, in Germany. She explained how she was drawn to the irony of the entire endeavor. Too often, as a Jew, especially in Germany, she was already “put in the box,” by others. By electing to place herself in the box, she was subverting this tendency.
Ultimately, the physical box is not what it is about. It is really about not putting each other in the metaphoric box. But rather, our task is to look into the face of the other and to be open to experiencing all people with generosity of spirit. Given the season, let us become vigilant about honoring the other.