Editor’s Thoughts: Must Eliminating Otherness Be a Selfless Endeavor?

The Torah commands us, “ve-halakhta bi-derakhav” – “you shall walk in His ways,”[i] and Rambam interprets this as a call to imitatio dei (imitating God).[ii] Elsewhere, he writes that God cannot be defined positively, but must instead be understood based on what He is not.[iii] It seems that Jews are apt to imitate God in this regard – we also define ourselves by what we are not. If there are Hassidim, there are Mitnaggedim, who are defined by opposition to Hassidut. If there are Zionists, there are anti-Zionists. Some Jews define themselves by the fact that they do not study secular subjects, while others define themselves by their refusal to eschew all that the secular world has to offer. There are Jews who run away from close-minded backgrounds to more open-minded social settings (religious or not), and Jews who reject the challenges of Modern Orthodoxy and take refuge in black-and-white society. From my own cynical viewpoint, a Jew’s mental definition of hashkafic placement seems more likely to be primarily rooted in what he or she is not, or is no longer, than in what he or she is or does.

This is not an entirely unexpected phenomenon. After all, a person’s current context establishes his or her perception of the norm, and any deviation from this standard is in some sense strange. The fact remains, however, that because we, the Jewish people, have many internal mahalokot (arguments), we are divided and subdivided into endless societies, groups, and cliques, each defined by its differences from the others – or, to wit, the Others. By so narrowly defining ourselves, we create a situation where disdain and mistrust are par for the course.

A recent experience sheds much light on the dangers of internal fracturing. On a winter break trip to Israel, I met an oleh in a Ph.D. program, who commented to me on the difficulty of creating a distinct Jewish identity in university settings in Israel as opposed to in the U.S.: “In America, there’s the Jewish community, and then there are goyim. But here, even the goyim are Jews!” In other words, unlike in the U.S., where the Jews on campus create an exclusive group and enhance each other’s sense of Jewish identity, there is no such possibility in Israel, because everyone is Jewish. With no outgroup, we are forced to create new outgroups, so we make “goyim” out of Jews. Once we have an Other, we can construct a Self. But this comes at the cost of excluding bona fide Jews, consigning them to be “the goyim” in this environment.

Another very telling experience was a conversation that I had with a prominent religious-Zionist rosh yeshivah. I was told that there is some affinity between the religious Zionist community in Israel and the Modern Orthodox community in America, but the Israeli community gains almost nothing from the American community, except for olim. He further informed me that it is supremely dangerous to live outside Israel, and only by moving to Israel can Jews hope for religious continuity.  I strongly sensed that, despite some perceived communal connection between the communities, he still views Diaspora Jewry as an Other – a group that lacks vitality and needs to be convinced to move to Israel before it self-destructs.

In contrast, the most welcoming statement I heard during my trip came from a haredi acquaintance: “Wear a black hat, a white hat, a red hat, or no hat at all, it does not matter to me. The main thing is: ‘kulanu Yehudim – we are all Jews!’” Apparently, respect, even identification with another, can be achieved even if the natural tendency is to view the other as an Other – and it is worth considering how this might be accomplished.

Of course, there is a second sort of Otherness in the Jewish community, namely Jews who are inherently different from the vast majority of the population – Jews who are not necessarily better or worse by any measure, but who, for whatever reason, tend to be less integrated into society. This is a broader human problem; every group has Others. Yet, it is surely worth investigating how Judaism deals with this reality. Most obvious is the case of the convert, whose plight is addressed in many Biblical and Rabbinic sources. There are other, less apparent Others, namely people who struggle with mental or physical disabilities and developmental defects, or who are in socially and financially disadvantaged positions, and their difficulties are no less deserving of our consideration.

On a different note, we might relate to the ongoing discussion about the role of women in the Modern Orthodox world; the amount of ink that has been spilled on this topic in recent issues of Kol Hamevaser is the only compelling explanation for the lack of treatment in this issue. However, the question of whether and how much the Otherness of women affects their treatment in the Jewish world, both in the beit midrash[iv] and on the street, is worth some analysis.

There is also the question of how Jews should relate to halakhically distinct outgroups, including non-Jews (especially the more disliked nations such as Amalek, Ammon, and Mo’av, Mitsrayyim and Edom, and the seven Canaanite nations), quasi-converts (such as Kutim or Giv’onim), mamzerim, and mumarim.

In the opposite direction, there is the reality of anti-Semitism. Jews are seen as Others by the rest of the world, in accordance with the pasuk, “They are a nation that shall dwell alone, and shall not be numbered among the nations.”[v] Whether this reality is desirable may be left to debate (though the context – a series of blessings for the Jewish people – is certainly telling), but a consistent truth it is, and its impact on our national character also warrants some thought.

Still, I believe the most significant point about the Other is not about individuals or outgroups, but rather about the divisions that fragment the core of society. In the Diaspora, it is possible to divide ourselves into endless groups and live relatively apart, cooperating only when there are common goals. At the same time, it is easier for Diaspora Jewry to unite when the need arises because there is an obvious outgroup, i.e. non-Jews. In the face of an overwhelming non-Jewish majority, being Jewish is something that can make someone feel special and unique. When anti-Semitism enters the picture, the intense pressure to see past our differences will usually carry the day.

However, in the State of Israel, where the vast majority of the population is Jewish, the tendency is to divide rather than unite, so it is extremely difficult to learn how to respect and include the Jewish Other, and ultimately bridge the deep chasms that exist between social groups. Yet this challenge must be confronted, because the need to unite in Israel is far more critical. The various groups live together in one general location and need to run the country together. Despite the differences between individuals and communities, the gaps must be bridged – if not in the name of unity as an ideal, then at least for the sake of simple functionality.

There will always be Others. The question is: how do we create a society that acknowledges differences between Jews, but welcomes everyone? And ultimately, can we learn to see beyond Otherness and feel that the Other is not Them, but one of Us?


[i] Devarim 28:9, translation mine.

[ii] Sefer ha-Mitsvot, aseh 8.

[iii] Moreh Nevukhim 1:58.

[iv] I do not mean to imply that posekim issue their rulings based on some sort of anti-women bias. However, considering that accusations of misogyny have been leveled at posekim frequently in the last few decades, I think an honest discussion of the issue would be of value, whether for “da mah she-tashiv ” (Avot 2:14) – knowing how to respond to claims – both in argumentation and for ourselves, or for individuals who view the halakhic system as being heavily influenced by human factors rather than honest pursuit of understanding retson Hashem (the will of God).

[v] Bemidbar 23:9, translation mine.