Different and Together- By Rabbi Meir Azari

Different and Together- By Rabbi Meir Azari

At a time when impatience, racism and alienation between people –between cultures, religions and nations – appear to be growing, it is incumbent upon us to search for what unites and strengthens. It is our duty to bring inclusive and warming light to places where the darkness is sometimes stronger. Patience and tolerance toward the other, toward his beliefs, faith, choices and customs, and the ability to accept the other for all his virtues, deficiencies and uniqueness are obligatory in the complex times we live in.

At a time when the pace of life is faster than ever before, the interface between people, places and cultures raises many new challenges.

The streets of the world in which we walk, both in practice and in our imaginations, and the frameworks within which we would like to be partners, nowadays include members of various religions and cultures. So many colors and so many types fill our world today.

Modern Israel comprises a tremendous mosaic of identities. The Jews of Israel arrived from scattered exiles speaking different languages and with different customs. About a quarter of the country’s citizens who are not Jewish represent a variance and a uniqueness that occasionally challenges the majority, but which can also be enriching and empowering.

Abraham, the father of monotheism, leaves for a journey following God’s call to him: Lech Lecha. The call is not just to leave his home and his country but to go to a new dimension, a new direction in life. A lot has been written about his unique journey of self-revelation, which changed the religious culture of the world we live in. But this journey is no less a journey toward the discovery of the other. The story of Abraham’s relationships with his different surroundings serves as a model for coexistence and respect for the other, for his faith and culture is the result of strength, not of weakness or of idleness.

Since then, Jewish sages and scholars throughout the ages have taught us the obligation to be open to others, to recognize the differences and the uniqueness in every single creation – and the leadership’s obligation to strengthen this approach.

Thus, for example, the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin tractate says:

“The Supreme King of Kings, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, fashioned every person in the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore, every single person is obligated to say: The world was created for my sake.”

And the Midrash explains that the obligation is to be sensitive and open to the other:

“But if the population has many people, blessed is He who is wise in secrets. As their faces are not equal to each other’s, thus their views are not equal to others’, rather every single one has his own view. As is said: He establishes the force of the wind. Yes, he measures out the waters by measure. (Job 28:25). Every single creation has its own view. Know that as he is dying, Moses says to the Holy One: Lord of the World, the view of each and every one of us is known to you, and the view of none of your sons is similar. When I leave them, I ask you if you wish to appoint a leader for them, appoint a man who can suffer and accept each and everyone’s view.” (Based on Midrash Tanchuma, Pinhas)  

Long before the United States Declaration of Independence – one of the foundational documents of cultural pluralism – was inscribed, the great sages of Israel knew the secret of this power.

Our leaders perhaps learned this from some of the darkest days in the history of our nation, days in which there were those who tried to dictate to the fathers and mothers of the nation a religion and culture different from their own.

It should always be remembered that Jews, residents of the Holy Land or the Diaspora, are descendants of a nation that experienced slavery and exile forced on it partly because of its uniqueness.

We belong to a nation whose demand for a homeland and freedom of religion, together with an obligation to respect and accept the other, is the result of bitter experiences. The years of exile that our nation experienced are witness to the lack of tolerance and the difficulty of many nations to accept the uniqueness of the Jew and his culture. It is our duty as people living in a multi-cultural society to treat those different from us with decency, to accept the other and his culture, and to respect the differences between us, be they differences of gender, color, belief or lack of belief.

The Book of Books obligates every Jew to accept the other, to respect him and understand his or her uniqueness. Thus Jews throughout the ages have read and understood the following quote from the book of Exodus: “There will be one Torah for the citizen and the foreigner who lives amongst them.”

Or as the Book of Leviticus says: “You will have one law for the foreigner as the citizen.” And the Book of Numbers adds: “One law for you and the foreigner…”

It appears that our forefathers understood the obligation toward fairness, social justice, the other’s welfare and respect as challenges that would affect the character and stability of Jewish society. They wished to bequeath to the nation, and to future generations, the Jew’s responsibility towards the other, towards the weak and the weakened in society. They wished to see other societies as partners, not as enemies.

In this diverse world, saturated with differences, the strength to accept and respect the other is vital – possibly the central test of the era in which we live. The societies that flourish will be those that know how to include within them different beliefs, genders, a multiplicity of races, colors and tastes. Perhaps the differences between people will help nourish a better and stronger society. In this way, social sensitivity may develop – from the recognition of the other, from respect for his way, choices and faith.

Rabbi Kook, who was a guide to many, instructed his students to internalize this insight, which should be developed and strengthened. As Rabbi Kook wrote:

“Call us not your children but your builders – because the building will be constructed from different parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from different pairings, different ways, that all of them are God’s living words, from different ways of working and guidance and education, in which each has its own place and value, and no talent or completeness should be lost, but rather nurtured and expanded … and the multiplicity of ideas, which results from changing souls and mindsets, actually enriches the wisdom and causes its expansion. So that ultimately all things will be properly understood, and it will be recognized that the building of peace that will be constructed could not have been built without all the influences that appear to better each other.”

It is a shame that there are those who think of themselves as Rabbi Kook’s successors yet are not sufficiently aware of this sensitivity – the duty of a nation that was itself given to pressure, persecution and challenges over the generations due to its differences – and do not understand the potential of adopting people of different shades and beliefs into society.

In the Book of Books, voices of hatred, subjugation, rejection of the other and abuse of the weak are raised several times, but a healthy society must seek the common denominator between the wisdom of its past and the core values of its present.

The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin successfully articulated the Israeli and universal need to recognize the other when he said:

“Just as no two fingerprints are identical, so no two people are alike, and every country has its own laws and culture, traditions and leaders. But there is one universal message which can embrace the entire world, one precept which can be common to different regimes, to races which bear no resemblance, to cultures alien to each other … [it is] the message of the Sanctity of Life.”

I would add to the words of Mr. Rabin that the Sanctity of Life grows from the recognition of the other and the different, from respect for his religion, culture and leaders.

In Israeli society this challenge is extremely significant. The ability to build a tolerant and inclusive society that recognizes the cultural gaps and religious divisions but fights injustice, discrimination and depravation is the base of the social and civil strength that will allow us to overcome the challenges of the time and place we are living in.

The country’s founding fathers and mothers did well to describe a dream and vision of tolerance and respect for the other out of the obligation to build a common togetherness. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which they signed, sets a challenge for us to this very day.

The “Different Together” project is aimed at strengthening our youths’ familiarity with the other, respect for the other’s religion and culture.  We hope that by exposing youths to diverse colors, views and cultures, we will weaken the prejudices bring about hatred, scorn and fear and strengthen values of tolerance and patience within Israel’s multi-nuanced society.

One of the greatest fighters against racism and the lack of openness to the other in the 20th century was Nelson Mandela, who in his inauguration speech as President of South Africa, following the apartheid years, reportedly said:

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Mandela, who, in his personality and in his conduct, knew how to embrace the other and the hated and the hater, places before us a challenge whose essence is to free ourselves from fear despite concern about the other and his culture. Mandela teaches us that even in a difficult and challenging reality we must try to find common life channels. In a world full of hatred and change, in the dynamic world in which we live, it is imperative for us to see not only the difficulty and differences, but also the good that grows from learning to live together.

One of the greatest problems that we have always faced from the majority or a large group of people is that of superiority and the belief that they are right and that no one else has the right to hold his own opinion or belief. The “Different Together” project has come to free us from that outlook.

The future offers us contact with innovation, with new worlds, new cultures, different people, beliefs and opinions that may be slightly different from ours. The greatness of humankind in the 21st century will be gauged not only by its ability to know and recognize the other, but also by our ability to respect where others, our partners in this planet, come from. The ability to grow from within our differences and build a better world is one of the greatest challenges of the times we live in. This ability is perhaps one of the secrets to building a successful society in today’s global and complex reality.

The “Different Together” project (or, in its American name, “Embracing Our Differences”), adapted from the Jewish community in Sarasota, Florida, is designed exactly to make manifest the glory of God that is within our children, to expose Israeli society to the complexity of differences and to see in the other and the different a strength multiplier. We wish to learn to be free of our fears and teach others the beauty of the other through his or her difference.

Rabbi Meir Azari is the Senior Rabbi of the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism