Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
My husband and I just returned from vacation, which included a stop in the Bahamas. Lucky for us, it rained. Not the statement usually associated with time in the supposed-to-be sunny islands, but it was a blessing beyond measure.
There was something about that rain that created a space for discovery, that clarified what I was supposed-to-know all along. Maybe I had forgotten, maybe I never really knew. Here it is: We are all strangers. All the time. And we should never, ever forget it.
Standing on the covered sidewalk of the shop-lined streets where tourists are supposed-to-buy-things-when-it-rains, I saw a man of Chinese heritage whose cultural demeanor was unlike any I had ever seen outside a geography book or travel program. Though I would be hard-pressed to quantify it, I can say that he didn’t look the way he was “supposed-to-look” to my American-experience-of-a-Chinese-man eyes.
And while it is simply obvious that I always look out through American eyes, and while I have enjoyed the privilege of some travel abroad and speaking with the natives of the lands (in broken English, of course), on that damp sidewalk it became crystal clear to me (again?) that most of the cultural diversity that I respect and cherish is really not what I think it is. Because not only am I seeing through American eyes, unless I am in the native land of the other, I am experiencing culturally diverse people who have been Americanized. Whose cultural commerce with neighbors of all description has been, to some greater-or-lesser-degree, Gumby-bent into a common cultural persona that works when dealing-with-those-who-don’t-understand. Of course, this bending occurs in every generation of immigrants from every nation – to every nation. It encompasses culture. language, religion, values and more.
It is crucially important that we simply pay attention to how-we-see who-we-see. We know that even when we intellectualize this philosophy, it can very easily slip away when little habitual gears click into place when we experience someone, something, different from ourselves – and all the more so when things – people – do not look or act the-way-they-are-supposed-to. In other words, when they don’t meet the expectations of our limited experiences. Just imagine, then, how you might look to the-other-not-like-you-person. What persona do you display? And, why?
Which brings us to the Black Crabs. At the National Art Museum of the Bahamas, several paintings by native artists portrayed the ongoing, deleterious effect of having lived under colonization and slavery, and the current tourist-based commerce that creates its own devastating social ills. Several artists referred to Black Crab Syndrome – a social phenomenon in which people engage in the behavior of crabs in a bucket: When one crab tries to climb out of the bucket, the others pull it back in. Won’t let it escape. Won’t let it go free. Won’t let it do what-crabs-naturally-do.
So my question is: when we look at others through our own culturally-trained eyes, what do we see? How do we respond? We may well not be (indeed, we are likely not) seeing others for who they are, even as we celebrate living in a diverse American society that is still very much culturally divided. I’m not saying that division is a bad thing – but it has the potential to be. I am saying that it’s not just others who are strangers to us… we are all strangers to one another. And a healthy dose of humility will help ensure that we do not, however inadvertently, engage in deciding who gets to climb out the bucket of our own devising, and who doesn’t. It will also help us resist assuming others want to climb out into the world-as-we-see-it (in which they may not thrive) or even want our help to do so, for these assumptions are also forms of social slavery.
We read in Torah not to harm strangers, for we were once strangers in a strange land. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be quite enough of a reminder of what it like to be a stranger. Perhaps if we recall that being part of majority does not secure social primacy and being part of a minority does not require degradation; that we are all, always, in one way or another, living at the behest of others; we will walk with our eyes-wider-open, listen with our ears-willing-to-hear, speak in a common tongue of awe-for-the-God-spark-in-one-another, and treat one another with the respect and kindness we all deserve and in which we can all thrive.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.