All of Us: ‘Rock Band’ Judaism and Emotional Contagion

Scientists report that playing a game like Rock Band  can make you more caring – and the reason touches the core of what it means to be Jewish.

Humans tend to experience less empathy for “strangers” than for people we deem “more like us” – family, friends, colleagues and members of our “tribe.” Neurobiology explains that perceived similarity triggers our mirror neurons, which arouse in us emotional responses that correspond to emotions we perceive in others. Our mirror neurons make us empathetic to people “more like us.”

In short, emotion can be catchy: we’re hardwired for emotional contagion among our “in” groups. But who’s “in”? Enter the spiritual sociology of Jewish tribalism and its discontents. (We’ll get back to Rock Band  shortly.)

The first Israelites were a tiny band of extended family. Centuries later, a much larger “mixed multitude” fled Egyptian bondage (Exodus 12:38) and together became a new Israelite “us.” To that “us,” Torah aimed a divinely mandated autonomy for the purpose of establishing Israelite monotheism: “You will be holy to Me, for I am YHVH your God, and I set you apart from the peoples so you would be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26).

Partly in reaction to this “setting apart,” for dozens of centuries later many societies (e.g. Greek, Roman, Islamic, Byzantine, pre-Enlightenment Europe, etc.) heaped on Jews subjugation and separation. Forced conversion, civil disqualification, ghettos and worse injected into Jewish spiritual DNA a reactionary pride that helped keep Judaism alive and thriving despite countless onslaughts.

READ: Jews and Non-Jews

But this reactionary impulse also exacted a cost: onto healthy Jewish particularism (feeling fully, proudly and authentically “us”) took root a Jewish triumphalism (feeling superior to “them” in resistance to “their” onslaught). And for some, especially in the younger generations, rejecting Jewish triumphalism has come to mean rejecting Judaism itself.

But nowhere does Torah hold that “set apart” means superior. Whatever its past need, a spiritual sociology of triumphalism can be as toxic as the onslaughts that were its fertile soil. And really, do today’s Jews need it? After all, today most who read this blog can live where it’s safe and socially accepted to be fully, proudly and authentically Jewish. With rare exceptions, today’s generations don’t encounter history’s extent of anti-Semitism that routinely denied Jews civil rights, club membership, college admission, jobs, housing and social standing. With rare exceptions, most Jews are free to eat, pray and love where and as they want. And with rare exceptions, the non-Jewish “others” among whom today’s Jews eat, pray and love aren’t really “other”: they too are bound by ethical monotheism’s covenants of spiritual ethics no less than Judaism itself.

If the biblical derivation of enforced separation is moot, then it’s time to get over it and past its internal dynamics – a process bound to take generations. Meanwhile, today’s generations must heed a different call and answer a different question: how to live a full, proud and authentic Jewish life with all of particularism’s benefits but none of triumphalism’s toxicity? How to be full, proud and authentic Jews when few if anyone will force or penalize a Jewish life?

Which returns us to Rock Band.  Research shows that when strangers play Rock Band together for just 15 minutes, their empathy for each other’s pain and pleasure radically increases. In a very real sense, they cease to be strangers to each other, and they become emotionally contagious to each other.

Rock Band depicts a core lesson of Judaism. All of us are “made in the divine image” (Genesis 1:27). All of us are part of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). All of us are called to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) – so that ultimately there will be no “stranger.”

Rock Band  isn’t a complete answer to our question: to live a Jewish life is partly to “do” Jewish – to honor ancient traditions and craft new ones of a full, proud and authentic Jewish life amidst Judaism’s ceaseless flow through a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of time and place. However, to live Jewish also is to live this Rock Band  creed: however real the perceived difference between people, ultimately our separateness is an illusion. To live a Jewish life is to seek ways to reveal that illusion of separateness for what it is, and thereby become ever more contagious to each other in love, care, hope, pain and suffering. In Judaism’s heart of hearts, and in the heart of Torah in this week’s portion (Kedoshim), that’s what it means to become holy – “to love the other as oneself” (Leviticus 19:18) – so that ultimately there will be no “other.”

Holiness: so ultimately there will be no “stranger,” and so ultimately there will be no “other.” If only our Biblical ancestors had played Rock Band.

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