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.
This past Monday, exhausted from the stress of the Orlando tragedy and its reverberations of grief, my husband and I went out to dinner at a lovely neighborhood restaurant and had a miserable time. A large party of Americans with a distinctive regional accent were seated in the same nook of a room, and at that table there was raucous laughter in response to a series of “gay” jokes, the jokes becoming increasingly cruder and the laughter wilder. Soon they shifted to misogynistic jokes. At the table of 12 were two women and one man of color.
We couldn’t help associating the acceptability of hate language in this environment of cultivated congeniality with the new modeling of hate speech in the America political arena, and what seems to be a corresponding loosening of proprieties. I wonder how many decades it will take to resorb the permission to hate that Donald Trump has unleashed.
I was aware of how big the men were, how comfortable they seemed in their own skin, how entitled they seemed to express themselves with freedom, indeed, with abandon, without awareness of their affect. I wondered what it might be like to be that man of color, sitting at the very end of the table, laughing [discomfited?] at another “other,” or the women… And I colluded as much as they, reeling in horror, but not saying or doing anything.
My Facebook profile picture is overlaid with a rainbow flag and captioned “We are Orlando,” yet I am privileged to publicly show affection for my partner without looking around to see who might be taking notice. I am a Jew and feel called, as a Jew, to identify with persecuted peoples. But I know that this is not about me and that, whatever has happened to my own family, my role is to say not “I know your pain,” but rather: “I cannot imagine…”
I know that my role is to listen, to reach out to grieving friends with expressions of love and to reach out to strangers in solidarity. I know that my role is to make clear my political stance on gun control, my personal stance against tolerance of hate speech. I know that my role is to deepen my professional stance of inclusion and to facilitate better sensitization within the community I lead as rabbi.
I would not diminish what is unique to the tragedy in Orlando and its victims by believing my own experiences of fear as a woman or as a Jew are to be compared. And yet, truth be told, I am very frightened – for myself, for my young adult daughters, for all individuals and populations at risk of hatred perpetrated against them.
I am afraid there might be sudden escalations of violence in public places. What makes refraining from transference difficult is my awareness of the profoundly intersectional nature of the threat. Homophobia is so close to abhorrence of women and all things feminine, and how do we tease apart sexist expressions of xenophobia from demonization of races and faith communities?
The complexity of the web of hatred leads me to believe that it is, precisely, embrace of the complex web of our global human interconnection that can heal us. We are an organismic whole. We are our brothers’ keepers. What hurts you will come ’round to hurt me. When you are massacred, I am afraid. Orland is not about me in that I am not a victim and I am not a mourner, but we are Orlando in that when homophobic hatred is unleashed, hatred is unleashed and it can land anywhere, morph into any expression.
My sense is that the jokes made in the restaurant on Monday night, and their bravura, are the nesting ground for Orlando. How shall we cultivate intolerance of such expressions?
The Mishnah tells us that before every human being walks a bevy of angels, calling out: Make way for this image of God! Make way for this reflection of the Divine!
photo credit: Anita Fonseca