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.
To all who care about the Jewish community and the Jewish future, let’s ban the phrase “non-Jew.” Let’s never again speak this phrase or even think it. People in spiritual life are too important to describe in negative terms.
Like any broad-brush label, the phrase “non-Jew” evokes inclusion by implication (“Jew” is the in-group) and exclusion by negation (“non-Jew” is the out-group). This result sorts people into two categories: “Jew,” and everyone else. While it’s human nature to sort into in-groups and out-groups, this particular label can corrode, rather than nourish, spiritual and community life.
Where does this label come from? One source is a dark history in which multiple civilizations’ collective othering of Jews scarred the Jewish psyche. Jews repeatedly have been “Othered” to death by war, exile, ghetto, slavery, and Holocaust. Anti-Semitism (then and now) projects onto Jews the sinat chinam (senseless hatred) of what seems different. Some corners of Jewish life adapted to this xenophobia with us/them protectionism, essentially a counter-xenophobia – not just pride in distinctive selfhood but also a defense against others. Some went even further: particularism’s healthy self-respect fermented into triumphalism’s toxic superiority.
But this Jewish historical narrative of othering also holds that for precisely the same reason, Jews must regard the other as one’s own self, “for you were slaves in Egypt.” Torah repeats this call 36 times: being othered gives no license to other another. Torah’s calling is that anyone who individually and/or collectively experienced the pain, fear or shame of being othered should strive to channel that pain, fear or shame into empathy, compassion, and inclusivity.
Such is the timeless journey of love over fear. Jewish life must have zero tolerance for senseless othering, in any form, period.
Of course, differences have rightful places in Jewish spiritual and community life: people aren’t all the same, and needn’t be. For valid reasons that lovingly affirm Jewish history and practice, Jewish communities may determine that Jews should fulfill certain ritual functions on behalf of the community. But when people identify themselves or another as who they’re not (“non-Jew”) rather than who they are, spirituality and community both suffer.
The community I serve proudly aspires to embrace all who seek an inclusive spiritual Judaism. Some may consider my community “liberal,” others find elements surprisingly “traditional.” The overwhelming majority of my congregants are Jewish, some raised in orthodoxy; some participants live joyfully among us having no familial or aspirational connection to Judaism but still seek meaning and spiritual encounter in Jewish life.
How does the term “non-Jew” harm if the intention is so inclusive? One harm is that group segmentation tacitly sets apart “Jews” from the “non-Jews” sitting next to them, learning with them, praying with them and living with them. This segmentation weakens community’s bonds and rehearses the outsider/insider and us/them dynamics that freighted Jews throughout history. Whatever one’s sense of Jewish community and Halachah (Jewish law), negative set-apart labels are unnecessary.
A second harm subtly (and not so subtly) demeans so-called “non-Jews.” These people are people, not “non“-people. Whether relatives of Jews or friends of Jews, they’re fellow seekers in their own rights. They might call themselves atheist, agnostic, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or something else entirely. Regardless, if they don’t describe their identity and spiritual experience as “non”-something, then what right does anyone have to impose a “non” label that diminishes or denies their affirmative identity and experience?
A third harm glosses the diversity of these so-called “non-Jews.” Like many broad-brush labels, the category “non-Jew” misperceives the breadth of identity and experience of persons whom this term purports to describe. It’s difficult and often inaccurate enough to paint “Jews” with a broad brush: do we imagine “non-Jews” are any less diverse?
A fourth harm deprives a spiritual community of the many gifts that “non-Jews” offer. “Non-Jews” offer “Jewish” community many nutrients from the authenticity of their affirmative (not “non”) spiritual lives. Often their perspectives reflect tradition’s “seventy faces of Torah” (Num. Rabbah 13:15). For instance, a Catholic who reads a Psalm to evoke divine grace can evoke the very Jewish sense of chen (grace) – a quality of love that can’t be earned but still flows freely. A Buddhist who reads chesed (loving kindness) as “compassion” offers a welcomingly deeper and sometimes more challenging engagement than merely being nice. When people say “karma,” one might recall the Ten Commandments holding that consequence can flow for generations (Exodus 20:5-6), and invoke the teaching of Jewish ethics that mitzvah and misstep both create feedback loops and momentum of behavior (Avot 4:2).
These and other kinds of deep engagements – which occur on Jewish soil around the world every day – most nourish Jewish soil when communities don’t diminish or distance themselves from that very source of nourishment. Calling people “non-Jews,” even if technically accurate, may discourage them from sharing their full authentic selves, because the “non-Jew” label declines to identify much less fully value their full authentic selves.
So what should we call these people if not “non-Jews”? If we banned the phrase “non-Jew,” we might need to call these people (not “non”-people) what they are: atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus. We might need to say, clearly and unequivocally, that communities affirmatively include these people in their fullest selves because of who they are, not because of who they’re not. Don’t Jews want the same thing for ourselves?
By banning the phrase “non-Jew,” Jewish communities would need to name the reality that in their midst are atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus – not so-called “non-Jews” but people having affirmative worldviews, styles, approaches, wants and needs, gifts to offer and sensitivities to honor. Communities naturally would ask how they can engage most wisely and meaningfully with these people as people (not “non”-people), and answer these kinds of questions based on who people are rather than who they’re not. Far from diminishing or diluting the Jewish character of Jewish community, ritual, and spirituality, this subtle change would fully serve and uplift the best of who and what we are called to be.
My suspicion is that this kind of affirmative engagement would require soul-searching from many who care about Jewish tradition and community. My suspicion is that communities might find some quiet (and maybe not so quiet) xenophobia buried deep within. Asking these kinds of questions affirmatively, and committing to seek answers and act on them, might challenge communities to wrestle their own demons of theology, culture, and sociology.
That’d be a good thing. Every person, every group, and every community sometimes needs a mirror to see itself clearly and sense its own conscience. To the extent that Jewish life continues to bear the scars of xenophobic hatred heaped on Jews for centuries, one of the many blessings that so-called “non-Jews” offer is to be a mirror that helps focus Jewish vision on those scars. We can heal only what we choose to see.
A famous story recounts that a monarch was distressed to find a scratch in a precious diamond. Rather than pretend away the scratch, the monarch called one jeweler after another to repair the scratch, but to no avail.
Finally, someone engraved onto the diamond the shape of a flower, using the scratch as the flower’s stem.
We can’t turn back time, pretend away history’s turmoil or ignore continuing anti-Semitism. Perhaps Jewish life always will bear scars of past hatred and xenophobia; maybe Jews always will be “othered.” What we can do is turn the scars into flower stems on the diamonds of our collective soul. The first step is to ban the phrase “non-Jew” and not repeat history’s mistakes.