Striving for "Otherness"

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April 9, 2018

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Several months ago, I found myself thinking in earnest about the Tower of Babel. The story was included in that week’s Torah reading, and around that time, I was also preparing for a meeting of senior leadership of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Reading beyond the Pshat, the simple verse of the story, with the help of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference and other writings, I was struck by how themes from the biblical tale undergird so much of the philanthropic and programmatic work we do at the Foundation and at ROI Community. Particularly now, with Yom HaShoah approaching, I am reminded of the Babel story's lesson of the importance of embracing "otherness" – a notion that the Nazis tried to annihilate.
Recall that this episode from the book of Genesis picks up in the aftermath of Noah and the flood. Survivors of that devastation all speak a single language, making communication and cooperation among them easy. They are emboldened in a grand, united project: to build a tower to the heavens. Such a feat will show their mastery over nature. What’s more, it will show they possess a power that rivals that of the divine, rendering God superfluous. 
Nothing less than cooperation and a shared purpose, it would seem, bring them together in their goal. These are the very factors we value and strive for in our work at Schusterman. 
Yet as readers of the Torah know, the tower is not to be and the tower-builders are hardly considered heroes or paragons. God recoils at their scheme and stops it in its tracks.
He hands down what is traditionally considered a severe punishment for this act of bravado: God takes this single, unified people and scatters them into different nations who speak different tongues. Communication among the people is now impossible. So is cooperation. Nothing binds them any longer, and inasmuch God reasserts himself as the supreme being. 
Unity here is a negative because it led humankind afoul toward a false sense of power. Unity was therefore destroyed.
Another way of looking at this, as shown by Rabbi Sacks, is that this story teaches us the importance of pursuing projects and partnerships that celebrate a world of "others" – as opposed to a world of sameness.
Rabbi Sacks’ take on the story of the Tower of Babel is slightly more nuanced than the traditional reading I summarize above. In his article "Interfaith Respect Is Vital," Sacks clarifies that the unity that was on display before the Tower’s destruction was indeed a negative, but not necessarily because it was linked to the peoples’ arrogance. I would argue that Sacks’ view is more compassionate. He holds that the sense of oneness that brought together the tower-builders resulted from imperialism. They spoke one language because authorities had made a determined effort to squash multiculturalism. It was imposed upon them, just as modern-day tyrants attempt to root out otherness and impose universality within their borders.
In the aftermath, God singles out a chosen people—the Jews—from among the scattered nations and gives them the Torah and the Mitzvot. By setting the Jews apart, Sacks explains in The Dignity of Difference, He creates “otherness”; their very existence serves to teach humanity about making space for this concept. What's more, the chosen-ness of the Jews doesn’t preclude other nations from having their own relationships with God. Judaism believes in one god, but not in one single path to salvation. God is the unifying presence within an intentionally diverse world. 
And yet, while the Babel story illustrates that diversity is divinely-intended, differences—whether in language, skin color, belief or some other factor—have continuously presented the largest obstacles to our ability to feel compassion and empathy, whether towards our own people or towards humankind. This has been true throughout history. “Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals and groups that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth,” Sacks quotes Isaiah Berlin. The quote continues: “It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right… and that others cannot be right if they disagree.”
Sacks maintains that those who are confident in their faith and beliefs are enlarged by difference, able to appreciate it and be moved by it without sacrificing their identity. God did not want unity amongst all the peoples of the earth; dating back to the days of the Bible, back to Babel, he wanted plurality. Contemporary movements that strive against this are wrong-headed, mistakenly positing that all the world’s problems would be solved if only we focus on commonalities. 
It’s not that diversity is devoid of all dangers, of course. We know that “groupthink,” for instance, can cause inter-group rivalry. What's more, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has discussed the push-pull dynamics of groups: "Once you see groups circling around their sacred values, what you also see is them going blind to anything that contradicts those values." As groups form, binds form within them, but resistance – or blindness – to outside ideas develops here, too. In other words, we must take constant care that we don’t bind to the point of blindness. 
How does all this mesh with our work at Schusterman and ROI Community? 
We take the lessons of Babel to heart, not just talking the talk, but walking the walk when it comes to embracing diversity, supporting both friends and strangers, brothers and others. We demonstrate our commitment not just to Jewish causes, but to causes that affect people from a wide array of communities; and, importantly, we strive to encourage pluralism within the Jewish community, too. Below are some examples of these values in action (most of the projects I highlight here are Israel-based, though several have a global impact; you can explore additional organizations that champion these values outside of Israel in the grantee sections of our website). I encourage you to follow the hyperlinks to learn more about these initiatives and, where relevant, discover how you can get involved.
  • The Jerusalem Season of Culture, a grantee of the Schusterman Foundation, creates unique events connecting residents of East and West Jerusalem, such as 2017's summer Kulna event featuring a lively night of Hebrew and Arabic music.
  • Schusterman is a proud supporter of the Jerusalem Open House and IGY (Israel Gay Youth), both of which strengthen Israel's LGBTQ community and strive to make our country a more inclusive place for all its residents.
  • Through "People Who Usually Don't Lecture" (an initiative spearheaded by the team at ZE.ZE and expanded globally with help from ROI), communities around the world gather to hear TED-style talks given by everyday neighbors whose stories usually go untold. One of these events brought together speakers and audience members from Pardes Chana and neighboring Arab village Jisr az-Zarqa for an evening that sparked empathy and understanding, bringing tears of sadness, joy and comprehension to those in the room.
  • TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers began as a Schusterman Connection Point gathering and has since grown to include events and communities, from Kazakhstan to California, of people who are passionate about creating affordable and replicable solutions to challenges faced by people living with disabilities.
  • And, of course, we look for this "walk the walk" attitude in our network members, too: while several of the above initiatives are being spearheaded by ROI Community members, countless other ROIers are working to strengthen diversity and "otherness" through individual projects or through organizations that they are leading or supporting. From the Muslim Jewish Conference (founded by ROIer Ilja Sichrovsky), to the cross-cultural dialogue groups of Jerusalem's Meeting Place project (directed for several years by ROIer Sarah Weil), their missions are noble ones. More examples of ROIer-led initiatives that align with these values can be found at our Crowdfunding page.
We do not presume that everyone we work with has the same point of view or the same end goal as us. We do not presume that our way is the best way and should be applied everywhere. We are striving to embody the practice of belonging to a “we” while fully respecting a “them.” For us, this has proven to be the optimal route to serving the most people and creating the greatest possible impact. And as we continue on this path, we are ever mindful of the binds that could blind us to the needs and beliefs of others. 
Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) begins on the evening of April 11. Throughout this week, people around the world are hosting Zikaron BaSalon gatherings at their homes, offices, boarding schools, dormitories for at-risk youth, and other intimate spaces, listening to Holocaust survivors and others share their stories and engaging in meaningful discussions. To find a Zikaron BaSalon gathering near you, click here.
To participate in ROI's Zikaron BaSalon gathering on April 11 in Jerusalem, RSVP here.
No'a Gorlin Profile Image

Associate Executive Director, ROI Community