My parents raised my sisters and me not to judge people based on their outer appearance, and throughout my life, I’ve proudly spoken out against racism wherever I’ve seen it. But, in this time of international reckoning, set off by the horrific murder of George Floyd, it seems only right to go deeper. To not just assume that I am sensitive enough, but to hear from Black people personally. To read what their experiences have been and to try to understand what they have been through, how they see the world, and what we can do to make things better.
One thing I learned this weekend reading an article is that there’s still a lot of segregation in the U.S. today. I never thought about it like that before, but there was only one Black kid in my neighborhood growing up and only one Black kid in my high school grade. My town and schools were predominantly White and Christian. I was also used to being a minority as one of the few Jews in any setting.
Despite being raised to not hold prejudices, I realized that the lack of diverse communities I’ve been part of has meant that I have not had too many chances to hear from many Blacks, in their own words, on how they feel about race in the U.S. I’ve been trying to remedy that by reading about how Black men grow up learning how to deal with police, the terror they feel getting pulled over. I read how a U.S. senator who’s Black has been stopped numerous times for impersonating a U.S. senator. I read how a Black woman shocked everyone she met when they found out she was going to Harvard and the way that Black families were unwelcome when they moved to White communities.
There are many voices that describe the painful systematic racism they have experienced – how White privilege works in society and how it’s held them back. I’ve also read firsthand accounts of Blacks who reject the idea of systematic racism and White privilege. While they believe that there are individuals who are racist, there are no laws holding them back. They believe that the concept of White privilege is inherently racist, because according to them, it means that Blacks are worse off and they don’t want to be part of a dynamic that ranks them by their color.
Now the question is: How could there both be systematic racism and not systematic racism? How could there be White privilege and also not White privilege? Because two contradictory truths can be true simultaneously. This is an important Talmudic concept that the world could really use right now as warring politics sides tear each other apart:
For three years there was a dispute between The House of Shammai and The House of Hillel. The House of Shammai would say, ‘The halachah (law) is in agreement with our views.’ The House of Hillel contended, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views.’ Then a bat kol, a heavenly voice announced: ‘Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim, these and these — the teachings of both groups — are the words of the living God. (Eruvin :13b)
How can two opposing truths both be correct? Because different people have different experiences and also have different brains that process those experiences differently to lead them to different conclusions. For years, I wrote about how great it is to be an Orthodox Jew on the pages of this site. I heard from non-Orthodox Jewish men who told me I have Stockholm Syndrome, staying pathetically chained to my “captors.” I find a sentiment like this to be utterly dismissive of my intelligence and disrespectful of my experience as an Orthodox Jewish woman. This is why I don’t believe any non-Black person should ever tell a Black person that their experiences of being Black are invalid.
I also heard from people who personally had negative experiences being Orthodox Jews. They rejected my experience as valid. They called me a liar and a whitewasher. In turn, I rejected their experiences as valid. It was easy to tell myself these were just some rabble rousers and not take them seriously. For some time, we were on opposing sides, unwilling to hear each other.
But then, several years ago, a couple who had had negative experiences in the Orthodox community reached out to me because they believed that my positive experience with being Orthodox was real. They wanted to know how to attain this for themselves. When they trusted that my experience was real and authentic, I was able to listen to their experience and see that theirs was valid too. Instead of opposing sides disrespecting and silencing each other, each of us listened and learned. I know that it is possible to both grow up in healthy and thriving environments as an Orthodox Jew and in negative, dysfunctional ones. Now that I understand what goes wrong for some people, I am more equipped and committed to making things better for them.
We’re living in a time now where no one wants to hear opinions that make them uncomfortable. Too many people have a narrative about how the world is and works and can only feel good when that narrative is repeated over and over again. Anything beyond their small box is evil, stupid, crazy, deluded.
But this is a dangerous way to live. It only allows us to see part of the truth. Why does the Talmud want us to see that two warring opinions can both be right? Because God has a bird’s eye view of the world that we don’t have and He sees how vastly different the experiences of man can be. One person experiencing life one way should NOT invalidate another person experiencing it exactly the opposite way.
When we are ready accept that there are realities and experiences outside of where we are situated, we can be ready to have deeper understanding of our fellow human beings, both so that we find happiness we may be searching for and so that we can work together and repair what’s broken.