September 14, 2015 | I Seek Your Face (Rosh HaShanah 5776)
Ari S. Lorge
Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)
“I must admit one thing to you… I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbor… One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract… but at close quarters it’s almost impossible.” 1
Those were the words of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov as he responds to the commandment from Leviticus to love our neighbor. To make his point, Ivan says he feels a sense of love and obligation toward the poor. But he cannot love the specific beggars he meets. How, he asks, can he love a filthy, impolite human being from a world completely “other” than his own? Ivan’s brother Alyosha replies, “the face of a man often hinders many people not practiced in love from loving him.” 2
“Not practiced in love.” That’s a provocative line. Are any of us “practiced in love”? I’d say we actually are… I love my family. I’ve had a lot of practice. Similarly my friends, my colleagues, congregants, and teachers. Where I get stuck is when it comes to complete strangers. It seems feasible to love strangers in the abstract; but not so much in reality. And there is the crux of the matter. Our neighbors must become more than strangers if we are to love them.
It’s not merely that the stranger can appear strange. When Alyosha says “the face of a man often hinders many people,” he is speaking of more than someone’s literal face. We’re hindered by the face of a man—or woman—who doesn’t share the same religion, race, income, philosophy, or politics. These are the neighbors with whom we have little opportunity to interact meaningfully. And yet, it is only through building relationships that we can engender a sense of love and empathy for them. They must not remain strangers if we are to love them.
This seems like a good moment to mention Archie Bunker. The lovable, deplorable Archie, from the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom All in the Family, was an iconic example of someone who preferred his tribe; who sought to keep his neighbors who didn’t share his ethnicity, race, and convictions as strangers.
Much of the show’s comedy came from Archie’s chafing at an increasingly integrated world. He famously invoked scripture to validate his preference for white, blue-collar Americans. Here is one quintessential Archie quote—and I hope you will forgive my terrible Bunker imitation:
You know the story about Noah’s Ark there, don’t you? You know how the animals come up the gangplank there and into the ark. They came in twos: the sames with the sames and the differents with the differents. The tiger came up with the tigeress, the lion… came up with the lioness. The zebra… came up with the zebraella. And the elephant, he came up with the… Geez, I forget the term. You know, the point I’m trying to make is the elephant didn’t come walking up… with a Jew.” 3
And yet, even a character as extreme as Archie was changed when his neighbors became more than abstractions. You’ll remember his relationships with the Jeffersons, with Maude, with Theresa Betancourt. Ultimately he saw the face of his neighbor—and was moved to acts of empathy. But it could never have happened if he wasn’t forced to meet face to face the people he felt were too different, and to then see their humanity. Today, we may not be able to find those opportunities for relationship in the same way.
Robert Putnam, the eminent social scientist and Harvard professor, suggests that our ability to surround ourselves with like-minded, like-looking, like-thinking people has increased, not diminished in the last five decades, and that this has led to disconnection and a nation of self-interest. He explains the growing opportunity gap in his 2015 publication Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. One cause is the breakdown of relationships between people from different walks of life. He writes:
Americans’ social networks are collapsing….4 Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles) means that…Americans…are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds.…5
In short, Putnam writes that we find it difficult to love our neighbor, because we have little to do with them. If we move through our lives without really understanding or seeing theirs, he writes, “we are less empathetic than we should be.”6
“Less empathetic than we should be.” That’s another challenging sentence. Do we—do I—lack empathy? If we’re serious about self-examination during these ten days of awe and accounting, do we do an honest inventory of our capacity for compassion?
I think we care deeply about the suffering we see—but if it is in the newspaper or in some distant location, we’re often paralyzed by the enormity of it. We ask ourselves, “What can I do to help the Syrian refugee across the ocean, the black teenage boy who is afraid of being confronted by the police, or the nail salon employee a few blocks away struggling with inhumane working conditions?” Even with our compassionate hearts, even with our desire to do good, even with our hope to help our neighbor, we are often uncertain of how to take action.
And yet, I wrestle with the question… what if these strangers were known to me? If I knew them, would I do more on their behalf? What if they weren’t “Syrian refugees,” but the family of my Syrian-American friend? What if it weren’t a faceless African American, but my roommate from college? What if it weren’t the nail salon worker, but a woman from a church whose pastor is a friend?
If I knew them not as headlines but as people, would that channel my concern into some deed—big or small—which might improve a life? Would that drive me to find a way to show up? I have a feeling it would.
So the question becomes: how do we put faces on our neighbors? How do we move past our mutual estrangement? Based on what we know from Putnam’s work, we can no longer count on our day-today-day interactions to make these connections with people who are different from us. This is true even in New York City, where we live in great proximity with our neighbors while simultaneously there is a distance between us that often feels insurmountable. Today we have to organize and create the opportunities to get into meaningful relationship. One of the best conveners of these conversations are houses of worship.
One story as an example: In my hometown of Chicago, Anshe Emet Synagogue and a black church called Bright Star spent years building bonds between their congregations. Through dialogue, they learned that because of neighborhood violence, kids at Bright Star could not travel safely to the community park. But two students who were becoming b’nei mitzvah at Anshe Emet decided that even though it was not their neighborhood, they still had an obligation to their peers across town; these were no longer faceless children.
The Anshe Emet children raised money to build a beautiful new playground for Bright Star Church. The synagogue and church gathered children from both communities to share dreams of what the playground could look like, and then came together to build it.7 I wish you could see the photographs of the finished jungle gym. [See photos online. Ed.] I wish you could see how working and dreaming together led these communities, who share little in common, to recognize that they share a future. By setting aside the intractable economic and social gulfs between races and classes, this playground got built. But it would never have happened on its own—the relationship fostering needed to be organized and in person.
America is out of practice at showing up in person. We are accustomed to online activism where entire movements get organized on Twitter, with faceless donate buttons, with crowdfunding campaigns devoid of personal contact. We are more likely to share an article on social media than share an evening in dialogue or a day marching. We have become hashtag activists.
It is not for lack of care. We all care deeply. But these kinds of actions demand less and risk less. Why go anywhere? We can sit at our laptops and participate—as much or as little as we choose. My activism can be as inactive as ordering takeout from Seamless. My generation has seen that we can love our neighbor without breaking a sweat; I can join a movement without moving.
But Judaism teaches that we have to move. We have to show up. We have to go.
Empathy, in our tradition, is actually commanded. You’ve heard the word chesed. It’s the Hebrew term to describe acts of empathy in-person; Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates chesed as face-to-face deeds of compassion. He writes that acts of chesed appear at critical moments in Torah to teach us that “societies are only human and humanizing when they are&hellpi;built on face-to-face encounters.… The Pentateuch [our Torah] repeatedly emphasizes that we cannot see God face to face. It follows that we can only see God in the face of another.…”8
The great Jewish philosophers Abraham Joshua Heschel,9 Martin Buber,10 and Emanuel Levinas11 all preach the same simple truth: the moment our eyes meet another person’s eyes, we become responsible for them. The face of a fellow human being demands that we respond. I learned this firsthand with Central in August.
Last month, a few of us flew to Atlanta to join up with the NAACP’s march from Selma to Washington, a demonstration meant to call attention to voting rights and racial inequality in education, employment, and the criminal justice system. We were asked to march in twos, like animals destined for Noah’s ark. (No Archie Bunker in this Noah story.) Every now and then, someone would leave the line and everyone would move up to fill in the space. As we found a new partner, we turned and asked some variation of the question “Why are you marching?” And then, face to face, I heard story after story from my African-American partners that broke my heart. Many impacted my view of our country’s founding promise of equality, where that’s been realized or wanting, and what it means to be a Jew in the midst of today’s tensions. They in turn learned about Jews and Judaism from me.
Most of the African Americans I talked to I am unlikely to meet again. But for one scorching afternoon in Georgia, we walked the same road. We each learned about a piece of America that might as well have been a foreign country. It was a reminder of what we gain from showing up. Not only do we see the faces of our neighbors and learn that their struggles are our own; we also find their hearts are moved toward us as well.
Later that day in Atlanta, we gathered at the King Center for a rally on education equality. The president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks, charged his organization to speak out on issues of homophobia, immigration, and anti-Semitism. When we heard that, we Jews in the room were surprised. Why was anti-Semitism his cause? “All oppression has the same root,” he declared; if his neighbor is facing anti-Semitism, that’s his fight, too.
Over time, if we tend these relationships, empathy becomes a habit. The religious community of Somerville, Massachusetts, is a clear example. Different houses of worship, including synagogues, spent years building connections between races, religions, and class by organizing formal opportunities for their members to get to know one another. These diverse groups gathered in intimate settings and shared their experiences, dreams, and fears. Seeing each other’s faces, they found common cause. It moved them to improve their community together. They began by tackling education and health care.
One day, the Jewish community discovered that the local town aldermen were being pressured to divest from Israel. They reached out to their partners, and found that their neighbors would stand with them. It was not lone Jewish voices speaking against Israel divestment. In fact, the strongest voice of opposition was not the most obvious one: Reverend Hurmon Hamilton, a local black pastor.
In Somerville, long relationships mattered. Somerville citizens created a culture in which neighbors saw each other’s struggles as their own. These ties can’t be forged in times of crisis. They need to be carefully built before the storm.
Building these ties can and has looked differently. In some instances, face-to-face dialogue has accomplished this work. Diverse communities, separated by neighborhood, faith, or race, get together. Through sharing stories, they get to know each other, both their struggles and their dreams. Over time, they often discover common cause. Another approach is for people of different faiths to do social action together. By volunteering based on values they already share, trust is built and they come to love one another in action. Both roads weave disparate communities together in empathy.
I’ve heard a stirring in this community. There are teenagers who are excited that they could do this work through their synagogue. There are young 20s and 30s looking for a relevancy in Judaism, and their eyes widen when they hear about the possibilities. There are adults in our community stretched thin by jobs and family and obligations who say they would eagerly show up if we called them. There are retirees looking to this community to take a larger role in repairing our world.
We’ve begun to ask, “What could this look like at Central?” We’re going to have to answer that together. One starting place might come from the Reform Movement. They are exploring how we as Jews can collectively seek out the faces of our neighbors and work together to repair the brokenness we see around us. There will be a conversation at the Movement’s Biennial, its congregational gathering. If you’re planning to attend, then join us at that conversation. If you’re not, don’t worry. Keep your eyes and ears open. Central will share with you what we learn and opportunities that exist for us to educate ourselves about these issues and find ways to show up.
Martin Buber wrote that each of us walks through life encased in an armor. This armor protects us from the signs that we are being addressed by the strangers around us. It ensures we do not see their eyes pleading for us to relate to them, respond to them. He writes that the armor whispers reassuringly, “It is just the world, nothing is required of you.”12
It is a necessary armor. The world is too full of faces to walk about unprotected. And yet, we stand at a moment in the year that summons us to strip off our armor and lay ourselves bare.
Standing here, vulnerable and exposed to the summons, we ask ourselves: whose eyes could we meet? If we seek out the faces of a community of strangers, what might we find? Will there be moments of heartbreak? Will there be moments of tension? Yes, but there will be eyes brimming with hope, there will be lives touched by friendship, there will be hearts marked by love.
May we cast off some of our armor this coming year and allow faces to penetrate our hearts and “stir our soul.”13
7. Baer, Stephanie K. “Building playground will substitute for mitzvah parties.” Chicago Tribute, August 26, 2014. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-mitzvah-celebration-playground-met-20140826-story.html. (back to text)