If an unsuspecting time traveller were to come across The CJN’s recent cover story, he or she might be confused. We would probably need to explain that he has exited his time machine at a unique moment in human history when privilege is considered a bad thing. These days, the subjective experience of the underprivileged grants them a heightened position over others who are required to “check their privilege at the door.” (Our time traveller should be told that it is a privilege to have a time machine.)
To explain such an upside-down reality, we face some difficulties. For starters, why are only certain scales of difference subject to this game? And why are we even playing the game in the first place? By almost any historical standard, humans today are privileged when compared to their forebearers. Those who travel in victim-competition circles are privileged to live in societies where people have the time and the freedom to engage in such games. Does this not call all our analyses into question?
Here, Jews face a unique challenge with the privilege game. We have special historical consciousness (a time machine of sorts). The terms of the current era’s game appear arbitrary to our eyes – “Were we not oppressed enough in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz?” We are left to ponder how these privilege-oppression calculations are made. Sadly, it is the privilege of the Jew to be the object of prejudices emerging from this new game. It has been this way with so many of history’s “games.”
And yet, we must smile at a time when it is a privilege to be a Jew. Indeed, to traditional Jewish thinking, Judaism has always been a privilege worthy of great sacrifice. When blessing the Torah, we thank God for selecting us from among all peoples. In some generations, many Jews attempted to flee from their religious identity. How nice it is to live in an age when to be a Jew is broadly considered a privilege.
As we bask in this unique moment, however, we must remember that to be a Jew is a privilege when to be privileged is to be despised. Recent allegations surrounding the Women’s March organization underscore this sad irony. According to recent reports, in the group’s nascent days, Vanessa Wruble, a New York-based activist, was informed by her co-organizers,Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, that “Jews needed to confront their own role in racism.” Wruble said that she was told by one of the march’s leaders that, “We really couldn’t centre Jewish women in (the Women’s March), or we might turn off groups like Black Lives Matter.” Wruble kept quiet when the movement’s “unity principles” excluded Jewish women. And when she did complain, she was blamed for her own exclusion. “A closed mouth does not get fed,” Mallory reportedly told her.
No doubt, we live in an age of serious prejudice, as well as growing disparities in power and wealth. What can Jews do to challenge such injustice and inequality? How do we make our world better when we are summarily dismissed by those who claim to confront prejudice? Thankfully, Judaism offers us a paradigm through which to see and facilitate change – teshuvah (repentance). Judaism calls upon us to not accept our identity as fixed, but to aspire to something better. Teshuvah applies to society and not just to individuals (as the story of Jonah indicates). A sinful society can become righteous.
Attacking others will not free a person from the shackles of prejudice – it will only substitute a new set of biases in the place of the old. Change begins with a wilful desire to live differently – to live as we should. Teshuvah does not engage in comparisons between people, but in the distance between a person’s potential and that person’s reality. It is a method by which to bridge a failed past with a more ideal future. No one is predetermined to be a victim. We each have control over our destiny.
Let us accept teshuvah and take pride in Judaism. Let us pass these privileges to our children. Let us use them to work for a better world, and let us encourage others to celebrate their own unique privileges as they too struggle for our common good.
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is the rabbi at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto.