Remove Your Blinders

Thursday, 10 November, 2022 - 3:10 pm

There is an old proverb, “Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” Some attribute it to the Native American culture, where they substituted moccasins for shoes. The origin of this concept is a Jewish saying in Pirkei Avot, 2:4, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.”

What this piece of wisdom teaches us is that we all have our biases and circumstances. These are not identical to another person’s set of biases and circumstances. If we attempt to assess a situation based solely on our perspective, we will usually be off mark in truly understanding experience of the other person. If this is true of individuals, it is certainly true of groups. Groups tend to view the experience of other groups through the lens of their own history and cultural experience. This almost always results in one group not “getting” what makes the other group tick.

I want to wade into a situation that has spun off from the Kanye West story. The Jewish experience and the black experience have historical similarities in that both peoples have suffered persecution at the hands of other groups. However, the discrimination and persecution has not been identical. While we are both targeted for our “otherness,” the nature of the persecution and the method of the discrimination has been unique for each group. Certainly, there are plenty of people who hate us both. But that does not mean that our experience is the same.

I watched as a conservative black commentator twisted herself into a pretzel to stand by Kanye, while not endorsing his antisemitic tirades. In the process she came across as minimizing the egregiousness of his words. She ended with the usual “some of my best friends are Jewish.” I, for one, sincerely believe that she is not antisemitic at all. She simply did not make the effort to understand the Jewish experience of antisemitism. She sees all hatefulness towards another through the lens of discrimination against black people. She failed by judging the situation without “reaching our place.” We Jews are often equally guilty of doing the same in reverse.

In fact, Jews even do this to each other. The antisemitism experienced by someone who is a visibly “observant” Jew might be different than that of a person whose appearance is more “secular.” The antisemitism experienced by a person in an academic or professional setting might be different than that of a person who moves mostly in Jewish circles. We get stuck wearing our own blinders when assessing a situation, not allowing ourselves to see it for what it is, thereby diminishing our capacity for real empathy.

The Torah cautions us against this because it is human nature to be this way. We must strive to refine our sensibilities and remove the blinders that do not allow us to see through the eyes of another.  

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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