Volume 10 Number 4
Making Room for the Other
01 August 1997

Everyone needs to know where they belong, maintains Rabbi Marc Gopin - but this doesn't mean hating outsiders.

Mahatma Gandhi was a devout Hindu and I am a Jewish rabbi, trained in the Orthodox tradition. And yet, across the worlds that divide us, I have found innumerable insights in his writings and styles of human interaction that resonated with the best sources of my tradition. He has become a friend to me on the difficult journey of teaching what many people do not want to hear, and above all in the love of bringing peace to the troubled souls of the human community.

Today we have a virtually unprecedented awareness of our infinite diversity as nations, ethnic groups and religions. But we are also beginning to understand that we need each other. We see unity and disintegration before our eyes, one perpetually tantalizing us with its promise, and the other filling us with fear and anxiety.

The future requires cross-cultural consensus on values and on the highest ideals of humanity. But it also requires us to accept different cultures' expressions of those values, including secular culture's. We have no choice but to believe and teach that each culture is capable of reaching the highest spiritual and moral expression of humanity, in its own way.

We must search for basic principles, intuitions or values that we all share. They include compassion for all sentient life, love of life and love of human beings, peace, justice, fairness, honesty, civility, dignity and honour, humility, the willingness to express regret, the commitment to change for the better. But this is not enough. We need to agree that there is a sacred quality to all existence.

We also need to accept-contrary to a radical Platonist, communist or universalist doctrine-that as humans we seem to need a special care for our family or group. There is a basic need of the human soul for uniqueness and pride. But we can no longer abide the devaluation of the Other that usually accompanies this.

At this time in history, we must choose to break the human pattern of in-group love requiring out-group hatred, love of the saved and damnation of the unsaved, care for the chosen and cruelty to the unchosen.

Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, an Italian Jewish mystic of the 19th century, envisioned a way in which a portion of the Divine exists in all nations, peoples and religions, each contributing towards an ultimate unity-but only when the diversity is honoured and respected.

Each tradition must value its own particularity. We cannot avoid this, nor should we. We do ourselves an injustice if we devalue our own contribution or if, out of shame at our failures, we abandon our particular selves altogether. We also risk consigning our brothers and sisters to the manipulations of fascists, ultranationalists or triumphalists who successfully speak to that part of the simple soul which is dissatisfied with mass culture and with the lack of uniqueness and dignified meaning. This is where the liberal culture of the post-Enlightenment state has been most lacking.

There are also deep wounds at work in each of our cultures, due to poverty, past wars and ongoing violence and fear. These injuries are often healed, in a perverse way, by the strong evocation of collective self and hatred of those who are not part of it. Each of us in our own way must find a way to heal the wounds of the past without needing an enemy.

We face either a Hobbesian future of a war of all against all, or a future in which we utilize the best aspects of the liberal state to move further into the fulfilment of the human being, and of human history. Consensus building on the values that we share is a means of achieving this next step in history.

The more listening that we do, the more communication that we share, the more we will learn from each other on the highest expression of these vital, central values. We will learn the depth and breadth of humility. We will learn not only the value of compassion, but how to teach it as a path of ultimate fulfilment. We will learn about honesty and righteousness in ways we never thought possible, because the tapestry of diverse human commitments to these values will astonish us with its dazzling beauty and sparkling radiance. And we will look back on the centuries of provincial triumphalism of which we were all guilty, and ask ourselves how we ever deprived ourselves of witnessing such beauty in all our sacred traditions.

What we find will also act as a beacon for the difficult task of facing traditions from the past, and we are forced to say, 'Yes, this was regrettable; no, this could not be sacred or have eternal validity, at least not any longer; no, we can no longer apply this principle and expect to fulfil our deepest values.' When we truly believe that sacred wisdom can come from anywhere, we will have the confidence to mould traditions without those laws and customs which have led to barbarism, cruelty, dishonesty and hardness of heart.

What are the eternal values? How can we know? Gandhi said that you should ask yourself whether a policy, value or act addresses the needs of the poorest. I would add, ask whether it leads to the greater harmony of humanity. If it is a harmless tradition, then why not express a love and commitment to it as a heritage from our ancestors? But if it leads to a destructive attitude to humanity, the answer is clear.

I call this process interpretive peacemaking. But there is a problem: in each of our religions and cultures, the coercive or violent interpretation of our traditions will always be there for those who want to use it.

This is why the interpretive process cannot be separated from sustainable, equitable economic development for the poor. Why? Because one of the single greatest motivators of conflict is the desperation of the parent who has no way to sustain his or her children, or of the youngster who has no promise of a future. Their rage is either directed inward in deeply destructive ways-such as addiction or depression-or it is directed outwards to an enemy.

Often we do both at the same time. But the most horrific manifestations are usually to be found in those who exclusively direct anger outward, with an exaggerated, if bogus, sense of the self or the collective self. Religion always stands in danger of being used in this way.

The good news is that most people, no matter how desperate or unjustly treated, never raise a finger against others. Violence is the exception. It takes absolute desperation to convince most mothers that their sons would be better off dead on a battlefield.

A second major motivator of extremism is when radical injury goes unacknowledged, leaving the victims with a deep need to pass on that extreme abuse and humiliation. Almost every minority or class that suddenly achieves power proceeds to do unto others what was done unto it. Defeated World War I Germans against Jews, Hutus against Tutsi, Sinhalese Buddhist against Tamil, Hindu against Muslim and Sikh-and vice versa. And every immigrant minority in America against the newest and poorest minority beneath them. The new oppressors are merely the victims of yesterday.

The need to unite one's community by extending hatred to others is the only way for some to escape the continuing self-inflicted brutality of internalized abuse. Furthermore, these groups often abuse sub-groups within their own people and families as much as outsiders. The Germans first gassed their sick and mentally ill, before gassing my people. And the Germans became used to dying of gas on the battle-fronts of World War I, decades before the Holocaust. We become used to horror and pass it on to others. Witness Ashkenazic Israelis who have abused Sephardim, all of whom also pass on the deep injuries of their Diaspora to native Palestinians.

The passing on of abuse is deeply self-destructive, because it invariably reduces security, provokes reciprocal rage and creates festering civil strife and intrastate genocide.

So interpretative peacemaking must be accompanied by a deep commitment to the poor and to social justice. But the poor must not be made into idealized victims. They and we who are privileged must enter into a partnership of mutual moral responsibility so that both victims and oppressors learn together to hate oppression, not to hate others.

This can only take place after deep psychological and spiritual work, to heal the festering wounds all our peoples have. Healing needs to take place in every facet of society, from the richest citizens to the poorest, from government to business, from the youngest to the eldest, and naturally between the groups that never speak to each other, that never have a chance to discover the Sacred in the eyes of the Other.

The rabbis said 2,000 years ago, 'Great is peace, for even he who has done all the good deeds commanded by the Torah, but has not created peace, it is as if he has done nothing.' Rampant violence is the single greatest enemy of compassion, justice, family life, authentic religious experience and the celebration of God's presence through ritual. In rabbinic tradition, Shalom is the name of God himself.

We diverse peoples of the earth, as budding friends and partners, must consider a shift in our religious priorities. There must be the highest religious priority given to making human bonds that result in the acceptance of otherness. This is the only way to peace between 5 billion human beings and thousands of nations, ethnicities and religious affiliations. The future requires the reformulation of religious vision so that peace is not only an end, but the only means.
Rabbi Marc Gopin

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