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Breaking Down the Barriers

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

In Eugene Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, a man notices that mysteriously one-by-one people around him are turning into rhinoceroses, and they do not notice that this is happening, and neither do most of the people around them who will shortly become rhinoceroses themselves. The play is a metaphor, and it captures a moment when people in a society begin to allow themselves, without thinking, to be turned into something less than who they really are.

As I watch the growing xenophobia directed at immigrants, and as I watch a growing Islamophobia, I think of Ionesco’s story and how people are allowing themselves to become less than their highest selves. And the precipitant is fear, and this is fear that has been stoked by demagoguery—and not just by one or another presidential candidate. And the message of fear mongering is that we are victims. And the message suggests that victims need victors to deliver them from the supposed source of their fear.

And the message is also that we need to build bigger and more impermeable walls to protect us, and the barriers that we build are not just physical ones like a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, or blocking off Palestinian areas in the West Bank. There are the spiritual/psychological barriers which we could allow to be built within ourselves. And, as a word of caution, just because we believe we are good progressive people does not mean that we are above all this.

When people believe in their victimhood, they can become dangerous. Being a victim gives one license to strike out, and permission to do to the other that which would be abhorred if it were done to oneself. Being a victim allows you to disregard the humanity of the other, to disregard their fears, their aspirations, their vulnerability.

And once you have disregarded all this, they become your victims. And they then give themselves the same victim’s license. In the Exodus story, when the Israelites are victimized by the Amalekites, they believe that they now have a license and a mandate to genocide the Amalekites in turn.

Almost every war—if not every war—is started by those who claim the mantle of victimhood.

I think of the great anti-demagogue, Franklin Roosevelt, whose message had been that it was the collective efforts of people acting with courage that redeemed them—rather than any dictator. Instead of cultivating fear to secure his power, he declared with FDR’s famous vigor of declamation, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

There are habits we can cultivate to enable us to manifest the courage that is already within us. But these habits cannot be developed as we sit alone and watch the tube. There is the habit of being in community to break our isolation and to feel the power of collective efforts. There is the habit of being engaged across communities to enable us to see the humanity of those who are different from ourselves. For example, I believe my image of an Iranian person must be very different than it would have been had I not been involved with the Islamic Cultural Center all these years.

In my sermon on Kol Nidre I spoke of the teaching of bell hooks who sees the education that we need as not something neutral, but as transgressive, prompting us into critical consciousness against the messages with which we are bombarded daily.

Hooks also urges us into a praxis, a way of acting and reflecting upon our practice that allows us to act based on our best understanding, but knowing that we are likely to make errors. If we wait before we act for the ultimate theory that supposedly guarantees our success and avoids all error, then we will either not act at all, or we will be acting on the false belief in our infallibility—and with this arrogance we cannot evaluate our errors and improve our understanding and our practice. And all this is easier with loving and supportive feedback.

Transgressive action means that we will have to take some risks. And since we also have our own fears, and since we also are apt to hide behind our own barriers, then we may fail to take necessary risks. So for this reason, too, we need mutual aid within a supportive community.

Perhaps most important of all, as I see it, is hope. Without it, we fail to act and fall victim to victimhood and its attendant evils. And in my isolation I am more apt to despair. So I need supportive beloved community to affirm hope. And as bell hooks has said: “It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite.”

And if we defy the fear mongering, and if we allow ourselves the risk of taking action, then we further the possibility of attaining the hope behind the liturgy of Oseh Shalom: peace, justice, and respect for all who dwell upon the planet.



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