Every year when Ki Tissa comes around and it’s time to hear about Israel’s demand for a god they can see, I think about a poem my son Jonah wrote when he was around 7 years old. Brendl, the editor of the Cambridge [England] Jewish Residents Association magazine, invited local children to submit stories and poems written from the perspective of a biblical character. Jonah chose to write his poem from the point of view of the Golden Calf. It went something like this: Once I was happy and proud. Everyone was bowing down to me and praising me. But then my life changed. They pulled me down and broke me into pieces. My happiness ended.
I should have placed a bet that day that Jonah would become an anthropologist. He’s recently finished his field work in Sierra Leone, where, as I heard when I visited him, he was known as ‘black man in white man’s skin’. But his career plan aged 7 was to run a synagogue with a restaurant. (His brother Jacob’s plan at the same age was to found a cleaning company called Graceful Cleaning.)
Jonah’s poem confirmed for me his capacity to see the world as others saw it. I felt very proud of him. Empathy with the other is among the Torah’s central teachings: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Perhaps it was because he grew up in a vegetarian household, and was sensitive even about birthday cakes in the shape of a living being, that Jonah took this a step further and empathized with the Golden Calf.
But seeing the world as others see it doesn’t get an entirely positive rap in the Torah. The spies conclude their negative report on the inhabitants of the Promised Land with the words: We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and in their eyes too. The community breaks into loud wails. The spies’ demeaning self-portrayal was hardly good for morale, but even more damaging was their assessment of how they appeared to their future enemies — like grasshoppers. Prospective conquerors can afford to feel small, but they can’t afford to look small.
But here’s the question. Did the inhabitants of the land really see the spies as grasshoppers or, as seems more likely, were the spies simply unable to understand that seeing yourself in a certain way doesn’t mean that that’s how you look to others? It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that other people’s perceptions of you can differ wildly from your own self-perception. And it’s even harder to accept that how they see you is often more consequential than how you see yourself.
This point was driven home to me during a session I was running for the Fellows of my Cambridge college on how to conduct undergraduate admissions interviews. Since Oxford and Cambridge put a lot of weight on these interviews, it’s crucial that they be conducted fairly and, as far as possible, without bias.
It was my task to tell the interviewers to ensure that interviewing rooms (typically their college offices) were appropriately arranged: no sofas with broken springs into which candidates might sink without trace, and no rickety chairs facing into blinding sunlight. I had to remind them that preliminary small talk intended to put candidates at their ease — how was your journey? — would seem more stressful to some than challenging questions about the field they’d applied to study. And I needed to warn them off subjects, such as religion and sexuality, that could make candidates feel uncomfortable and played no role in the decision making process.
In sum, I told the prospective interviewers, you need to put yourselves in the place of interviewees, and do your best to give them the opportunity to shine that you’d want for yourself. I was basing my advice partly on my memory of my own admissions interviews — many years earlier, at Oxford — when I was rendered almost speechless by terrifying female dons with an encyclopedic knowledge of English literature. And suddenly the light dawned. I could be as supportive and encouraging as I liked, but in the eyes of the young women applying to Newnham College, I was now the terrifying female don!
I’m reflecting on this now partly because, once again, I’m having trouble seeing myself as others see me. Last week, my husband and I spent a few days in Rome. Based on what we’d read and heard about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in Europe, we felt nervous about telling people who asked that we were from Israel. I suppose we could have passed ourselves off as American and English respectively, and been evasive about domicile, but we wanted to tell the truth. To our surprise, relief and pleasure, everyone we told reacted with apparently unfeigned enthusiasm. Not one seemed hostile, critical or even uncomfortable. Is it possible that the whole world doesn’t hate us after all, I wondered. Are we being misled by the media? Is Italy unique? Did we just get lucky? Can we ever really know how others see us?
But there’s another reason why I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing and being seen. A few days ago, my older son Jacob sent me a link to an extraordinary Israeli news programme. It’s about a student in a class called ‘Systemic Justice’ that Jacob co-teaches with at Harvard Law School. The student is a young Israeli Arab woman. She was born and raised in Haifa, did her national service in Jerusalem in the Department of Justice, and completed her legal education in Israel with an extremely prestigious ‘internship’ in the Supreme Court. And if all that’s not impressive enough, she’s been completely blind since birth. This 10-minute film is worth watching, even if you can’t follow the Hebrew. Since you can see, you’ll be able to get the — deeply inspiring — picture.