“The narcissism of small differences.”
Sigmund Freud first coined this phrase 100 years ago. According to Wikipedia, the narcissism of small differences is “the thesis that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories and close relationships that engage in constant feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation.”
A careful read of Parashat Korach supports the idea that Korach’s rebellion was all about the narcissism of small differences. After all, it was Korach, a member of the Levite tribe, and not some “grassroots” organization, that was the instigator of the rebellion. Although Korach purports to be a leader who speaks on behalf of the “grassroots,” really, as is clear from the interchange between Korach and Moshe, Korach has it pretty good. The dispute is all about Korach missing out on one minor thing – the priesthood. Korach is all about “me” – I am the same as you, you got something I didn’t get, my rights have been violated, what you do and get defines who I am. How dare you do what you do, how dare you get what you get, how dare you think what you think – because it has an effect on me.
The “narcissism of small differences” drives a lot of what goes for communal discourse in the Orthodox community these days, and is the cause of various rifts within our community. (Arguably, it drives communal discourse in the larger world, as well, but that matter is beyond my pay grade.) It is much easier to be tolerant – here defined as “I’ll suffer your existence” – of individuals and communities who are widely divergent from us in thought and practice. They do not present a compelling existential threat. Those of whom we are the most intolerant are those closest to us who differ in one “minor” respect – be it openness to biblical criticism, or finding truth in some of the feminist critique, or a belief in da’at Torah (the unique qualifications of great rabbis to speak with authority on issues), or struggling with the disconnect between what our holy Torah seems to say about LGBTQ and our current understanding of human sexuality. Those individuals present the greatest existential threat, because they appear to be and say they are “Orthodox” and yet they do not define my Orthodoxy.
I will leave it to others (like Dr. Seuss in “The Butter Battle Book”) to flesh out the argument that engaging in this culture of “narcissism of small differences,” when followed to its logical and inevitable conclusion, leads to utter destruction, such as that of Korach and his rebellious followers. Only those whose identities are not threatened by these differences, and are willing to let those differences go, like On ben Pelet on the advice of his wise wife – are spared. I believe that the narcissism of small differences is at the root of many of the great evils perpetrated by humankind upon one another during our nasty, brutish and short documented history (and before then, too.)
Unfortunately (and I profess no particular superpowers which exempt me from this) we all seem to have a tendency toward the comfort of uniformity and conformance. A democratic society operates to a degree on the good faith of its members, and voluntary conformity rather than strict enforcement. At the same time, each of us has our own life experience, our own interests, our own struggles, and our own ways of thinking about things. Two individuals, perceiving the same objective reality, may come to widely differing conclusions. Those different conclusions ought not be an excuse for denial of the other, because it threatens “me.” Rather, those differences are an opportunity to learn from each other – each party coming away from the conversation with a better understanding of the other, and, more importantly, a better understanding of themselves.
We are taught the God engaged and continues to engage in an act of tzimtzum – self-restriction – to allow room in God’s universe for human existence. We, too, who are taught that we are all created in God’s image, and bid to emulate God’s ways, need to engage in acts of tzimtzum. Our existence in this world is not only about “me.” It is also about the other. To the extent that we recognize the differences between ourselves and the other, and allow room for the other, with all of their minor or major differences, we make our existence about not only “me” but also about “you” and thereby “us.”
It is also said that what we see in others – both positive and negative – is truly a reflection of what we see in ourselves. By engaging in tzimtzum and giving the other room to express their own identity without needing to feel that we are threatened, we recognize the innate Godliness inherent in the other, and that is truly the only way we will be able to recognize the Godliness inherent in ourselves, as well.
“Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not you, is an idol.”
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)