Naomi Graetz

Standing Under the Umbrella with the Rest of Humanity

“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”


I recently read the blog of a Conservative rabbi who decided to leave our movement to which he had strong familial connections. Why? Because he could not stomach the idea that other rabbis in the movement had different views than he did. My initial reaction was “good riddance”, or “who needs him”; but that’s not very lady like, is it? Nor is it helpful. If I were to react that way to every person with whom I disagree, I would be very lonely indeed. One close friend in our immediate circle has been right-wing for as long as I’ve known him; as are some of my closest relatives. Since I no longer am certain about what is right or wrong, I  agree to disagree politely. As usual, I muse about words. It is interesting that right is always in the right and left is considered to be an aberration.  My father was left-handed; so is my sister and five of our grandchildren. It is ironic that the tribe of Benjamin was considered to be left-handed, despite the name ben-yamin — son of the right–that his father Jacob renamed him rather than call him ben-oni –son of my misery, the name Rachel gave him on her deathbed (Genesis 35:18). The tribe of Benjamin was a warlike people (Judges 20) who were almost decimated; a Moabite king was assassinated by the left handed Ehud (Judges 3) and in the book of 1 Chronicles there is a story of left-handed warriors who bolstered David’s position because of the advantage they had of left-handedness.

Today, tennis players and baseball pitchers have a great advantage when they are left handed. Think about a handshake; it is always done with the right hand. The origin of this might be because you wipe your anus with your left hand and eat with the right one. This was of course before toilet paper. And might is associated with right; and to the mighty on the right, everyone else is wrong. And let’s not forget Hitler’s slogan about might making right; most recently echoed by a former U.S. President who  pledged to eliminate political extremist groups calling them “vermin” during a speech on Veterans Day—echoing a term Nazis often used in anti-Semitic propaganda to dehumanize Jews, equating them to parasites who spread disease (here).

In the wake of October 7th much has changed in the world’s way of thinking. The mighty are perceived to be in the wrong. The left’s perception of morality seems to be gaining popularity. Everyone is walking around on tippy toes—-we think twice before we say what we think and then the more sensitive among us don’t say what we REALLY think. On Channel 11 (Kan) the broadcaster is overly solicitous when he interviews evacuees from the South-western communities in the Negev, or the relatives of the kidnapped hostages. They avoid asking “how are you?” and ask instead “what are your thoughts about…?” They interrupt less and allow for free speech. At the same time, binary thinking seems to be the order of the day. You are either for or against. And if you do not clearly stand for something, then you are a traitor to the cause, whatever the cause may be. Families are divided over politics, including should we prioritize returning kidnapped hostages and a cease fire versus winning the war and destroying Hamas forever.

We tend to attribute to our enemies all the traits that we might overlook or even praise in our own children; cunning, aggressiveness, guile, competitiveness. Take the popular understanding of Laban the Aramean (arami) as a cheat (ramai) in this week’s portion parshat Vayetzei. When Jacob does the same thing to his brother Esau, Jacob is praised and rewarded for his cheating with the blessing. When Laban protests Jacob’s running off with his daughters, without a chance to say a proper farewell to them, Laban is accused of hypocrisy and demonized by rabbinic texts. It is true that according to popular understanding Rachel dies in childbirth (in next week’s portion) because Jacob cursed the person who stole Laban’s household gods (the terafim). But despite the heated words exchanged between Laban and Jacob (Genesis 31:26-42), they make a peace treaty, each to their own god. And then after this peaceful resolution, they each go their own way. True, in next week’s portion Jacob will have to come to a reckoning and reconciliation with the brother that he cheated. They too will civilly go their ways without spilling any blood. Things were much simpler in the book of Genesis, in the good old days.

Where did we go wrong? Today we talk about “moral clarity”, as if that can solve anything. The truth of the matter is that there is moral clarity on both sides–each side is convinced that they are taking the path of the righteous. However, today there is no resolution. Like some of our sages, we take sides, rather than see nuance, we dehumanize, rather than accept that the other side has a point. When we are in survival mode, it is almost impossible to hold two truths at the same time. And thus two nations are traumatized. The oracle from last week’s parsha was prophetic and is still being fought over. When Rebekah demands an answer, God tells her:

“Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:13).

What an awful thing to tell a mother; to set one child against another. And worse, for a mother to believe it and take action to see that the prophecy is fulfilled. One can argue that this is when the first great wrong was committed by a person who thought she was doing the right thing.

Intersectionality and Multiculturalism

At the risk of going off topic (something which my friends and family say I do all the time), I want to argue that today’s lack of civility can be traced ironically to the growth of intersectionality and multiculturalism:  The concept of intersectionality comes out of black feminism (here). It posits that systemic oppression effects people differently and is dependent on their color, social class, ability, gender, and other traits. Thus intersectionality points to the fact that all oppression is related and connected. Multi culturalism is often associated with the civil rights movement. According to the entry in the Britannica, multiculturalism is the view that culturesraces, and ethnicities, particularly those of minority groups, deserve special acknowledgment of their differences within a dominant political culture (here).

One would think that when we realize how we are all intertwined and dependent on each other and aware and respectful of the other’s culture that there would be more understanding of the other. Instead there is self-definition, identity politics, focusing on what differentiates us, rather than on our similarities. This was carried to the absurd by a Sky News TV journalist who pointed to the fact that Israel was releasing 150 prisoners in exchange for the 50 kidnapped hostages and said “does Israel not think Palestinian lives are valued as highly as Israeli lives?” (here).

On the other hand I saw on Israeli TV last night, graffiti in Hebrew posted on walls in Gaza by our soldiers, “Ben Gvir was Right” and one wonders, is the right, right? When our only friends seem to be a right-wing leader in Holland; or the anti-abortion Republican candidate in Miami, or  Fox News, I am very alarmed. On the one hand, I want to hold on to my humanity and see both sides; on the other hand, one wonders about the concept of moral clarity. Pure evil is easy to discern, we argue.  Only totally misguided people are able to ignore it and stick to their guns-come hell and high water. Yet the western world is being bombarded with images of starving children in Gaza and posters of adorable kidnapped children. They and we are being told to make a choice—with us, means against them. They are incapable of holding two conflicting sad and horrific stories. Can we? Certainly someone is to blame and someone has to pay. And dialogue and civil discourse gets lost in the crossfires. It would seem that no umbrella is large enough today to embrace two warring nations that were destined to be in perpetual conflict. It is not enough to remember that we descend from the same mother, because her understanding was that one people was destined to be mightier than the other. Was this meant to be descriptive or prescriptive? If the latter, then there is no hope. If the former, perhaps change is possible. Let us hope and pray that we can change the facts in the future, that our minds can be opened to admit that both sides suffer so that the description of what is now, in the hell that is our present, does not have to be everlasting.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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