Meyer Laniado

Stereotypes, Kaleidoscopes, and Blessing The Jewish People

In November 2021, a video of Shachar Edui auditioning on the X-Factor, the Israeli version of American Idol, went viral and touched our hearts by giving us a glimpse of what the world could be. As one of the judges said: “You broke all of the stereotypes people have in their minds!”

Shachar entered the stage with long pe’ot curls, a black velvet kippah, jeans, and a t-shirt. The judges were stunned and curious. They asked: “Are you Yemenite?” He said: “Of course.” During the initial interview, he shared that he prepares boys for their Bar Mitzvah; the judges excitedly asked him for a sample. You can see the thrill on the judge’s face when he recited, with beautiful cantillation, a pasuk for them: “These are the misvot and the laws that God… (Bemidbar 35:34).”

The scene then shifts to an introductory video where Shachar shared that because of his peot, he is always asked which group of Hassidim he is a part of. He responded and said he is not Hassidic, and he is not Haredi, period. “You see how I look on the outside, and you already judge me?”

As he waited to enter the stage, he prayed, and you can hear him recite Tehillim, saying: Shir laMa’alot esa einai el heHarim… (Tehillim 121:1) Then, he stepped on stage, and ranked, hands down, with the song “Hello” by Lionel Richie. No one expected this religious-looking young man to sing a secular love song. The crowd was in shock and blown away.

The story continued with his follow-up audition and song choice of “Wikipedia” by Israeli singer Hanan Ben Ari. Then, he came on stage in a black suit and white shirt, with Tzitzit displayed outside his shirt. The song describes Israeli stereotypes as the lyrics describe the perceptions that:

Every leftist is a traitor, every Arab is a suicide bomber, every Haredi is a robber, and all the settlers murdered Rabin. All Tel Aviv are vegan, all traditional Jews are common folk, and all religious Jews with tzitzit hanging out are primitive.

He shattered our perception, and made us realize, made me realize, how quickly we categorize and judge. Stereotyping is the use of classifications and taxonomies, necessary heuristics that we use to make navigating our world easier. They are a way we create order in a world that may otherwise be seen as chaotic and disparate. At the same time, they disconnect us from whom or what we are seeing, experiencing, and interacting with.

Our habit of smoothing out the edges of difference and uniqueness so as to group with the similar and categorize what we see was described negatively by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Just as little do we see a tree exactly and completely with reference to leaves, twigs, color, and form; it is so very much easier for us simply to improvise some approximation of a tree.” Abstraction to general categories allows us to quickly order the world, quickly make sense of it, form decisions and take action. Not using generalized classifications would be inefficient, and we would likely be in a stand-still reanalyzing each object and scenario at every moment in all its depths and contours. If we were to see everything in such a way, in high definition, noting how unique it is, we would have information overload. We would not have a method of creating order and would be left with the chaos of individual non-organizable parts, rendering us incapable of functioning.

We have organized our world through abstract associations, such as genres, and Type As and Type Bs. These are incredibly helpful, though, once we have placed something in a paradigm, put it in a mental box, and labeled it, we assume we know it, as we understand the general category, and do not look further for the particularness. This is true too in the realm of ideas, as when someone says: “Oh, it’s Aristotelian thinking.” Once that is done, one is no longer thinking deeply, discovering the nuance where the philosophy diverges, and arguing for an alternative view, even if only for a degree or two of difference. Familiarity using this type of association becomes an obstacle to greater understanding, clearer thinking, and deeper relationships.

These heuristics, categorizing people by philosophies, lifestyles, political parties, and other associations, often cause us to create ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups.’ For example, we use categories like Liberal or Conservative, though the views within each group may differ significantly. Larger groupings, like Americans or Israelis, also assume a similarity or a difference that is not necessarily reflective of the culture and views of the individuals amongst those citizens. The solution is not to dissolve the more extensive category but to recognize particular persons, ideas, and nuances within the larger categorization as both reflective of and different from their broader group.

This is the view of our rabbis when they express the berakha said upon seeing six-hundred-thousand Jews: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, wise in secrets (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 224:5).” This is not against non-Jews as we do say a berakha when seeing a wise non-Jew: sheNatan meHokhmato leBasar veDam, “Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 224:7).” This is about social and political organization, not about Jewish intelligence. The berakha said upon seeing six-hundred-thousand Jews is speaking towards the difference between the structure of a mob or a crowd, where the individual is insignificant, and the volume of numbers counts, compared to a community of individuals where each individual makes a unique contribution and maintains their individuality.

This homogenous movement, and anonymity of each person within a crowd, is expressed well in Elias Cannetti’s Nobel prize-winning book Crowds and Power. There, when describing the individual within a crowd, he writes, “A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they tend to overlook anything which might detract from it (Crowds and Power Page 29).” In this type of crowd, the individual is insignificant. He is only valuable in extending the size of the crowd and increasing its power. The identity of the person in this group is lost.

Rambam notes that the berakha said upon seeing six-hundred-thousand Jews is only to be said in the land of Israel, a place where society has been structured according to Jewish values – where we have created communities in which the diversity is noted amongst the homogeneity, and the group is not dissolved but viewed in higher definition (Mishneh Torah Berakhot 10:11). Then, we can see the kaleidoscope of nuanced views, positions and lifestyles while maintaining the structure of a cohesive collective. In this model, the amazing phenomenon of having this national view of six-hundred thousand is that the uniqueness of each individual is also recognized.

As the Talmud explains the reason for the berakha: “One who sees multitudes of Israel recites,’’ ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, wise in secrets’ Why is this? Since, He sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other… (Talmud Bavli Masekhet Berakhot 58a).” This is the difference between the mob or crowd and the Community of Individuals, where each person’s individuality is maintained within the group.

Most people assume they already see beyond the collective categorizations, but do they? There are now online tests that seek to assess our levels of judgment and bias (albeit at various levels of accuracy or inaccuracy), for example, The Harvard IAT. Yet, I think we can run a quick assessment of ourselves simply by noting how we speak around the Shabbat table. Do we speak about ‘haredim,’ ‘leftists,’ ‘democrats,’ or ‘republicans’? When we hear or see that someone is connected to a particular group, attends a particular location, or espouses a particular view, we often build an entire schema around them, grouping them with others and projecting all of the characteristics of a group onto this individual. These categorizations happen automatically, and the strongest tool we have to see the individual within the group is to be open to getting to know, in a real way, an individual within the group. We will then see the divergence of this person from their group and, likely, similarity to us in areas we may not have expected.

Shachar Edui was a sensation because he helped us, for a moment, see beyond the stereotypes of the religious and ethnic groups he was grouped with. We saw, for a moment, the individuality, the uniqueness of a person within a category, the whole person within the larger whole. We saw him clearly and not the group we had categorized him in, in high definition, and that was refreshing, exciting, and energizing. We got a glimpse of what Am Yisrael could look like, the berakha, the vision that God bestowed upon our forefathers. God blessed us to become a qahal goyim or qahal amim (Beresheit 35:11 and 48:4), a congregation of diverse groups that each have a variety of individuals, a multitude of views, traditions, and lifestyles

About the Author
Rabbi Meyer Laniado is the associate rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and serves as the leader of its thriving Sephardic community on New York's Upper East Side.
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