This Sunday afternoon I (virtually) introduced the Oath of Geneva at the White Coat Ceremony for the graduating class of Chatham University’s Physician Assistant Studies Program, where I serve as medical director.
I can’t help thinking that if the ceremony were a Jewish ritual, it might be the Purple Coat Ceremony, and not just because the signature Chatham color is purple.
Getting a white coat is a privilege. When my colleagues (virtually) placed white coats on the shoulders of their advisees on Sunday, they bestowed upon those graduates the privilege of being trusted with people’s lives, people’s secrets, people’s fears and people’s hopes. They acknowledged that those graduates have earned the right to be called healers – and the responsibilities and obligations to serve others that come with that territory.
But privilege is a fraught word these days. Usually preceded by the word “white (the skin tone, not the bleached, blinding hue of these new polyester garments),” it denotes a sense of unearned entitlement, enjoyed by the lighter skinned portion of the population when it comes to their personal safety, economic opportunity and access behind doors that not all can open. Giving someone a privilege, especially one so starkly, actually white in color, doesn’t actually seem like we are doing them any favors.
Over the last few weeks a variation on that theme began to trend on social media: #jewishprivilege. With 80% of us coding white (despite zero percent of us actually being white in the eyes of those to whom whiteness matters so much), there are those who refuse to see us as allies with our own history of oppression, suffering and very real, recent danger of extinction.
I won’t rehash the Jewish response to that label, except to direct you to a column my friend (and if you’re a Pittsburgher reading this, possibly your friend, too) Aaron Weil wrote for the Orlando Sentinel. I messaged Aaron after reading it to share a sudden flash of inspiration:
“If you really want to reclaim the term [privilege, as something to be proud of and grateful for], let’s use the Hebrew term for that kind of genuine privilege: segulah.”
Modern Hebrew doesn’t have a word for privilege, unless you count the borrowed word privilegiah. The biblical segulah means a treasured possession – and Israel, the Jewish people, is am segulah, the people with the treasured possession. As the classic Shabbat song, Mipi El, tells us, ein sequlah ka-Torah – there is no treasured possession like the Torah. And what a privilege it is to have that.
But Torah, like a white coat, doesn’t come free. Torah has all sorts of strings attached, hundreds of obligations to God, to ourselves, and to our neighbors, an obligation to go to bed each night and cut everyone else in the world more slack while simultaneously asking ourselves, “How can I be better?” It’s a privilege with a very high price – and one that I’m proud to pay. I think my graduates would say the same about their coats.
One of the strings attached to Torah is that we don’t get to play the game of competitive suffering, of dismissing someone else’s tsuris because we have it worse. That’s the basic idea behind #jewishprivilege, that because most American Jews pass as white we can’t possibly be suffering, or have suffered, like people of color. But it doesn’t work that way.
The world has an unfortunate amount of space for tragedies, be they the tragedies of slavery, Jim Crow, and their 21st century descendants, or the immortal Hydra of antisemitism as blood libel, Nazism, or demonization of Israel among all countries. Trying to say that one suffered more than the other is like bringing a team from San Juan and a team from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans to argue about whose hurricane was worse. While shouting “I’m not privileged!” seems like a pretty surefire way to appear more privileged than ever, saying, “Your suffering doesn’t count,” is an equally surefire way to move further from justice, not closer.
I would hope that my graduates understand this lesson from Torah, the idea of choleh l’faneinu – the sick person who lies before us. The choleh l’faneinu is by definition the one whose suffering matters most to us, because we are right there, able to help, and we cannot turn away. It’s not the person who looks or acts most like us, and it’s not the person who, after careful mathematical calculations, we scientifically determine to be suffering the most. Except in dire emergency, our obligation isn’t based on triage criteria – it’s based on relationships and obligations.
That first obligation is to a fellow human being. Rabbi Ovadia Sforno looked at Exodus 19:5, when God tells the Israelites, v’h’yitem li segulah – you will be my treasured possession – and says, “’Humans are beloved because they were created in the Image’ – still, you will be treasured among them.” In other words, God loves everyone – yet you are special. God treasured Israel by giving us a treasure – and a whole lot of strings attached. We’ve gotten tangled in them quite a few times in our history.
But having those strings also gives us a special power, a knowledge of how to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, how to recognize when we need to be better, how to see ourselves in others. Not unlike the power that comes with those coats: the ability to interpret seemingly random quirks of the human body, and the human mind, and see patterns that the uninitiated cannot see – and both the resources and the permission to respond to those patterns in ways that can make a person more whole. These gifts with strings attached mean we are up to the challenges we face in the world.
In modern Hebrew the word for being up to a challenge is directly related to segulah: someone who’s “got this” is mesugal.
And there’s one other word that’s related: segol – purple. So maybe the purple university should indeed be giving out purple coats, treasured possessions with strings attached to remind people exactly what they’ve been given and how lucky they are to have them. Those graduates are going out into a world which will require every bit of their segulah to heal it, including the help it needs to heal from health inequalities, poor access, poor outcomes, and a host of other manifestations of racism that were the reason we started talking about the word “privilege” in the first place.
Those graduates have also founded a Chatham chapter of White Coats for Black Lives, challenging me and my colleagues to address health disparities more explicitly in the curriculum and to address the startling lack of students from underrepresented minorities in our program. Their class president, Natalie Weller, chose health disparities and racial justice as the theme of her speech, calling out the very system into which she was graduating for its roots of inequality. It was an Abrahamic moment: “You taught us how to heal hurt. Could there be a hurt greater than this?” Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice? When you have that segulah, you use your voice, even when you’re speaking to a formidable audience.
As I said in my blog at the beginning of last month, expecting to get the same care and have the same health as everyone else in your town shouldn’t be a “privilege” that some have and some don’t. I’ll definitely be devoting my segulah to closing those gaps and righting those wrongs, starting with our own school. I sincerely believe they’ll join with me – and that no one will have to prove that they won the suffering championship in order to earn their compassion.