Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kaf Zekhut - The Benefit of the Doubt

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Oct. 7, 2010.)

Among the stories of Bereshit we find the recurring theme of one righteous person among the wicked many: Noah, who was somewhat less evil than everybody else on Earth, prior to the flood; Abraham, who the midrash tells us was the first to choose monotheism over idolatry; Lot, who was surely no saint, but was the only one in Sodom and Gomorrah to merit being saved. Over and over, the central characters of the Genesis narrative are held up as rare light in gloomy times.

During a class that I was teaching at the Waxman Hebrew High School and Youth House on a recent evening, a student made the claim that all Muslims wanted to kill Jews. Given recent news events, I suppose that it would not be too hard for a twelve-year-old to put this idea together. I would wager that there are a fair number of Jewish adults who believe the same thing.

It is an unavoidable human trait to view groups of people in such simple terms. Our lives are so complicated that we take any available shortcuts for understanding the world. The desire to judge a person’s character based on obvious and yet irrelevant information (color of skin, religion, ethnicity) is simply too tempting.

Non-Jews have for centuries painted Jews with particular stereotypes that we know not to be true; it is difficult for us not to do the same of other groups. The human reality, of course, is that every society, every group, every culture has its own richly-textured fabric of individual personalities and characters. We like to see this in our own peer group, but not in the other. This is perhaps by evolutionary advantage, as it must have made sense to our ancestors to assume that all saber-toothed tigers would attack if given the opportunity, or that we could not trust the guys on the other side of the river who looked funny, made unintelligible sounds, and competed for the same food source.

And so the Torah, divine and yet so human, reinforces this simplistic understanding of the world. Everybody in Sodom and Gomorrah was bad. The generation before the flood deserved to die. So too the Egyptians. Reducing a group to a single adjective (e.g. wicked) might work in the ancient tales of our people, but such thinking is dangerous in today’s world.

I replied to this student that it is unfair to paint “all Muslims” with one brush, and that just as there are Muslims that for sure want to kill Jews or Americans or Christians or other “infidels,” there are far more who do not want to kill anybody. And the same goes for every other group, including our own.

I would prefer that we learn to view the other through the rabbinic lens of Pirqei Avot, where Yehoshua ben Perahya says, “Hevei dan et kol adam lekhaf zekhut.” Give each individual the benefit of the doubt. Only then may we, in the words of the Psalmist, seek peace and pursue it.