Canadian author and political correspondent Martin Lawrence comments on today’s language wars around “woke” -ism (Globe and Mail, 27 April 2022). He notes that the word woke now divides the political world. It was first used by left-wing African American pundits as a term of enlightenment. Lately, it has been co-opted by the conservative right as “a broad-sweep putdown of anyone with politically correct liberal values.” This war of words now cuts either way – it involves “re-engineering political language to discredit” so-called progressives, moderates, and conservatives alike. Lawrence points out that there are many such words. Labelling someone as elite is “shorthand for ruling class condescension and snobbery.” Weaponizing language like this has become a subliminal ploy to identify the us and them in the culture war. Thus, we have escalated what used to be merely called identity politics.
The language war is only part of the equation here. It accounts for how things become polarized. To understand why this process works the way it does, it helps to take a closer look at the identity part of identity politics.
There has been much research on the role of identity in political and social conflicts. The key pioneering work on it was done in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin at Cornell and MIT. His work on field theory and resolving social conflicts revealed that people made important personal choices based on wanting to fit in with their community. He had hard data that showed that German-Americans, and Italian-Americans would be loyal to the US in a war against Germany and Italy. He also found that new and expectant mothers would opt to bottle feed their babies because a majority of their peers did so, regardless of the medical evidence about bottle-vs-breastfeeding. In other words, the interest of group identity outweighed the self-interest of personal circumstances.
Other research proves that group identity is much more predictive of voting patterns than self-interest. Donald Kinder of the University of Michigan [“Opinion and action in the realm of politics.” The handbook of social psychology (1998).] has shown that people will support positions that go against their personal choices in diverse issues like military conscription, women in the workforce, racial segregation, and gun control, to remain loyal to the group they identify with. He notes that a well-funded third-party candidate can win, or at least determine a national election because they can afford to create a separate identity and build a constituency around “new issue divisions.”
People in our society may believe they are generally acting independently, but the reality is that many of our more regrettable decisions are made in we mode. There are rites of initiation that people must undergo to be part of a club, organization, occupation, or community. Some fraternities place their pledges in tough situations to teach them survival skills – which is like throwing them into deep water to teach them to swim. Others subject their pledges to hazing and sexual abuse. The same spectrum of harassment can happen to military and police recruits, warehouse workers, and those seeking upward mobility on Wall Street and Bay Street. The need to earn and keep one’s place in a group can inspire irrational choices like being demeaned, or participating in team-building exercises that are disrespectful of one’s personal values or sense of autonomy.
This crystallizes when the audible or inaudible voice of we resounds heavily in anyone’s decision making.
The Torah in the days of Moshe and Joshua faced a difficult we factor problem. The children of Israel traveling through the desert lived in close ranks around the central feature of the Tabernacle. The Torah and the spiritual center of Israel were very close to them. So, too, were their fellow tribes. When they crossed into the land of Israel they dispersed to Tel Chai in the north, Be’er Sheva in the south, and other places distant from the Tabernacle. Even the move of the Temple to Jerusalem did not entirely solve the problem of remoteness. In Vayikra, Ch. 13, in Parshat Acharei Mot, just after the description of the rituals of Yom Kippur, the Torah instructs the children of Israel that they are not to build any satellite altars. All must come to the Tabernacle or the Temple for such rituals. To maintain the cohesiveness of the group, the pull to the center, satellite activity was forbidden. In the book of Devarim, there is a plethora of Mitzvot that require pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Sure, the Children of Israel should fill the land, but they are also required to draw close together.
This problem is not restricted to the days of Moshe and Joshua. It is very much one of today. The pandemic catalyzed the adoption of remote participation – even remote invisible participation in which one’s Zoom video is off. Synagogues and study groups struggle to get participants back in the buildings. There is more at stake than institutional survival. What is really at stake is the core viability of Judaism.
Torah is built on a unique moral and ethical community. It is built on the social reinforcement of the crucial behaviours that bring us together equally as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation. The rabbis knew that a Judaism that exists in isolated pockets or silos will wither. This is why a minyan of at least ten is required for prayer. This is why Maimonides teaches that one who separates oneself from the community while otherwise perfectly executing all Mitzvot is denied entry to heaven.
It is nearly inevitable that if the Jewish community is not your we, you have replaced it with another community and other we. For some, it is the Vancouver Canucks. For others it is their workplace or political party. Alas, for some it may be their social media ‘community’. Everyone needs a community; the one you chose should reflect (y)our highest values. At the current juncture, all who absent themselves from regular participation in our community threaten its health. The we of this community includes all of us and requires all of us. The we is necessary to transmit our values across time and space. Our community is one in which the rites of initiation and belonging are governed by Torah values of kindness, charity, discovery of wisdom, and a mutually-supportive safety net. You won’t regret being part of any of the rites in our house.
Rabbi Rosenblatt and Dr. Terry Neiman