Personal reflection, at least for me, is painful. When done properly, it never ends with one big answer, wrapped in a bow. Instead, I end with more little pieces of myself than when I started. We all work with certain limitations when talking about controversial topics–those limitations are parts of our identity. I sat down with Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Senior Rabbi of Agudas Achim [Austin, TX] this past week to discuss whether personal and communal identity is a savior or an inhibitor of greater societal change. We also ate some kanafeh.
It’s always fun meeting other Americans in foreign cities. But to visit with my Rabbi while enjoying a brief vacation in Jerusalem feels like double points. Rabbi Blumofe was
attending a discussion at the Shalom Hartman Institute when he agreed to meet with me. The discussion centered primarily on Donniel Hartman’s [President of the Institute] Putting God Second, a book that grapples with where religious zeal turns into what Hartman calls ‘religious intoxication.’ To put it briefly: how does one allow personal beliefs to help guide without allowing one to be guided exclusively by personal beliefs? What is the difference between allowing one’s opinions shaped by facts, versus having facts shaped by their opinions?
Towards the end of the discussion, Rabbi Blumofe and I left to walk through one of Jerusalem’s most interesting social scenes, the First Station. First Station is located in the Bakaa, or Geulim area, a neighborhood that was once a military zone (1948) and has since developed into a primarily Jewish neighborhood with an interesting and interweaving mixture of secular and religious characteristics that flow seamlessly through it. The First Station itself features multiple bars, restaurants, and side shops, as well as a center stage performance area. We visited on Thursday night, which for Westerner context, is the Friday night of the Middle East. Young couples and groups of varying size and sobriety strolled passed, as Rabbi Blumofe and I discussed what it means to be an individual in the 21st century.
It was an unusual interview for me. My questions, loaded with existential angst, were more than that of a standard personality profile. Just in the past month, while studying in Amman, I’ve struggled with how I discuss pieces of Israeli/Palestinian news with Jewish and Muslim friends. The names Alton Sterling and Philando Castille just became Twitter topics for the worst reasons. One attack in Baghdad a week ago left more dead than the combined attacks in Paris, Orlando and Brussels and the world responded with a fatigued shrug; it feels like everyone just expects that from Iraq. “You can only change the filter of your profile picture so much,” Rabbi Blumofe summed up perfectly.
And that’s just it. It feels almost inevitable that Black Lives Matter, for example, will cease to be the vital issue it is now and next week we’ll be talking about something else, like GMOs or women’s health. Blumofe and I talked about this in context of the nature of social media. “It’s from a place of strong identity that one can actually have the moral and ethical strength to go out and try to address the needs of the world. If one considers themselves a Universalist, I think you’re much more challenged to get some traction to try and do something… Today we’re worried about Gun Control or Black Lives Matter and all these things are very important, but beyond voicing support it’s very hard for us to get to a tipping point towards doing something. We do care about [these problems]… but not for any sustaining period.”
Identity projection has become just as important, if not more so, than interaction. It’s difficult to tell which is more important now. It makes sense that activism for issues have adopted an approach towards outward appearance over action. But can that kind of protest effectively prevent police in America from targeting black men, or assure equal treatment for women worldwide, or prevent climate change from destroying our world? Rabbi Blumofe, meanwhile, sees this all as a step in evolution. “Well what else are you going to do? If it’s not in public view it doesn’t exits. To take it from a different perspective, how many weddings have I done, where that night the couple changed their [Facebook] status? That’s the night you got married! And lately, the past few weddings I’ve done, the bride and groom told me independently to make an announcement [at the ceremony] ‘everyone please put their phones away, that’s not what this is.’ Because I think the fatigue has caught up to people… I’m not saying it’s bad it’s just something we’ll learn to navigate… it’s a new technology relatively. I think its stages of growth and of self-awareness.”
Such self-awareness however, is built on for/against–now. We define our identities based on the same way we root for our favorite team. Blumofe thinks that’s because complication is scary for an age that craves simplicity. “Our understanding of what is real and authentic is so diffuse because there’s so much to deal with…” he begins. “A lot of people don’t know how to actually face their death either, and I’m not saying that’s bad,
it’s hard to do, but what are you going to do about it? Especially in this region… We say we care, because that’s the right thing to do, but how many other problems are there going to be? In Baghdad or Karachi or, you know, name your place.”
You can traverse some extremely dark roads with that line of thought. But at its core, identity acts as a balm for the world being a more complicated place than any one individual, which is comforting and frustrating at the same time. “All of these issues are nuanced, but self-interest comes first and we don’t always even recognize what our self-interest is. Maybe, just for argument’s sake, it’s in the self-interest of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government to keep the status quo as it is… Because neither side, for whatever reason, can imagine a paradigm different than the one they’re in. Maybe the so-called ‘solution’ is what it is.”
You can copy and paste that example for almost any conflict in play today. All communities possess irritating flaws because the people in them do as well. The real issue today is that there are too many communities who choose to paint themselves as victims and who represent an absolute good. While others they conflict with are brushed with the stroke of villains and who represent an absolute evil. What would be helpful is not a blind acceptance or rejection of outside groups, but a greater insight into our own complexities as individuals—warts and all. When that happens, our self-interest might change.
The new mission becomes an interest in changing ourselves rather than attempting to change others. No matter what groups one might affiliate one’s self with, it’s inaccurate to assume such groups are inherently right or wrong in their struggle, because people, as individuals, are not inherently right or wrong. Instead of trying to figure what we actually want, we like to tell others what they’re doing wrong and that rarely works out. “Pride in your own identity is a jumping off point for affecting real change in any situation. You have to know who you are to know where you’re going,” Rabbi Blumofe explains as our waitress clears our table.
As Rabbi Blumofe and I wandered around First Station for a bit afterwards, I found myself without an answer to the single greater problem, my young adult angst unquenched. But that’s fine: ultimately there is no one right answer to any of these problems, but the important thing is to act as there is. We can’t find the absolute solution, but we can always find our approximations to a better one, to be closer than before. That approximation can’t come from any Internet commentary, poll or quiz, it has to be a personal one. That approximation is what true identity is.
Nuance is not a thing my generation deals with well. Social media craves big answers wrapped in bows and brash statements about who’s right and who’s wrong based on shared links on Facebook. Real change begins with looking at your own good and bad qualities and working outwards from there. Don’t take the flaws of those you disagree with as justification for your own virtues. Don’t assume you owe your community anything other than yourself– it’s your community. Embrace your ambiguity, you’ll be surprised to find that most will follow suit.