The Spectrum of Humanity
What do Jews think about Jesus?
He asked me as innocently as a college freshman at a small, Jesuit school could ask. It caught me a little off guard.
What do ALL Jews think of Jesus?
It was puzzling to me that he would think ALL people of any ethnicity, race, nationality, gender, etc. would think the same thing in any context, much less something as faith-based as religion. After all, faith is such a personal thing!
There's no Pope figure for Jews, so everything is interpreted among our leading Rabbis all over the world. This means that there isn't one person making the rules about what to believe, how to interpret our commandments and holy writings, or what Jews think about one thing or another. The old joke is that if you ask 12 Rabbis a question, you'll get 14 opinions.
He seemed unsatisfied with my answer, so I went on:
When I was in Australia and introduced myself as an American exchange student to a group of girls on campus, they looked at me with surprise: "But you CAN'T be American! You're not fat and stupid!"
The students laughed uncomfortably. I explained why that story was important in our discussion:
Those girls on the Australian college campus had an impression of Americans as fat and stupid. How did they form that impression? Maybe television and movies, maybe they met a few Americans. I was shocked by their generalization; the United States has as many cultures in New York City as exist in all of Europe. Add in the differences in culture and behavior between California and Maryland, North Dakota and Texas, and you see an entire spectrum of cultures, accents, and dramatically different radio station options.
It took me years to realize I fell into that trap sometimes, too, painting an entire community of people with the same broad brush, especially when it came to politics.
Back to the students in that Introduction to Religion class at a small Jesuit college -
The students started to understand the theme when I reminded them of the spectrum of behavior and culture across the United States. That's when I dropped the big statement on them:
Judaism, just like Christianity and all other religions, just like human skin color, gender identity and sexuality, Judaism is on a broad spectrum. While there are a few people on one far end or another, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. That means that there are Jews who are very religious on one end of the spectrum, and Jews who identify as Jews, but are completely secular in their belief and practices on the other end of the spectrum.
When you ask about Jewish customs, traditions, language and prayers, I can tell you all about those topics. But when you ask me "what do Jews believe..." or "What do Jews think..." I can tell you what I believe and think, but there's no way I could tell you what other Jews believe.
Every time I've had an opportunity to speak about being Jewish in this small city in Montana, I prepare by choosing my top two points I wish for people to understand and take back with them for more thoughtful consideration. The spectrum of humanity is always my first priority.
Here's why this is such an important mind shift:
I know there is a beautiful message in that video; I found it disturbing. Listening to each of these visually attractive, apparently intelligent people speak badly of entire cultures and ethnicity before finding out they not only share many genetic indicators, in one case, the people are actually related, makes me seriously uncomfortable. Can you say that you dislike and/or distrust an entire group of people based on their geography, their skin color, their sexual orientation, their religion, or even their political affiliation? If you've had a handful of experiences in the United States, are you able to truly judge ALL Americans based on that small sample? Is it okay for someone to do the same to you?
When we paint an entire community with the same, broad brush, we miss incredible opportunities to learn, to grow, and to make connections with each other. The only way to heal our fractured communities is to care about each individual we interact with, and avoid making assumptions. That's our job, folks, to remind people of our humanity. To demonstrate our own vulnerability in order to more deeply connect.
Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She's also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual. Follow Sarah on Twitter, too, @sarahelkins!
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