Peril found in ‘us-and-them’ thinking

It was the most disturbing experience I had during my almost two years studying in yeshiva in Israel. My friend who studied in a small yeshiva on the outskirts of one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem had invited me to spend Shabbos with him.
I looked forward to every Shabbos spent in Jerusalem, but this neighborhood, in particular, held a special place in my heart. I regularly made memorable trips to this shtetl-like neighborhood on Friday afternoons, taking in the smells of simmering overnight cholent and potato kugel from the local homestyle eateries and perusing the Jewish bookstores.
Walking through the labyrinth-like alleyways, I would find my way to the basement of a local yeshiva for an afternoon class on ethics and piety that still inspires me to this day. My trips to this area of town always left me spiritually invigorated and yearning for a return visit.
The entire Shabbos spent with my friend was beautiful and magical, just as I had expected, but a short incident late Saturday afternoon would forever mar the memory of this otherwise idyllic Shabbos.
A Filipino woman was walking down the sidewalk and into the neighborhood. Two boys from the area, maybe 10 or 11 years old, dressed in Shabbos garb, yelled out toward her, “Shiksa! Shiksa! Get out of here!” Although no Yiddish scholar myself, I knew what a “shiksa” was and I was incensed that they would fling these hurtful words at a woman simply trying to make her way down the block.
In my broken Hebrew I yelled at the boys. “What a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name)! You are violating halachah (Jewish law)! How can you speak like that?”
If I expected my words to hit their mark, I was sadly mistaken.
“Then you are a goy, too!” one of them yelled back at me. Just like that, I had become an outsider too.
Although this experience was the only negative one I had witnessed in my many visits there, and as much I’m tempted to chalk this incident up to a few impetuous and unruly unsupervised boys, I must consider the possibility that this behavior, anecdotal as it may be, is indicative of a larger issue that plagues groups in general and religious groups in particular.
The findings in the study of psychology of religion are noteworthy. Religious practitioners exhibit stronger than average care and concern for coreligionists than you would find amongst fellow citizens in the general public. This “love your neighbor as yourself” sensibility is termed “in-group favoritism” by academics, and demonstrates religion’s ability to widen the family circle of care to others who would otherwise be perceived as complete strangers if not for their shared religion. All who ascribe to the same faith become part of “us.”
There is, however, a danger that lurks in the otherwise virtuous waters of this kind of thinking. Anytime there is an “us” there is always a “them.” And as natural as it may be to go the extra mile for one of “us” it is just as natural to consciously or unconsciously develop an empathetic blind spot toward one of “them.”
This is what scholars in the field call “out-group derogation,” in which religious individuals show disfavor toward out-group members. The fact that positive relationships between religiousness and increased prejudiced attitudes toward others have been documented and supported in numerous studies (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010) should alert the religious individual to carefully examine the biases they have formed toward others.
Aware of this potential moral pitfall, the Torah warns us of this dangerous kind of groupthink. And in an unexpected place, the laws of kashrut.
In a long list of forbidden fowl lies the stork, the chasidah, whose translated name means “the righteous one.” Rashi, commenting on this noteworthy name, quotes the Talmud’s explanation that the stork displays kindness (chesed) toward others of its species by sharing food with them.
If, as our tradition suggests, the Torah forbids the consumption of animals who exhibit distinct negative character traits, why should the stork be forbidden? The Rizhiner Rebbe, a Hasidic rabbi in 19th-century Ukraine and Austria, smartly responded that the stork is forbidden because it directs its kindness exclusively toward its fellows, but will not help other species. This, he said, is not kosher behavior!
It is understandable to develop a fondness for, and a unique relationship with, other members of one’s religious group. After all, you enjoy shared moral perspectives and religious commitments. The stork teaches us that we must nevertheless remain vigilant to never lose sight of the empathy and care we must have for “others.” Anything less than that is indeed treif.
I hope the boys I came across that day in Jerusalem end up studying this lesson of the stork one day and find a way to exhibit what we know must be true — a strong “us” does not need to lead to a demonized “them.”
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at

Leave a Reply