By Josh Yudkin
For the past two months, I have been in Colombia conducting healthcare research. As we start the new Jewish year 5782, I reflect on a shared belief between our Jewish tradition and Colombian (Latino) culture and urge us to imagine how differences can connect and unite rather than shame and divide.
Boys and girls, big and small, at a local university in Bogotá waited by the dozens to find out their Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) and then excitedly shared the results with one another. Similarly, I witnessed women stop their morning jog in a public park because they were excited to “know and share their status” and participate in the free COVID-19 testing station offered by the local government. I cannot help but to note the inherent eagerness and openness to accept and celebrate the Self.
Differences can create points of connection and unite through decent dialogue and shared experiences. Differences allow everyone to celebrate our respective Self. Celebrating differences is a practice of radical gratitude for yourself and for another. Differences can be value neutral – they can be an explicit acceptance and celebration of the person and their uniqueness. For those poetry aficionados, one might say such a practice is a real-life manifestation of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.
This is also the Jewish way. The book of Genesis teaches us that all humans were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. In other words, there is a piece of the Divine that merits celebration in us all. In the Shabbat tractate of the Mishnah, Rabbi Hillel famously summarized the Torah on one foot saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Once again, the golden rule, found across major religions, affirms our obligation to respect and appreciate the Divine in all. Importantly, Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, the “divine is a message that discloses unity where we see diversity.” As Jews, we are to accept and celebrate without judgement. In fact, during the Amidah, we ask God to help keep our tongue from evil and our lips from lies thrice daily. During the high holidays, we ask for forgiveness for passing judgement.
We can prevent so much anxiety, depression, and pain in our community by abstaining from associating judgement and value to difference. Judged differences create an impossible situation and dangerous way of thinking where we are and will never be good enough because someone will always be better. Consequently, our alleged coping mechanism is to compare ourselves to someone else and or putting someone else down to make ourselves feel better. Specifically, we commonly employ a comparative framework where we are “failing” to look as good as a celebrity, but we are doing “much better” than a friend or acquaintance. We place a relative value on inherent and inevitable differences – differences must be better than or worse than. This shaming and bullying have led to issues like substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide.
Comparative difference and shaming are very similar to the troublesome practice of hazing that can be found across society, from business offices to sports teams to university Greek Life. Because something was done to you, you do it to someone. Because someone will always be “better,” we will always find someone who is “worse” than us to make ourselves feel better. Can we break this cycle?
We can strengthen our connections and, in turn, experience so much more unity and joy together. We can elevate our individual and collective health – both physiological and spiritual – through simple changes in our approach with one another.
As individuals and a community, we give agency and context to words. Can we transform difference to be a reason to celebrate authenticity instead of a tool for shame?
Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.