Toward Shabbat: Yitro

February 14, 2020

If you are looking for a quality way to spend 19 minutes this weekend, I recommend an extraordinary TED talk given in 2009 by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie describes the common human tendency to reduce complex entities—people, communities, political situations—to a single narrative. She calls her talk The Danger of A Single Story, because this narrow perspective leads us to make assumptions, blinds us to nuance, and ultimately robs us of the ability to engage fully and deeply with our messy and beautiful world.

We all tell single stories, at various moments and for various reasons. Sometimes we don’t know any stories other than the one we are telling—like when, as a young child, I thought that all Jewish grandparents came from Poland and had funny accents. My lived experience hadn’t yet introduced me to the diversity of Jewish stories—geographical, ethnic, linguistic.

Sometimes we tell single stories because it is comfortable and comforting—like when we (literally and metaphorically) gaze at the picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma and congratulate ourselves for being on the right side of history. It’s uncomfortable to think that not all Jews supported the civil rights movement—and when we learn some of the reasons why, it’s uncomfortable to imagine that we, too, might have stayed quietly at home.

And sometimes our single stories conveniently support our own convictions—like when we write off people with political views that are different from our own as ‘misguided,’ or ‘bigots,’ or ‘knee-jerk liberals.’ Getting to know the experiences and values that underlie someone else’s opinion might complicate our own views. In hearing another set of stories, we might discover that an issue is more complex than we had previously acknowledged; that we are not absolutely, positively right.

So of course we tell single stories. That’s why Adichie’s TED talk is so compelling—because we can all relate to what she describes. But single stories are indeed limiting and dangerous. And what’s more, they run counter to the ethos of Jewish tradition.

This week, Jews around the world will read one of the most foundational stories in our canon: the revelation of God and Torah at Mount Sinai. You might imagine that such an episode and its significance could be transmitted from one generation to the next only by means of a single, shared narrative of what happened on that mountain. Yet to the contrary, no such single story exists.

Beginning with the Torah itself and its two versions of the ten commandments, and continuing through the rabbinic period and centuries of biblical commentaries until the present, we find a multiplicity of stories that try to convey what happened at Sinai: The experience of revelation is transmitted from one generation to the next not by a single shared story, but rather by many shared stories.

This commitment to multiplicity permeates our Jewish intellectual and spiritual tradition to this very day. Judaism offers a very clear mandate to seek out the other story. It is almost a religious duty to consider all sides of an issue, to search for an alternate interpretation, and to uncover that which has not yet been revealed.

In a modest way, we have been trying to do this difficult spiritual work at BJ in recent years.

Over the past few months, our Race and Us programming has been complicating the single stories that many of us have told and been told about the role of race in Jewish identity, in Jewish community and in American society. Bridging the Gap, an initiative of dialoguing across difference that began with the Michigan Corrections Organization, is now expanding to an exchange with Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper East Side.

We are doing this work because we know that single stories strip us—and others—of our full humanity. They calcify our thinking, allowing us to believe that we don’t have to change and that we have little to learn from others. We are doing this work because of the spiritual danger of a single story—and because we believe that the plurality of stories actually represents the fullness of what it means to be a Jew and a human being.

So this Shabbat, as we read the story of the giving of the Torah, which quickly becomes a multitude of stories about the giving of the Torah, take to heart the very Jewish message of Adichie’s TED talk, and ask yourself:

What is a single story that someone has told about you, or that you have told about someone else? What has been the impact of telling these single stories? And what might you do to hear or tell the other stories that exist?