I found myself sitting between two worlds many times the last few weeks. I’ve been watching the news, mostly the developments of racial conflict and tension in the U.S. I’ve read blog posts from pastoral leaders in the Black community and many of them appeal to the Jewish community for support. That’s when I started encountering the phrase ‘passing’ in what I now understand is a ‘new world’ usage.
When I was growing up, there was a clear definition to that phrase when it was termed ‘white-passing’ – it specifically accused a light skinned Black person of trying to pass themselves off as white. To me, it was so offensive a phrase, I couldn’t stand hearing it and I would absolutely never use it! Then I read a blog post accusing any Jewish person who did not speak out against Black racial discrimination as ‘white- passing’ (I even cringe as I keep writing that phrase). My problem was I didn’t understand what the blogger was talking about. I was offended because I could only understand that phrase as accusing me of intending to hide my true identity and pass as Christian. I mentioned this to my kids and what followed was an eye opening, generationally shocking moment of trying to understand what the phrase means today.
It talks about the privilege a person has in society based on how they look, rather than the intention of the minority person entering that society. Someone is ‘passing’ when they look the part, and based only on that, they now have privilege. The example that finally lit the light bulb over my head was when my daughter told me that she has a friend who is bisexual and this young woman happens to be in a relationship with a man. The friend terms her relationship as ‘straight-passing’ (…nope, still not comfortable with it…) – in other words, people seeing her and her partner together would not know that the woman involved is bisexual because her partner is a man. It looks mainstream and therefore she has privilege in society that, had her true orientation been known, she would not have and would, in fact, face discrimination. I asked if other people would refer to her as ‘passing’ and my kids were shocked and said ‘Of course not!! That would be offensive!’
And so I was caught between two worlds.
These complex ideas of who I am and where I belong are found in something as complex as race and as mundane as the difference between a fiance and a husband. Years ago, I went out for dinner with a close friend and her husband. We were in our early twenties and they were just married the week before. Her husband went to the washroom just as we were to be seated at our table. After a lengthy, awkward pause, my friend told the server that her friend would be joining us in a minute. I asked her which friend is joining us and she named her husband. I took a minute to process, looked at her intensely and asked when she put him in the ‘friend zone’, they’d only been married a week! She said she can’t say the word ‘husband’ yet. Caught between two worlds.
We’ve all had these moments. When did we decide what our children should call us? Mother, mama, mum, mummy, or dad, papa, father, pops…each one speaks of its own world and we need to choose. It never stops, now the choice of Bubbie, grandma, grandmom, Savta, or Zaydie, (and on and on). For the longest time I couldn’t make the decision what my kids should call my father and neither could he. I went with ‘Grampa Sava Zaydie’, a mouthful of meaning. We tried to have it all and it worked until the kids were almost teens. Then they chose to call him Zaydie. We can’t live uncommitted to a clear identity – they chose their name for him.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Sh’lach, shows us an entire people caught between two worlds. The Jewish people have crossed the wilderness and are standing at the border of the land of Israel. Moses sends spies to reconnoiter the land and they bring back scary images of giants and fortresses. The people turn to Moses and plead with him to let them go back to Egypt. They speak of Egypt with memories of things that never happened and privilege that never included them. Fear of the world to come has created a utopia of the world they had. Neither of those worlds are real. They are caught.
God responds and tells them they will never leave the wilderness – no Israel, no Egypt – neither is real for them. With no clarity of their past, and no realistic view of their future, they cannot move from where they are. God is not punishing them with death since they will all live out their natural lives…in the only reality they chose, the one with no grounding and no promise of opportunity.
And all of this brings me back to my moments watching what is unfolding in the world around racial discrimination. To some degree I hear a Jewish response that is caught between two worlds. Should we ignore the past moments of our own discrimination that went unanswered by the world? Should we weigh the politics of Israel and the political stands of some of the organized groups we would otherwise stand strongly with? How much are we hurt that many of the rallying cries for justice are direct quotes from Jewish texts but that goes unnoticed as we are criticized? Is this a moment of peoplehood, a moment of personal engagement, a moment of institutional leadership, a moment of political voices?
It is a Jewish moment. Everything else will cloud the picture. As we struggle with the confusion of these larger questions, we place ourselves in the wilderness, looking back at an Egypt we thought we knew and afraid of a future we can’t see. Racial discrimination, in all its barbarism, has always been there, we didn’t see it on video and so we created the false Egypt of thinking maybe it wasn’t that bad. As we stand in the comfort of our wilderness, we run the risk of saying nothing, waiting for someone else to lead. Now we are doing exactly what the Sages warned us of when the Talmud said ‘silence is agreement’.
For the individual Jewish person, this is not politics, this is not a moment to reflect on Jewish suffering that went ignored. This is the clarity of a Jewish moment where we understand that if we choose to stay between two worlds, we will choose a future of stagnation and waste, with nothing but a missed opportunity.
It is a Jewish moment where we are commanded to respond. Over the last few weeks, we watched people shot, strangled and murdered. The Torah has always told us that we must respond when we see these things. Now is a time for our Jewish response. We need not wait for the whole people to agree, we need to choose our own personal response and then find each other as each person chooses theirs.
In one of our ancient texts, the Sages give a beautiful list of how God can find each individual person. At the end of the list it says that God can find us when we utter a ‘yes’ that means ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ that means ‘no’. We are not easily found when we choose a world with no definition or when we choose to stand between two worlds. We are found in a clear thought, that results in a clear communication, that we then commit ourselves to.