How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves.
Another way is by the stories others tell about us.
I was engrossed in watching the HBO television series Westworld. It is a window into a not-so-distant dystopian future, where wealthy humans live out their lavish fantasies in a wild-west theme park. The park is populated with lifelike androids who believe that they are human, but in truth, are pre-programmed with elaborately written storylines. They exist solely to meet the desires of the guests. They are slaves who don’t know they’re slaves.
“In one eerie scene, an unconscious [android] who is being repaired wakes up [in our world] … She’s trembling, panicked… with no idea where she is or what’s happening—she’s never seen anything except the [western] frontier set,— and when she stumbles into an empty gray warehouse… Her knees buckle, and she gets hauled away…”[i]
While the sci-fi elements are intriguing, I find Westworld to be at its best when it reflects more on the nature of our own humanity. The programme is ultimately about vulnerable citizens struggling to overcome atrocities and cope with their history. It is about a people who believed to their core that they were in control of their own narrative, who come to grips with the dark reality that others have a different story in mind for them.
How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves:
The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1:7)
Our ancestors believed themselves to be free and safe – they lived and prospered on the shores of Egypt’s Nile.
How do we know who we are? Another way is by the stories others tell about us:
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…” (Ex. 1:8-10)
Our people believed themselves to be one thing: people welcome in a place of safety and prosperity; They came to learn they were something else: Perceived insurgents. Outsiders. Unwelcome. Not the same.
Our rabbis teach that when our text says that Pharaoh didn’t “know” Joseph – אשר לא ידע את יוסף – the Torah isn’t speaking about mere recognition. “The usual rendering, ‘to know,’ hardly does justice to the richness of its meanings.”[ii] This new Pharaoh did not feel an emotional connection to the Israelites. He was ignorant and indifferent. He did not recognize us as bound up in each other’s fate, as his predecessor had. And as a result, suddenly, we became outsiders.
The miraculous stories that followed – as God revealed Torah to us, and as we became a people over 40 years in the desert – all have their start in this existential awakening. To be sure, in a unique phrase, found only once in the entirety of Torah, Pharaoh – the arch-villain himself – refers to us as “the nation of the descendants of Israel – עם בני ישראל” (Ex. 1:9). Defined by someone else and cast as a foreign nation, we were labelled as different. Once we were together, now we were distinct. Once we were free, now we were slaves.
I wonder: did our people see this coming? Did they anticipate the ascendance of a new Pharaoh who didn’t see them in the same light? Or, like our misfit android from Westworld, was it a sudden realization of other-ness? Our text is silent about this.
But the unfortunate truth is… we don’t have to look far to wonder what it must have felt like.
Writing in The Atlantic in December 2016, Emma Green’s provocative headline calls out to us: “Are Jews white?” She notes that this US presidential election has “reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America.”[iii]
She paints a complex picture of who we are which is at once paradoxical: we are a group that “was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, [that] in the space of two generations, [became] one of the most successful, integrated groups…” And yet at the same time, we are seen today by some as racially impure, “a faux-white race.” A majority of religiously motivated hate-crimes are committed against Jews each year. Still at the same time, we are seen by others as “part of a white-majority establishment that seeks to dominate people of colour.”
Jews do not fit neatly into typical racial categories, says Green. And while over time, Ashkenazi Jews of European descent became more integrated into American society – a process scholars refer to as “becoming white,” – it wasn’t our skin color that changed, it was status.
What happens when that status is called into question, as it seems to be today?
The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt reminds us that the vast majority of American Jews benefit from white privilege, and yet, yet Jewish identity is shaped by many “exogenous forces—ostracism, and exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination… there is this sense of shared struggle … programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.”
We think we are one thing, but society treats us as though we are something else. It is the paradox of modern Jewish existence.
How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves. Another way is by the stories others tell about us.
Throughout our history, a great pendulum has swung between outside forces who sought to tell us who we are, and moments of great creativity where we have asserted for ourselves who we are and what we stand up for. Today, we live at the nexus of those poles, pulled in opposing directions. Emma Green’s question of “Are Jews white?” is not so much a question of skin colour, but of identity and authority: who gets to decide who we are, and how we know who we are?
There are those, like Pharaoh, who want to write our story for us. To tell us who we are and what is our supposed destiny. I do not believe that our response to them should be to adopt an insular approach, closing ourselves off to the rest of the world in the hopes that our problems will just disappear.
Why? Because we are also living in a time of great Jewish resourcefulness, a new golden age of Jewish expression which proclaims loudly what it means to be Jewish. We must continue to discover and to rediscover the beauty of our own uniquely Jewish stories. This is the most profound response to those who would seek to tell us who we are.
As much as the question, “Are Jews white?” is a question of self-awareness, it is also one of empathy, mutual responsibility, and the ability to see beyond ourselves. As Green noted in a follow-up to her essay, “Asking, ‘Are Jews white?,’ is [also] a way of questioning the lack of racial awareness among some American Jews.”[iv]
So this is also a time be aware of those even more vulnerable than us; those whose stories others also seek to impose: undocumented immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ+ community – both Jewish and not, black people generally, along with Jews of color from all communities. And our Muslim neighbours, friends and colleagues.
* * *
The android in Westworld, who awoke in our world could not at first cope with her destabilizing realization. She collapses on the floor, unable to function. It is only later, once she accepts the truth of her existence, that she begins acting with agency, striving to take control of her own destiny.
The Israelites awoke to the reality that they were no longer the same people; perceived as outsiders.
This is a moment of existential awakening. We find ourselves in a stark reality, unfamiliar to many. Will we collapse onto the floor, unable to function, with the hopes that we will reawaken in a blissfully naïve alternate universe? Or, will we confront this strange, new world head-on, with agency?
I do not suggest that we – like our Israelite ancestors – need to flee our homes in hopes of miraculous salvation. What we must leave behind is the notion that we are free of the oppression of others seeking to define who we are and who we can be. The past year has shown us that we are not yet living in a post-racial or post-ethnic world. Our ability to combat discrimination and oppression requires that we awake to this new world, just as we have done so many times before.
We must bring to this world what we know about ourselves. We know what discrimination looks like. We know it feels like when others would rewrite our stories. The Jewish response must be to do what we have always done: to assert our truths with an even stronger voice, and to help others to raise their own voices.
Perhaps that the secret to why this parasha is called Shemot – names. At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaimed loudly, as Moshe did: hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.
[ii] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, pg. 318