Purim and Polarization
Young Writers Submission by Daniel Weiss
One of the claims that Haman leveled against the Jews was that they were “separate and scattered,” that they lacked togetherness. Of all the negative characteristics he could have singled out, he chose this as the defining feature with which to describe us to the King. The Midrash states that this is precisely what made the Jews vulnerable to annihilation, what opened the door to a decree of our death. It was significant then and it is still very much a reality today due to the diversity that is present across the Jewish spectrum. Yet, we were purposely born as a nation with twelve tribes because diversity has its benefits, benefits which are worth understanding.
In social psychology there is a concept called group polarization. The basic idea is that when members of a group have similar opinions about an issue, discussion within that group does not balance out their opinions but rather makes their opinions more extreme than they were going in. For example, if before going into the jury room, members of a jury all believe that an individual is guilty, then they will come out feeling even more strongly about this verdict and advocate harsher punishment. (The converse is true as well.) This has implications when it comes to the Jewish community. When we choose to associate only with people who look, act, and think like us we risk becoming more extreme through our interactions. (This may be a contributing factor in the recent spate of extreme behavior in the Charedi community.) However, when we choose to join together with others and welcome diversity into our midst, then we can keep a more balanced view on things. And as the world becomes more and more polarized, this becomes very important.
While I was in graduate school, I had the good fortune of living in the lovely community of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. They have a tradition there that I find beautiful and hope to see replicated in every community. Every Shabbos Hagadol and Shabbos Shuva, all the congregations in the area gather together into one shul and listen to lectures given by rabbis chosen from two of the synagogues. This amazing display of achdus brings together people from different sections of the community — Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Litvish, and Chassidish — all in one room. I once told this to someone in another city and exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful?” He looked and me and responded, “Maybe I want to hear MY rabbi speak on Shabbos Shuva?” While I understand his point, I respectfully disagree. He can listen to his rabbi all year long. Once or twice during the year, especially at an auspicious time such as the Shabbos before Yom Kippur, is it too much to show that solidarity, to put aside the divisions amongst Jews and come together with others of a different stripe?
Purim is a time when we are taught this lesson, when we understand that being unified with other Jews is important. We give gifts to others, open our hands to the poor and break down barriers through feast and drink. Let us keep that in mind this year, that Purim is not just about giving gifts to our friends and inviting people we already like over to our houses. It is about breaking down barriers and reaching out to other Jews who are not necessarily our friends. By reaching across those boundaries and encouraging diversity, we create a bond that improves the quality of the Jewish people and makes us stronger. Maybe this year you can give Mishloach Manos to someone who is not your friend, who wears a different color yarmalka or shirt. Maybe this year you can invite someone over to your seuda who davens at a different shul or sends their kids to a different school. Maybe this year the Jewish people can counter the words of the evil Amaleki and become one. May we all merit this year to have a Purim full of achdus, a day where we unite with all Jews no matter how similar or different they are to us.