Can Only a Black Person Explain the Black Experience

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8 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    I believe you are essentially correct. Without any doubt, the late Prof. Jacob Katz provided greater insight into the halakhic process than almost all poskim are capable of. Similarly, Prof. Bernard Lewis had a unique insight into Arabic history and culture.

    However, anyone’s approach, native or outsider, will (subconsciously perhaps) reflect personal biases. Your book, Between Slabodka and Berlin, is a perfect example. Your mussar orientation and underappreciation of the methodology of Brisk colored a few of your interesting insights. Where those personal biases are greater is debatable.

  2. DK says:

    Beautiful article. This idea is so necessary to be spoken out in these days where so many different types of people, whether Republicans or Charedim are vilified because others cannot understand their opinions or way of life. If one just shrugs it off by saying we can never understand them then progress can never be made. We must always try, and we always can (as R’ Hillel writes) understand, at least to a certain degree the other side in order to live in harmony with each other. Without attempting to understand the other side there will never be able to be the possibility of accepting the other side and working together in harmony with them.

    • Shades of Gray says:

      “Republicans or Charedim are vilified because others cannot understand their opinions or way of life”

      An article in yesterday’s New Yorker on Borough Park’s demonstrations made a similar point. It quoted R. Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, who said “It is imperative that we always recognize others as individual human beings,” “and not lump them together and treat them as a monolithic blob.” It also quoted Ben Smith, a NYT reporter who commented about Jacob Kornbluh’s unique perspective as an Orthodox journalist, an “insider”(who writes for “Jewish Insider”):

      One of Kornbluh’s most distinctive qualities as a journalist is his closeness to the community. When he covers local news, he is hardly an outsider “parachuting in” to get some quotes from a seemingly opaque group of people. “Political reporters sometimes don’t realize how real the stakes are and don’t have to live with them,” Smith told me. He added that Kornbluh “is writing about these life-or-death issues in this community, whose divisions mirror the country but where passions are really, really high.”

      The other side of the coin is that Republicans and Charedim should likewise see others’ opinions. Rashi in Parshas Noach quotes the Gemara about marital relations in the Teivah, making reference to מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר, “the men separately and the women separately, because they were forbidden to live together as man and wife since the world was living in a state of distress.” While this may not be practiced today for various reasons, the general principle is noteworthy, that one should think about the pain of the larger non-Jewish society even when making weddings, such as by following reasonable health guidelines, or when davening in shul according to best health practices, for that matter. The need for this sensitivity מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר, and seeing others’ perspective is universal, and goes beyond any segment of the Jewish community.

      • Shades of Gray says:

        Further to my previous comment on Rashi ( 7:7) regarding מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר in the Teivah:

        At first glance, Rashi is saying that having empathy, being nosie b’ol for people suffering, is the reason why intimacy was proscribed in the Teivah.

        However, Midrash Tanchuma, the source of Rashi , seems to explain the reason as not building and procreating during the Mabul when Hashem was, to the contrary, destroying the world. This other reason , “not building during destruction”, is mentioned by Meiri in name of Yerushalmi regarding a famine, and is discussed by Tzitz Eliezer in context of Israeli wars and by the Debrezener Rav. See link to Midrash Tanchuma:

        The Gemara Taanis (11a) similarly discusses refraining from intimacy during a famine. Rashi there does explain it because of the need to have empathy for people suffering. However, that Gemara is limited to when the hunger affects a Jewish area, according to Ritva, Rashi, and the Ran.

        A shiur on YU Torah by Rabbi Moshe Sokoloff this March discusses the above two reasons and whether there is any contemporary applicability(“Are Marital Relations Allowed During A Coronavirus Outbreak”). In his 11/4 Mishpacha column, Eytan Kobre writes relatedly:

        “The halachah (see Orach Chayim 574:4) requires (or at least lauds) the curtailing of pleasurable activities during a time when the world is being convulsed by death and travail. And Chazal (Yevamos 63a) also teach that large-scale tragedy only comes to the world in order for us Jews to take heed and repent… “

  3. Robert Lebovits says:

    The notion that only a person of a particular identity can write about that identity (racial, religious, ethnic, gender, socio-economic status), is predicated on the premise that no one who is not of that identity can accurately portray and convey what it is like to be of that identity.
    The flaw in that logic is exquisitely simple. If that is true, then only someone of that identity can also read and accurately comprehend the writer’s work. If you have not lived it, the words describing it will make no sense. Therefore only male readers should bother reading books by men since a woman won’t understand the sentiments being expressed, and vice versa – only women should read female authors. Of course, this logic carries forward to all identities.
    For decades the field of psychotherapy addressed this question regarding the match between therapist and client. Can a woman treat a man? Can a single person treat a married couple? Can someone who was never a parent work with families? Et cetera, et cetera. The answer given in my training era was, “Yes. Anyone can work with anyone.” It was determined that someone trained to understand and be attuned to universal human development and experience could apply their knowledge and expertise to any other human, irrespective of specific cultural or identity differences. As an aside, in the early years of the field of psychology in the nineteenth century a clinician was referred to as an “alienist”, because the severely mentally ill were thought to be so aberrant from the norm that their thinking and behavior was truly “alien”.
    The perspective that there are universal human experiences transcending specific group differences I believe has support in Torah. The concepts of Odom HaKadmon, na’aseh Odom b’tzalmeinu, and of course Chochmas Ha’Odom, all speak to the genus of Man, without differentiation by a specific quality or character. We canappreciate and have empathy for those unlike us and perceive their inherent humanity.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Some people are better able to empathize with others and to see things from the others’ vantage point. Every person, group, and situation is different. This won’t stop many of us from believing no outsider can ever “get it.” You can live in a place for half your life and the natives still set you apart.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    An excellent response to cancel culture another manifestation of the left to suppress and deligtimratze academic political and cultural dissent of what were once mainstream views on race culture and gender

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    Compare with an incident in an upcoming parsha, where Rav Soloveitchik famously commented that Avroham was both a Ger and Toshav, and that as an “outsider”, so to speak, his sectarian faith did not preclude his commitment to further the welfare of the general society, which assumes understanding and relating to it to an extent.

    The ultimate example in the Torah of an outsider bringing benefit that comes to my mind is that of Yisro. From R. Berel Wein, which he applies to people joining the frum community(“Outsiders Looking In”, available online):

    Yitro is the ultimate “outsider” looking in to see Torah and the Jewish people. Many times the “outsider” sees things more clearly than the “insider” in a society does. In Yiddish there is an expression that a temporary guest sees for a mile. (I know that this lost something in translation but you get the gist of it.) The Jewish people, especially in our religious world, live a somewhat insular existence. Due to this, many times we are unable to see what otherwise can be plain to others.

    The example of Yitro encourages us to give respect to the insights of “outsiders” in our community. Oftentimes they come from different backgrounds and have fought their way through many false beliefs to arrive at Torah and the observance of mitzvoth. Their views and experiences should be important to us. The tendency to force the “outsiders” to become exactly like the “insiders” is eventually counterproductive to both groups. Yitro never becomes Moshe but Moshe and Israel benefit from Yitro’s judgment and advice. We can all benefit from insights, advice and good wishes from our own “outsiders.”

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