Friday, June 23, 2023

You Can't Say You Can't Play


The Punishment of the Rebels, Detail of a fresco, Sandro Boticelli, 1481 - 1482

We all carry the nicks and scratches of childhood.

I vividly remember an incident in the third grade. After a spat, two classmates ignored me all through recess. As we were walking back into school, one of them pointed to me and said, “We aren’t talking to Chaim; he’s not normal, you know. He doesn’t have a father, and anyone who doesn’t have a father must be crazy.” The remark really hurt; being an orphan was something I was terribly self-conscious about. The cruel schoolyard teasing poured salt into an open wound, and this insulting rejection made me feel profoundly lonely.

No one likes being excluded. To have others judge you as undesirable is extremely painful. And while exclusion is challenging for individuals, social divisions are toxic for communities.


Korach is the paradigm of the community divider. The Talmud says, “Anyone who perpetuates a quarrel violates a prohibition, as it is stated: “And he should not be like Korach and his assembly”; the importance of unity is derived from the negative example of Korach.


To fully understand this imperative, one must first consider how Korach’s quarrel started. The narrative begins with the vague words "and Korach took"; but what exactly Korach took is unclear. Perhaps, as the Midrash and the Netziv suggest, he took the hearts of his followers through persuasion. The Ramban sees it as referring to Korach taking a particular opinion; it is a reference to the inner workings of Korach's mind, when he took the decision to mount a battle against Moses. Rashi offers a very different view. He explains that the phrase means that Korach "took himself to one side" to separate from the rest of the community. Korach is creating social distance even before he comes with his complaint. Rabbi Yoseph Bechor Shor adds that the Hebrew letters for Korach are the same letters as the word for distant; the root of Korach’s rebellion is when one man decides to stand a distance from the community.


While this debate between Rashi and the Ramban is about the interpretation of one word, it offers as well an insight into the genesis of disputes, an issue that is frequently discussed by contemporary political scientists. Are the social divisions of polarization simply a product of intense disagreement, or does polarization itself begin with social distance, which then fosters disagreement? The Ramban focuses on the intellectual aspects of a community quarrel: two sides have conflicting views (and interests,) and for that reason are in conflict. Rashi offers a different account. Before Korach mounts his insurrection, he first and foremost separates himself, and stands alienated from the rest of the community. He's no longer part of what they're doing. Only then does the quarrel begin.


Rashi reminds us that polarization is often a product of social divisions and not the other way around. Local communities frequently forge strong individual bonds, and thereby avoid polarization despite political disagreements. Polarization arises when the conversation becomes global, and strangers, inflamed by TV talking heads, debate each other on Twitter; then it contaminates every community, no matter how tight-knit.


In short, distance fosters dispute and division. Similarly, small schools are less likely to form cliques than large ones; the intimacy of constantly being together with other students prevents exclusion.


The importance of community is critical in Jewish thought. The Talmud (Keritot 6b) says that any public fast day, (such as Yom Kippur,) that does not include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast day. The entirety of the community needs to come together as one, even if some have acted improperly and imperfectly. No person should be left behind.


This is easier said than done. Large synagogues can sometimes feel like train stations; everybody boards at the same time and take their seat, but outside of friends, have no interest in anyone around them. Gary Rosenblatt relates how a friend told him that when he was sitting shiva, he couldn’t identify someone who visited the shiva house several times. "He looked familiar but I couldn't place him….I finally asked him who he was and he said, 'I'm the guy who's been sitting in your row in shul on Shabbat for the last six years."


That’s what it’s like praying in a train station. You don’t know the other commuters. You can sit far apart, even while sitting in the very same row. And in that distance, exclusion emerges.


The most worrisome impact of these social distances is how they impact our kids. Even if the school mandates it, students will refuse to show up at the Bar Mitzvah of someone who isn’t part of their clique; they’ll simply mail in the reply card, and then claim to be sick that day. The empty seats at the Bar Mitzvah lunch speak of an ugly social divide. Birthday parties will exclude some of the children in a class; parents will thoughtlessly push aside the kids they think “don’t belong.”


I have thought for a long time about how to address this issue. A quick review of Pirkei Avot makes it clear that exclusion is against fundamental Jewish values. Pirkei Avot teaches the importance of loving all people (6:6), greeting others warmly (1:15), bringing people together (1:12), carrying the burden of others (6:6), and not separating from the community (2:4). It should be easy to preach against exclusion.


But I had to pause for a moment. If we are honest, we need to accept that it may be instinctual to exclude. The teacher and researcher Vivian Gussin Paley, in her book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, describes an experiment in her Kindergarten classroom. She explains that she began to lose patience with the voices of exclusion in her classroom. So she put up a sign that said: You can't say you can't play. As she describes it: “I announced the new social order and, from the start, it is greeted with disbelief. Only four out of 25 in my kindergarten class find the idea appealing, and they are the children most often rejected.” There is enormous resistance in Paley’s classroom.


One child said it straight: “It will be fairer, but how are we going to have any fun?” This is not just how a kindergartener thinks; adults consider what is exclusive as being far more desirable. But exclusivity often begins by excluding others; one needs a bouncer to make any gathering truly unique. The allure of exclusivity is that it separates the elite from the ordinary; and there is no greater balm for a fragile ego than to imagine that one is something other than ordinary. (Yes, excluders are often quite insecure.) Exclusion is part of a quest to feel special; and doesn’t everyone want to feel special? If we are honest, we will recognize that exclusion is instinctive.


But there is more to humanity than instinct; and even these young children in Paley’s classroom were able to listen to the better angels of their nature. She explains that after a short while, inclusion became the norm in her classroom; the new culture had a powerful effect on every child. They recognized it was the right way to do things and eventually embraced You can't say you can't play.


But for many children, it took an effort to be inclusive. In a later interview, Paley talked about Lisa, the kindergartener who at the time offered the most strenuous opposition to the You can't say you can't play rule. Lisa eventually understood how important it was. But as Paley explained: “All the years later, whenever Lisa…met me in the hallway, she would always stop and ask me how is the rule doing, and give me an example of something she had done that showed she was still trying to follow the rule. The last time I met her was in the grocery store with her mother, and she said, "Mrs. Paley, it's still pretty hard for me, but I know I can do it, and I always try." And her mother nodded, and said, "She really does, you know."


Yes, inclusion is possible if we really try. And try we must, because it changes who we are. Life is diminished when lived in a tiny corner. To be clustered into a tiny clique of the like-minded impoverishes the soul; it is like living in black and white, unable to appreciate the true color of the world around us. More significantly, separating into little social factions weakens our sense of community; and that hurts our synagogues and schools.


Above all it is wrong. To take yourself to one side and create a distance between yourself and others is hurtful. The pain of the child who gets left out is very real, and I can personally attest to that. The echoes of exclusion linger, even decades later.


Perhaps exclusion is an inborn tendency. But even so, there is no question that all of us can do better. Kindergartners can learn the rule You can't say you can't play; so why can’t their parents?

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