The Torah repeatedly commands us “remember the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This admonition reminds us that we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and not judge them based upon stereotypes or prejudices that may be prevalent in our society.
I recently watched again the classic 1947 film, “Gentleman’s Agreement.” While many of you have seen the film, I suspect that there are many of our younger people who have not, and I suggest that you watch it. The film is about a journalist (played by Gregory Peck) named Philp Scyler Green who is asked to write an article about anti-Semitism. After struggling with how to approach this controversial topic, Green who is not Jewish, is inspired to adopt a Jewish identity (“Phil Greenberg”) and experience what it is to be a Jew. The film then relates a number of incidents where he and his young son experience the evil and ignorance of anti-Semitism.
The film leaves me questioning: “To what degree have we overcome anti-Semitism in our society, and what about the different forms of bigotry and prejudice that persist?” Yes, America has changed much in its attitudes and treatment of Jews and all people who are perceived as “different.” But that is certainly not to say that anti-Semitism and different forms of prejudicial thinking do not exist. They do, and we know they do.
Why? Or what is it in the human character that causes us to often judge those who are “different” in a harsh and derogatory way? “You can blame a primitive self-protective mechanism for such politically incorrect thoughts, asserts Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia.” He contends that in our evolution, we developed an adverse response to people who were perceived as different, and so that “quality” remains an influential aspect of our human character.
While there may be some truth in this contention, I believe that we do have it within ourselves to outgrow that judgmental characteristic, and to view others as we would want them to view and respect us.
Yes, we are living in challenging times. Still, we are quick to judge others. Still we identify others as “strangers” who are to be disrespected, if not rejected. And still we fall into the trap of embracing stereotypes, whether it be a Jew, a Muslim, a homosexual person-any person whom we perceive as being a “stranger.”
“Remember the heart of the stranger,” says the Torah. And dream and struggle for the day when humanity will recognize the sacred quality inherent to every human being.