This is my column for August 2016 in the Jewish Reporter, the monthly newspaper of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire.
The Torah opens with distinctions. Heaven and earth, land and water, sun and moon, animals and people. Weekdays and Shabbat. Distinctions that are pretty dramatic, clear-cut, and consequential.
Then, in the first story involving humans, another distinction is introduced. All the edible trees – and this one tree that's edible but you shouldn't eat it.
Adam and Eve said to themselves: Now that is a distinction without a difference. So they ate.
Our Torah sets up right from git-go the question of when differences matter, and when they don't.
In my first-ever undergraduate class on Talmudic literature, we were taught to find the distinction inherent in any statement of Jewish law. Sometimes it's right on the page, and sometimes you have to fill it in by figuring out the opposite of what's on the page.
Then, said our teacher, you ask: Is this a distinction that makes a difference? If so, what's so important about the difference?
Or alternatively, is this a distinction highlighted order to teach us precisely to ignore this kind of difference?
It's no exaggeration to say that issues of difference have come to dominate this election year, in a way few of us anticipated they would. But we've been struggling with this for a long time, in American society and in Jewish life.
Differences of gender, skin color, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, place of origin, gender identity. Differences of religion, belief, denomination, observance.
One response is to say that there are very few legitimate distinctions among human beings. Attention to difference is rooted in prejudices from the past. The world would be better if we would take as little notice of difference as possible.
The Torah and Talmud suggest otherwise. We are supposed to notice difference, and even look for distinctions where they aren't apparent. And then, to work hard at deciding whether the difference is significant.
There is a even a blessing in traditional Judaism for seeing someone who looks distinctive, in a way you might initially find hard to see or to find beautiful: Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha-Olam, M'shaneh Habriyot. Praised are You, Adonai our God, supreme through all time and space, Who makes variety among all creatures.
What is the value of looking for differences, when they can be so destructive?
Well, for one thing we see them anyway. Neuroscience has found that the emotional brain reacts positively or negatively to gender or skin color even before the cognitive brain realizes that someone is male or female, dark-skinned or light-skinned. It takes work to overcome this, and we need to realize what we're up against biologically.
Beyond that, the Talmudic method of study teaches that differences are where we learn everything.
It's by learning about the experiences of people with different skin colors that we find out what does and doesn't matter about color – when we should be color-blind, and when we need approaches that take account of color.
We have to name the core differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Which ones are about doctrines and beliefs, and which are socially and historically contingent? That's how we will know where the difficult discussions really have to be. And where there are opportunities to learn truths hidden in other's tradition.
It's by learning about Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews that we discover exactly when we have to worship and eat separately, and when our beliefs about God and society largely overlap in ways that compel us to study and work together.
It's true that religious and secular Jews are different. Yet it's fascinating to find out when our fundamental beliefs about life are actually first cousins.
We have to ask whether synagogues and Federations are actually different. Maybe in fact they are two types of institutions that share the exact same goals of education and community. The strengths may be different, and perhaps they should be deployed differently – but not as much as we used to think.
Listen sometime to the song from “Oklahoma.” The farmers and the ranchers had a lot to say about each other. They learned to be friends in full recognition of their differences, their mutual suspicions – and their common hopes for the new state.
In this summer of difference, may we set an example of noticing distinctions, so we can learn what really makes a difference.