Sermon: The challenge of ‘them and us’

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 21 November 2020

If you were with us last Shabbat morning, you will have heard Cantor Tamara speak about the Jewish imperative of kindness and decency.  I recommend that you find her sermon to read online, or go back and watch it on YouTube.
It was a powerful reflection on the US presidential election and our core responsibilities as Jews.

One area that she touched on is the growing evidence that as human beings we have an innate morality – a preference for decency, for kindness that is found even in small babies.  Tamara referred to research in which babies as young as six months old show clear preference for those who behave well.   At its simplest, when shown a puppet show in which one character is helpful and one obstructive, babies will – almost always – reach out for the kind character and reject the other.

This research has been carried out by the Infant Cognition Centre at Yale – sometimes known as the Baby Lab – one of the goals of which is to uncover innate tendencies that exist before nurture gets in the way.

While this particular experiment has not always been replicable in other trials, and we might argue a bit about interpretation, there is a strong argument that there is an inbuilt preference within us for goodness – that we naturally see the world through an instinctively ‘moral’ lens.

But there’s another part of the story that Cantor Tamara didn’t share.
Unfortunately, there’s a twist.
Because it turns out that this preference for goodness is incredibly fragile.

The same team ran a subsequent experiment: In this, they began by first establishing what kind of food babies preferred.  And then they again presented them with two puppets – one that shared their food preference and one that didn’t.  The majority of babies – as I think we might expect – reached out to the puppet that shared their preference.

But – and here’s the difficult bit – that was also the case when the puppet that shared their preference was the badly behaved one.  As one of the researchers observed, “What we find over and over again is that babies will choose an individual who is mean [but similar to them] to one who had the different opinion”

That is, we may be pre-wired for goodness, but we are even more pre-wired for similarity.  We instinctively choose those who are like us over those who are different, irrespective of their behaviour.  Our sense of connection, of shared identity, supersedes our judgements of morality.

I was reminded of this research when reflecting on some features of our current world.  When we understand this about ourselves, it makes sense of a huge amount of that which, for many of us, seem so hard to understand:

Why is it that currently within the Republican Party in America there is a willingness to support what – from the outside – seems clearly to be anti-Democratic and deeply destructive?  How can they not see what we see?
Because, we reach out to the puppet who is like us, even when they are the one who is misbehaving.

How do we account for the division of the current Labour Party around the figure of Jeremy Corbyn – seen not as nuanced, flawed figure but as either unblemished hero or irredeemable villain?
Sharing of identity is more powerful than behaviour.   Hence the existence of a kind of overarching new tribalism in the left.

From our earliest years we prefer those that are like us, or somehow seem to represent us, and are wired to overlook their moral flaws.  Indeed, not merely to overlook them.  Our views of right and wrong, of fairness, of what is just can be rewritten to fit this sense of connection.

We find this kind of phenomenon built into our tradition, too.
As an example we can look at the rabbinic treatment of this week’s Torah portion.  As Zach has observed this morning – “The biblical text is clear and does not seek to justify their behaviour… Rebekah and Jacob do not behave in a way that we would expect our ancestors to behave”.

Yet the predominant voice in our rabbinic texts disagrees.  It takes this moment, in which a mother and son conspire to deceive a father in order to steal from a brother that which is rightfully his, and they don’t merely overlook it but somehow transform it into a righteous act.  They go as far as to claim that it is an act of protection of Isaac from an Esau who is wicked from birth.
They take moments of goodness in Esau’s life and transform them into wickedness, they take problematic behaviour of Jacob and transform it into acts of righteousness.

Why do the rabbis do this?  Because Jacob is them and Esau is other.
And that is what we do.
We contain within us an innate group bias.  A tendency to think in terms of us and them – one which overrides our ability to view morality objectively.

In the case of Jacob and Esau, that sense of ‘us and them’ is amplified.  Jacob and Esau are more than just characters, they are archetypes, representing whole nations: Jacob is Israel; Esau is Edom – an enemy, a tribe with which Israel is in constant tension.  As our haftarah this morning put it, a “people damned forever of the Eternal’.  Among the Edomites, according to Esau’s genealogy, is Amalek, the eternal enemy of Israel, and through Amalek’s line, biblically, Haman, the genocidal villain of the Story of Esther.  And even more than that.  To the rabbis the figure of Esau/Edom represents Rome, the imperial power of their day and at a later period, the term becomes a synonym in Jewish literature for Christian Rome and thus for Christianity in general.

It is not too strong to hear echoes of current political life in this transformation.
It is not so far – though I recognise the imperfection of the analogy – from this to Newt Gingrich’s assertion of two Americas in constant struggle.  Or the ‘eternal tension’ between liberal London elite and the voice of the people.
Tribalism overwhelms our ability to deal in nuance or to really judge an action on its merits.

And we know that such tribalism on a smaller scale exists in our lives, and in our Jewish community, too. When we speak about Israel or denominationalism, we are often unable to see beyond our own sense of connection.  Those who seek to amplify such tribalism in the name of group identity may find that they do so at the expense of our ability to work collaboratively and to see what is right.

So if this kind of innate group bias is in-built.  If ‘us and them’ is a powerful drive even before we can talk – and there is a great deal more evidence to suggest that babies have strong aversion to difference – what can we do about it?

Just because something is an innate bias doesn’t mean it is our fate.
Rather, it is something that we know about ourselves.  And that knowledge allows us to overcome it.

Just as Zach, this morning, was encouraged and able to step away from our tradition’s reading of his portion, to view it for himself, able to understand that Jacob can be both patriarch, both ‘us’ and still morally flawed – so must we find it in ourselves to step away from the biases in our lives, even if this means confronting the dissonance that this might cause for us.  Our task in a modern, polarised, echo chamber world is to begin by recognising our own pre-assumptions, so we can truly encounter the moment before us.

We have a built in tendency towards group.  It is a tendency, it is important to recognise, which can bring great positives: the sense of connection, the joy of community, the power of loyalty.  But it can also be a weakness, leading us to support, even to do, surprisingly awful things.
But we should never lose sight of the core of the Baby Lab’s research. Fundamentally as human beings we lean towards the good.
If only we can find it in ourselves to show it.