It has happened a few times now yet it still surprises me. I go to a service in a church and I get lost in the prayer book. Not spiritually lost, but physically lost. The priest or minister says, “please turn to page x” and I open the book and I have more trouble than I would expect finding the prayer or song. The leader said page twenty so I look to the beginning of the book. Unfortunately when I open the book, I find really high page numbers. Am I in the wrong book? Did I hear a wrong page number? No, I am trying to go backwards! After so many years of using Hebrew opening books for prayer and study, my brain is wired to expect religious texts open from right to left as opposed to the “regular” English opening of any other type of American book. If I pick up a novel, a magazine, or any other type of book it is not an issue. This is just for books used for religion, and, I must say it is very disconcerting.
It is such a simple but powerful example of being a fish out of water, being other, walking in another’s shoes. Is this how a blind person feels? Someone who is left handed? I can go on and on with categories of “other,” people who see, sense, manipulate or experience the world in a way that is different from the “norm.” How many gaps and stumbling blocks do we litter our world with that catch or disconcert people who perceive the world in a different way?
In our world where “political correctness” is a loaded term, I understand the struggle between the feeling that other should adapt to the majority on one hand and the sense that the majority should be aware, considerate, and accommodating to those who are different on the other. I hear the concern that if the majority keeps adjusting, over and over again, it loses its sense of identity and boundary. For example, I am sure that non-Jews are as thrown by our Hebrew right to left opening books as I am by Christian texts that are English opening. Yet, I am not about to suggest that we change our custom for the sake of our visitors. There is a concept in Jewish life of Minhag hamakom, custom of the place. When we step into someone’s “house” we have to adapt culture of that place. It is still my responsibility to be hospitable to my visitors. We find other ways to accommodate differences in perspective and include visitors to make them feel welcome in our space. That is why I explain service when I can and use a prayer book with Hebrew transliterated. I want people to be able to connect to their sense of the divine even if they are not Jewish. It is meaningful to decrease intimidation of being out of step or the feeling of being on the margin.
There is enough tzuris in the world sickness: tragedy, natural disaster, accident….there are ways to decrease the hurt feelings, marginalization, dismissal that we visit on each other. This is the invitation to take up a discipline. Can we find times to consciously step into the role of other? Can we make opportunities to partake in experiences in which we are on the outside, feel like the foreigner? It is the reminder of the declaration from the Torah- remember we were strangers/slaves in the land of Egypt. Maybe, just maybe, when we have the experience we will understand the perspective of someone who comes into our house/space/culture/perspective. With this understanding we might introduce a little more awareness, consideration and compassion into our world.