Sunday, March 16, 2014

TorahBytes: Discrimination (Shemini & Parah)

This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten. (Vayikra / Leviticus 11:46-47; ESV)

I don’t like sales people, especially the ones that phone me or come to my door. I am not proud to admit that I have been downright rude at times. I don’t trust them. They tell me they’re not selling anything when they are, they say that their pitch will take five minutes, when actually they want my attention for an hour or more. They pretend to be nice, but demonstrate no sensitivity whatsoever to me, the potential customer whom they claim to be serving.

The word to describe how I relate to sales people is “prejudice.” It means to “pre-judge”; to make a prior judgment of someone based on something about them. People used to make a lot of fuss about prejudice. We were taught, and rightly so, that we should not pre-judge someone on the basis of their skin color, for example. We were taught, rightly so, that a person’s ethnic background didn’t mean that they were good or bad, intelligent or not, and so on. We were encouraged, rightly so, to get to know people before making any determinations with regard to their character or abilities.

Today, we don’t hear much about prejudice. Now it’s “discrimination.” Discrimination has become one of the greatest evils of all. It’s not enough to only avoid pre-judging someone, we are told not to judge them—period. Instead of learning to treat all people fairly, which was the goal of confronting prejudice, we are expected to treat everyone the same. Current anti-discrimination philosophy insists that we make no moral judgment on anyone ever (except possibly on me for saying so!).

What many don’t realize is that discrimination, far from being the natural outcome of the movement against prejudice, it’s actually the cure. The reason why people are prejudiced is that they haven’t learned to effectively discriminate.

Discrimination is the act of discerning differences and acting upon them. Discrimination is absolutely necessary in life. It is what keeps us from eating poison, or making dangerous wrong turns, or pursuing destructive relationships. Without it everything looks the same and everything is treated the same.

Now, I am aware that one of the definitions for “discriminate” is “to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from other people or groups” ( I know enough about words to understand that they mean what they mean based on how people use them and that discriminate is being used to describe this kind of injustice. I believe that God calls us to be against this kind of discrimination. The problem I am addressing, however, is that using this word in this way is fomenting moral confusion in our culture.

The cure for what is being labeled as discrimination is not avoiding discrimination, but learning to properly practice it. This is because not everything is the same. This is what God is teaching the people of Israel in this week’s parasha (English: weekly Torah portion). The people needed to “make a distinction between the unclean and the clean.” The Hebrew for “make a distinction” is ba-dal’, meaning “to separate, make distinction, distinguish.” When they looked over the animal kingdom, they were to distinguish between those animals permitted for consumption and those that were not. They were not all the same. These laws were a special part of Israeli Old Covenant culture designed to drum into the psyche of the people the principal of discernment or, as we might say, discrimination.

If I would learn this important lesson, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so hard on sales people. My problem has been my being prejudiced against them with no desire to discriminate. I usually don’t want to take the time to discern the nature of the various sales calls I receive. I want to treat them all the same. More than once I have almost ended conversations with people that I really did want to talk due to my lack of discrimination.

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