Recognizing Ourselves in One Another

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

More than all the eloquent phrases and the snippets of wisdom that marked President Obama’s inaugural address, I remain in the thrall of words he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial just two days earlier: “[I]f we could just recognize ourselves in one another… maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.”

Obama was explicitly thinking, as he actually said, about “Democrats, Republicans and independents; Latino, Asian and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not.” And there, the divides and the misunderstandings are wide and plentiful — as witness the corners of vitriolic hatred that remain in America, or the California vote on Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage, or the arguments over immigration and so forth. Some of all that will be healed by the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as also by the determination of our new president to reach across our political divides. Much will be more unyielding. The formula that Obama now urges upon us does not bridge every divide. But it does render them bearable.

“If we could just recognize ourselves in one another…” What do these words mean? They mean something quite different from loving each other as we love ourselves. What I take them to mean is that when we behold the Other, we ought not only see the differences between him/her and ourselves but also and quite as important, we ought recognize our sameness.

That is neither trivial advice nor is it easily made real. It is a call to empathy, a definition of empathy broader than the more familiar “ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other.” The extent of its challenge may be deduced from imagining what it might mean in the context of international conflict.

Let us, for example, imagine that Israelis and Palestinians were able to see their sameness as well as the differences that so blight their relationship. Suppose they were able, as some few of them already are, to listen to each other’s stories, listen without becoming immediately defensive, listen with respect for the authenticity with which they’re told, learn from them the fear and the victimhood that afflict both “them” and “us” and perhaps, thereby, narrow somewhat the gulf between them and us.

Here is what David Grossman, the great Israeli writer, had to say about this just the other day: “We must speak to them [the Palestinians] and begin to acknowledge that reality is not one hermetic story that we, and the Palestinians, too, have been telling ourselves for generations. Reality is not just the story we are locked into, a story made up, in no small measure, of fantasies, wishful thinking and nightmares.” And then: “We must speak, because what has happened in the Gaza Strip over the last few weeks sets up a mirror in which we in Israel see the reflection of our own face — a face that, if we were looking in from the outside or saw it on another people, would leave us aghast. We would see that our victory is not a genuine victory, and that the war in Gaza has not healed the spot that so badly needs a cure, but only further exposed the tragic and never-ending mistakes we have made in navigating our way.”

That’s the way it was, we are taught, when Jacob met Esau — Esau, his fraternal twin who looked nothing like him, from whom he’d stolen both birthright and blessing — on the morning after he’d wrestled with the angel. “Pray,” Jacob says, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then take this gift from my hand. For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God…” (Genesis 33:10). There’s a powerful thread in the midrash on that cryptic verse that holds that what Jacob was “seeing” in the face of his twin brother was his own face, the face of an Other also created in the image of God.

And that’s the way it was for the master of our own time, Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote that “the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning [entirely] within its own being-in-the-world.” When the Other is your neighbor, you cannot know yourself, you cannot speak of your identity as if it were a thing apart, self-contained.

Imagine that when at last Americans sit with the Iranians, both teams of negotiators will have just finished a week-long workshop on listening, on recognizing, will thereby not only better know the Other but also better know themselves.

That is the way it’s supposed to work. That’s apparently how Obama understands the world, and asks us to understand it.

I wonder, in the wave of warmth and high hopes that characterize the nation’s feeling toward President Obama, whether we are not, in some very real way, among his Others. Surely he derives strength from our embrace; surely his own identity owes much to his recognition of himself in us. But he wants us for more than that. He wants us to recognize ourselves in him. I think here, in particular, of words that came near the end of the inaugural address: “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

We ask much from our president, very much. Let us not forget that he asks for much from us.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.