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If I Am Not for Me: How Storytelling, Faith and Action Came from Sexual Shaming and Bullying

A Sermon By Joanna The Marshall Ganz storytelling approach to community organizing, that President Obama used before and after the election to address issues of social justice is actually based on a famous quote by Rabbi Hillel. Hillel lived from roughly 60 BCE to 10 CE, during the reign of King Herod, if that gives … Continued

A Sermon By Joanna

The Marshall Ganz storytelling approach to community organizing, that President Obama used before and after the election to address issues of social justice is actually based on a famous quote by Rabbi Hillel. Hillel lived from roughly 60 BCE to 10 CE, during the reign of King Herod, if that gives you any grounding and appreciation for how ancient this art is. Hillel was the president of the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish court) and is widely believed to be the greatest scholar in all of Jewish history. Of all his wise and poignant sayings captured in the Pirkei Avot – a compendium of rabbinic quotes that literally translates to ‘sayings of our fathers’ – perhaps this is the most widely recognized:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And when I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

Believe it or not, this story of self, us and now is based on this ancient pairing of ponderings. At first glance, each one of these questions is a self-evident imperative. They build upon one another in such a poetic way that it only amplifies their profound simplicity. But are they really that simple? Sure, they can be; and yet, in typical Jewish tradition, nothing ever is.

The first of Hillel’s statements is “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  is perhaps the most overlooked of the three segments.  Because the full quote builds upon itself, with the third question seemingly as the pinnacle, it is easy to overlook the base of this pyramid. Or, perhaps, we glaze over this line because the notion of standing up for ourselves is already pretty self-evident. By contrast, Hillel – and the subsequent Jewish sages who sought to unpack his quote see this first statement actually as the most complex and perhaps the most important.

Rashi, who was a literalist type Rabbi and famous sage in Medieval France, deconstructs Hillel’s quote by telling us that this first question has to do with the performance of mitzvot.  Mitzvot are the 613 commandments found in the Torah – everything from observing Shabbat and keeping the rules of Kosher to not cross breeding different brands of cattle and ensuring that all sacrifices made at the holy temple be salted.  Rashi taught that it was the fulfillment of these mitzvot by which God judges each of us when we die and therefore, if I personally do not uphold my obligation to preform mitzvot in service of God, there is literally no one else who will be able to fulfill the commandments that are mine to do. From this we learn that we must first and foremost be for ourselves if we are to be scribed “into the book of life.”

Rabbi Ovadya de Bertinoro provides a slightly different interpretation, answering Hillel’s question with a new question: “If I do not acquire for myself a noble character who will do it for me?”  Bertinoro was a 15th century Italian scholar and for him, Hillel’s quote reflected both the practical and the spiritual: only I am responsible for myself and for my own spiritual growth and the good deeds I do for there is no external trigger to rouse me to this higher, nobler purpose.

I would argue that Bertinoro’s assessment most closely mirrors the purpose of gathering for social justice. In gathering we acquire new skills, refine our purpose and sense of self, and improve our character not just so that we can be better leaders but because as Hillel, Rashi and Bertinoro emphatically state: it is legitimate to pursue our own interests, to fulfill our own spiritual needs and to first and foremost become the best person we each can be. It is by improving ourselves – our characters and our souls – and through the fulfillment of the religious practices that give meaning to our lives that we learn how to be for ourselves. Without this deeper sense of self importance and self-worth, Hillel’s imperative, “If am not for myself who, will be for me,” is just hollow, pretty prose.

I learned this lesson pretty intimately in ninth grade.  The second semester of freshman year I sat in the second to last seat of the first row of desks, by the window, in my National, State and Local Government class. I didn’t like my teacher that semester – she was painfully boring – but the class was ok otherwise.

It was ok until the guy sitting behind me started touching me. It started out at first with his knees grazing across my butt at the back of my chair. I figured it was an accident those first few times so I didn’t think anything of it. Then he started to squeeze my butt and grab my breasts – over my clothes at first – reaching underneath or across his desk. Forsaking high school fashion rules, I started wearing overalls to at least prevent him some days from reaching either up my shirt or down my pants for something more.

Other than class activities, which we worked on with the students sitting around us, we had never meaningfully interacted prior to his advances. I was so startled the first time it happened that I just sat still, paralyzed, silently praying someone around me would notice and call him out. How could my peers not see? Why wouldn’t they intervene? How was the teacher so blind as to not realize the horror on my face wasn’t because Maryland had just elected a Republican governor? I kept waiting on someone else to help me but my silent prayers went unanswered. 

I don’t remember how long I let this go on, but it continued long enough that I learned tricks to adapt: the overalls were one way but mostly I would sit as close to the edge of my seat as I could, practically cutting off my circulation as my stomach pressed into my desk; other days I forced myself to sleep during class so at least I wouldn’t be cognizant of what was happening.

At some point, I grew tired of the shame I felt during that class period – ashamed of what felt like having my body exposed every day and ashamed of myself for not saying anything in my own defense.  As a confused, shy 9th grader, I spent for far too long waiting for someone else – a peer, the teacher, god, anyone – to give me my strength and lift up my dignity through this suffering. But this age-old magical notion of the knight in shining armor is a dangerous precedent for any young woman to latch onto. Had I instead loved myself and seen my own inherent dignity at the time, had I studied the words of Hillel, Rashi, and Bertinoro, perhaps, just perhaps I would’ve more quickly come to the conclusion that we are each responsible for ourselves and our destinies, and that the work of self-improvement or self-interest is not a reflection of weakness, but of strength and courage and god blesses this.

It is only through self-love and self-respect that we are able to be in relationship with one another – for loving your neighbor as yourself is predicated on the fact that we must first love ourselves, our whole selves. Hillel orders his quote as he does not because service to others is a more worthy pursuit but rather to remind us that the work of caring for our neighbor – this social responsibility and relationship to a community – is the natural outgrowth of self-awareness and acceptance.

For Rashi, again, ever concerned with the fulfillment of mitzvot, “When I am only for myself, what am I,” is a reminder that a strictly insular focus shuts out God from our lives and prevents us from fulfilling the relational commandments, which are, after all, the bulk of the commandments. How we treat the day laborer matters; how we treat the orphan and widow matters; how we treat the stranger matters!  How we are in relation to one another matters to God and to society. As another famous Jew once preached, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, otherwise known as Maimonides, a 12th century  philosopher, doctor and Jewish sage from Spain, has a slightly different and more cryptic take than Rashi (or Jesus). His commentary, and I’m paraphrasing, is:

Only I have the power to control or choose the good deeds I perform, forcing me to ask the question in every scenario, “what am I?” Since I can never reach a god-like perfection – I can only strive to always be virtuous – I must therefore constantly be engaged in this spiritual discipline.

Maimonides, in his psycho-analytic ways, acknowledges here that we must choose for ourselves the good deeds or mitzvot we will perform for not only is human nature limited in its generosity, but it is physically impossible for one person alone to right every wrong in every situation.  Nevertheless, we are responsible for our choices and character. Accordingly, Maimonides encourages us to always strive toward virtuous acts, to be the best neighbor and disciple and ally we can be. 

Most of my activist life to date has been spent, seemingly, in service to others, perhaps because it is easier to focus on the plight of others rather than doing that harder work of self-care and self- improvement. I was called to the work of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) equality and sexual liberation because of one of my best friends and crushes from middle school.

Chris and I were practically inseparable Tweens until his parents sent him to a private high school and we fell out of touch for years until Facebook reunited us late in our college careers. One night when we were both back home for summer break, Chris and I decided to get dinner and catch up. It was a typical, disgustingly muggy night in D.C. but despite the weather, we went for a walk around our neighborhood and it was on that otherwise romantic walk that Chris told me, “I think I might be gay.”

I remember almost nothing of the details of that 3 hour conversation except for one exchange.  You see, Chris went to Catholic University and so I asked him what he was going to do about this – his faith – when he went back to school and I will never forget what he told me: “Joanna, I don’t know what I believe about religion or God but I believe that God gives us our friends for a reason.”

You see, just about all the guys who have been important to my life have ended up being gay and that little pearl of philosophy Chris espoused has always stuck with me. My Jewish upbringing not only affirms lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and families but further, it challenges me to ask “what am I” if stand idly by while the people I love are treated as ‘less than’ by society? What am I if I do not stand with Kelli in her outrage at the street minister and the thousands of other protesters who every single day shame and judge young women seeking their reproductive and constitutional rights?  What am I if I close my heart to the loss of generations of Puerto Rican children in Mya’s family. What am I if turn a blind eye to the already deafening silence surrounding sexuality education that, having been withheld, has shamed and damaged so, so, many.

But it is in fact this shame, stigma, loss and silence plaguing our God-given sexuality and our godly-blessed bodies that has brought us to new relationships, a new community of activists, creating or rejuvenating our commitments to the work of reproductive justice. We have so much work ahead of us yet there is so much talent and so much wonderful righteous indignation around me that I am humbled and honored to be a part of a community that works against the erosion of civil and human rights.

Rashi, Maimonides and Bertinoro all actually have roughly the same analysis on this portion of Hillel’s quote. Rashi emphatically states that it is in the here and now – this world, this life – where mitzvot must be performed.  For Maimonides and Bertinoro, they believed that if the habit of pursuing noble characters is not acquired now, at a young age, it will be too hard to retrain ourselves when one becomes (quote) “old and senile and set in their ways.” All three of the sages capture the sense of urgency so often associated with the quote. They also remind us of the imperative to focus our efforts on youth who are most malleable and most in need of guidance on how to develop self-confident, highly motivated, noble characters. And there is truth in what these sages say – the habit of exercising one’s self-confidence and of fulfilling mitzvot is engrained into us early and without personal intervention we do continue repeating bad habits. I still find myself waiting on that knight in shining armor to right ‘wrongs’ done to me far too often.

On the other hand, there are some modern interpretations that offer a slightly different take on the notion of when to act. There are times in a campaign, in a relationship, in life when acting immediately is actually not the most prudent decision. Sometimes in organizing we should act immediately and there other times when our goals are better served by waiting for a later, more strategic or more opportune time. Knowing what is urgent, what can wait and what will best serve our long term purposes is part of being a strategic organizer. Understanding both meanings of this portion of Hillel’s quote on timing will help us all be better prepared for the challenges ahead. 

Having a deeper understanding of these ancient assessments on self-interest, self-importance and communal responsibility will equip us to be the best organizers, storytellers and strategists we can be. Like I said before, nothing in Judaism is ever as simple or cut and dry as it might appear on the outside.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

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Jacques Prevert