‘Why is difference always linked with hatred?’ – asks the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The sages of the Talmud say, ‘man was created in his singularity.’ Man was created as a unique being. But the Hebrew term for singularity – y’hedi – has two distinct meanings.
For one, Man is a species – and the first man, Adam, contains the possibilities that express themselves in every future generation. Each person, in this reading, is linked back to the first man – and each is a part of a whole that expresses that whole. Man is singular, or one; the species of man is unified.
But there is another way of understanding the Talmudic phrase, not emphasizing the unity of the species of man, but his individuality. Adam was created as singular – an individual. And the traits of the first man – his individuality – are passed on to his descendants. ‘When a man mints coins with one stamp, all of the coins are similar to one other,’ the sages say, ‘but when the King of Kings mints each man from the “stamp” of Adam, the first man, each one of them is different.’ The US mint makes coins that are identical, but in the Talmudic rendering of the divine mint, each individual, created from the stamp of the first man, and traceable to that original source, is different. Man is linked back to God through the divine image – to the first man, Adam: but one only fully realizes this divine image through becoming an individual. To realize a connection with the divine – to assert mans godly connection, his similarity to God, one has to be different.
The sages’ term singularity means both unity and individuality – at the same time. Man is the creature who expresses the whole, and man is the creature who expresses his difference. Just the former, man is a herd-like animal, with no responsibility, nothing that distinguishes him. To truly be part of the whole – and this may seem like a paradox – one has to be different, and to accept difference.
On Shavuot, we remember the Torah is accepted by the Jewish people in unity – a nation united with ‘one heart.’ The receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – and in every generation – requires this unity. But unity does not mean uniformity. The poet John Milton writes derisively of those who wish for an ‘obedient unanimity,’ dismissing both them and the ‘fine conformity’ they advocate. Yet there are those, in our generation, who continue to praise the unanimity that Milton disdains as a virtue. But the perception of individuality as a particularly modern or inauthentic development, a threat to an authentic Torah, is really just a political agenda inflected by fear and anxiety.
The sages say that there are many different faces of Torah. ‘The people of Israel,’ the sages say, ‘are distinguished by their faces’ – no two are the same. For the Torah to be revealed in its many faces, it needs the many faces of the people of Israel. So the many faces of Torah only are revealed in the different faces of Israel. Shavuot is a time that emphasizes the unity of the Jewish people: but it is a unity of disparate individuals, not just a conglomeration of clones.
Hating difference in our fellow Jews means hating the Torah – for only in their faces, as well as our own, is the Torah revealed.
Originally published on Bill’s Open Minded Torah.
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