The world is being washed over by waves of political correctness amid protests over the brutal death of George Floyd. Classical movies such as “Gone with the Wind” are being pulled from a film library and using the word “women” instead of “people who menstruate” has become controversial and illegitimate.
Discrimination is always wrong, and oppression is a terrible crime. Unfortunately, discrimination still exists in our society, and racism did not disappear from the world. Sensitivity, empathy, and compassion toward victimized minorities are essential. However, excessive and perhaps obsessive political correctness is not the remedy for any discrimination.
In my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, I deal at length with the dangers of erasing the differences between people. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook addressed this challenge in one of his famous homilies on the blessing “Blessed is He Who discerns secrets”, which is recited when seeing a gathering of 600,000 Jews. The Gemara says:
“One who sees a crowd of Jews says, ‘Blessed is He Who discerns secrets,’ for their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other.” (Berakhot 58b)
Rav Kook explains that people have different attributes and opinions, a diversity which is the result of both their inborn nature and the influence of their environment. These traits also affect a person’s outward appearance, color, and face. Every person contains the secret of their creation – their role and mission in the world. G-d, the “Knower of Secrets”, has a divine purpose for all of the various opinions and disputes that circulate the world. Because of the differences between people, everyone will ultimately unite toward one goal and create a single, harmonious picture together, through every individual contributing their own unique gifts and talents. The remarkable constitution of humankind requires the existence of differences, for without it no one would be able to discover their unique qualities, and thus no one would fulfill their unique mission.
Rav Kook wrote:
“And if people would know of their inner congruence, each person would not pull toward their [specific] group and individuality would disappear, and there would be no material to build the community.” (Olat Re’ayah, 1:389)
If people thought they were the same, they would not struggle to prove their uniqueness, and the world would not develop as it should. Disparities between groups create a dynamic that catalyzes the world’s progress, as the Talmudic Sages said: “Authors’ jealousy increases wisdom.” (Bava Batra 21a). When everyone is forced to think in the same way, and when it becomes illegitimate to use words which express divergence, individuality is erased, ambition is squashed, progress ceases, and society stagnates. As Rav Kook’s says:
“If one’s opinions were as close to the understandings of his fellow as he feels close to himself, his attachment to his own uniqueness would weaken, causing the perfection of his own uniqueness to be deficient, which would result in a deficiency of the entire community.” (Ibid.)
A homogenous society will shrivel up. Only a multiplicity of opinions leads to healthy competition and mutual enrichment. If striving for tolerance and peace between individuals is achieved by erasing differences, we will damage humanity’s composition and the world’s progress. World peace is a unity that does not stem from uniformity, but rather from a peaceful and constructive diversity.
An example of how to achieve that peace and harmony could be learned from the peacemaker of our tradition, Aharon HaKohen, who “loved peace and pursued peace, loved all people and brought them closer to Torah.” Parshat Beha’alotcha begins with the commandment to Aharon to light the Menorah. According to Rashi’s famous commentary, Aharon is being praised for precisely following the commandment of G-d: “And Aharon did so; This is stated to tell the praise of Aaron — that he did not deviate.” Why should Aharon be praised for not deviating?
According to Rav Kook, this symbolizes his unique trait of peace-making:
“The various lights (of the Menorah) seem to be separate, and indeed they must be distinct so that the uniqueness of each of them would be noticeable…And sometimes distinctions result in disputes and arguments…Nevertheless, the more each of the lights struggles to highlight its unique traits, the more perfection it brings to the world” (Olat Re’ayah, 1: 435)
The lights of the Menorah symbolize the differences between people who shine in certain lights and colors. Aharon’s role was to elevate these lights, i.e., to nurture the differences between people and to embrace their uniqueness. And yet, Aharon managed to unite all these lights to point toward the central-western light. This is why Aharon is praised for managing to facilitate peace and harmony without “deviating”, i.e. without changing their personalities and without declining their differences.
It is quite easy to attain peace by demanding “one size for all” and by forcing people to erase all differences, but that harmony is not sustainable and might cause more damage and bring about more violence. Being politically correct is not necessarily correct, and we must not go from one extreme to the other, but rather find the Golden Mean by following in the ways of Aharon HaKohen.
Pretending that something never happened in the past will not help us learn to live with it, to recognize the mistakes in our past, and to prevent similar mistakes in the future. We must find ways to fix our society, but without erasing our differences.