Loving That Which is Different

by Rabbi Aaron Brusso, 5774

This past Spring at an open meeting of our Board of Directors, Bet Torah voted to support its clergy’s participation in same sex wedding ceremonies. This was after months of study and discussion that addressed questions like What does Judaism teach us about the purpose of marriage? How does Judaism evolve to recognize new realities? How have thinkers on our movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards addressed the issue?

But for me there was another more fundamental question that has haunted me ever since I started thinking about this issue.

Some background:

Neil and Gail were congregants in Minnesota and still remain good friends of mine and Hana’s. They have three children. At one point Neil recalled the story of how their son Josh revealed to them that he was gay. An hour before Josh was to get on a flight with his family and leave for college he called Neil and Gail into his bedroom. As they sat down on his bed Josh handed them a letter. Neil recalls that Josh sat down in the rocking chair where Neil and Gail spent countless nights comforting his cries and rocking him to sleep. The letter started out by thanking them for being wonderful parents and great role models- Neil recalls thinking at this point that Josh was going to ask for money or a private dorm room. He thanked them for the chance to go away to school and all they had done in his first 18 years. The letter ended with ‘Mom and Dad, I’m Gay.’

Neil wrote the story down and here is how he describes what happened next:

I looked up to see my son sitting in that rocking chair crying. Tears rolling down his face but little sound being made. Gail sat on the edge of the bed a bit stunned. I looked at my son, and in the most fatherly voice I could muster told him to stand up. He did and I hugged him and told him I loved him. His crying got louder, but he held on to me. Gail soon joined us.

When Neil told me that story ten years ago I remember thinking ‘how did Neil do it? There were so many questions a parent could ask- How do you know you’re gay? What makes you so sure? How will I tell your grandparents? Will you be able to have a family? Does that mean we are never going to make a wedding for you?

Neil was confronted with something he knew nothing about from personal experience, something that was foreign and unimaginable to his own nature, something that upended categories he had been raised to rely upon, and somehow he was able to reach across a gulf of difference and hug his son.

And this is the question that haunted me–What would I have done? Would I have the strength in that moment to love my son, my daughter, the way Neil loved his child? If put in the same situation, hearing the same thing would I have stayed seated. Would my child in a brave moment of honesty have had to sit through me trying to make sense of them?

I prayed that I was strong enough to react the way Neil did. The fact that I didn’t know plagued me. Eventually I would come to the textual questions, the philosophical questions–but the animating question was If my child was different, would I still love him? And if I could not accept her would it matter that I loved her?

The question goes to the very heart of what it means to love anyone. Do we love those things most easily that enable us to love ourselves as we are? Is it easiest to love those people who reflect our characteristics, our choices and our identity. Is it harder to love things that challenge us, are foreign to us, don’t immediately make sense to us? Or is it not a binary- yes or no proposition but a question of depth? Is it possible that loving the thing that challenges us, changes us, inspires us to grow is the deepest kind of love?

In his book “Far from the tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” Andrew Solomon concludes that we have vertical identities and horizontal identities. The vertical identities are the ones we share in common with our parents. They include being a Catholic, a hispanic, Jewish, American, Arabic speaking, blue eyed. For example, as my siblings and I had children, my mother would say “oh that’s a Brusso face”- she became expert at bending the vertical identities to her side of the family. In fairness that trait was a vertical one she inherited from her mother who would say “oh he’s a Saitlin” about her Brusso grandson. It is natural that we would seek to find commonality and similarity in that which we love.

And then Solomon says that there are horizontal identities, things we do not have in common with our parents, but share with a peer group- they sometimes include physical disabilities or differences of identity. Even though certain vertical identities like race were not always accepted, and have required civil rights movements–at least these children have had parents who could share their situation, horizontal identities tend to create distance between parent and child and have been historically looked at as something that requires a cure. People with horizontal identities have had to look to others like them in order to understand who they are.

Andrew Solomon who is gay experienced the limitations of vertical identities one day while in a store with his mother and brother. He writes:

…as we were leaving, the salesman asked what color balloons we’d like. My brother wanted a red balloon. I wanted a pink one. My  mother countered that I didn’t want a pink balloon and reminded me  that my favorite color was blue. I said I really wanted the pink, but  under her glare I took the blue one. That my favorite color is blue but  I am still gay is evidence of both my mother’s influence and its limits.

Solomon tells the story of Walter Roth who was born deaf into a hearing family. Walter’s mother was so ashamed of him that she gave him to his grandmother to be raised. Walter grew up and married Rose a woman who was also deaf. When they discovered that their own children were deaf they cried. Walter’s mother preferred his sibling’s hearing children and celebrated their simchas while marginalizing Walter and his family. Walter’s daughter Jackie related that when Walter’s mother was very ill late in life she was given powerful antibiotics to combat an infection. The medication destroyed her auditory nerves. Jackie remembers her father coming home from the hospital and shouting “Mom deaf. Mom deaf!” Walter went everyday to the hospital to help her. As it turns out she shunned his help and wanted nothing of his advice or insight. Jackie explained that he wanted to earn her love, but she was not interested in being included in a horizontal identity she never understood, found shameful and even though she was technically now a member, did not want to be a part of.

Rory Osbrink had the opposite experience. After losing his hearing to a bout of meningitis at the age of three, Rory’s father Bob became a fierce activist for his son. He heard about cochlear implant technology which approximates the experience of hearing and they decided to try it with Rory. Rory gained the ability to hear about 90 percent of what was being said and he also became adept at reading lips. But not being completely deaf and not completely hearing, Rory felt like he didn’t really belong anywhere. After meeting a fifth generation deaf woman- he turned off the implant and never used it again. He decided to live completely within deaf culture where signing, much like Yiddish unites a sub-group with particularistic references and humor. He teaches 5th and 6th grade deaf children and coaches deaf sports teams. He has found a community for his horizontal identity.

Rory’s dad Bob says about his attempts to help his son:

The things that hurt me are things I missed, like not knowing when he acted like !he got it when he wasn’t getting it. Laughing when  everybody laughed but not knowing what the joke was. I’m sad that  he had to go through everything he’s had to go through. A part of  me will always be sad. But I don’t think he’s sad, and I’m certainly not sad about who he is.

Bob thought that loving his son was helping him to be hearing, in the end, loving his son was accepting that he was deaf.

The bio-ethicist Teresa Blankmeyer Burke said “It is rare that one grieves for something that one has not lost.” She uses the example of how a woman might wonder what it would be like to be a man and vice versa but that is not the same thing as feeling a sense of loss about it.

When it comes to horizontal identities many of us experience blind spots. We project from our own known vertical identities and assume what’s best. We think of course the deaf would want to hear, of course a gay person would want to be straight and in the case of the journalist George Will’s son Jon, of course someone with downs syndrome would rather be like most people.George Will has written movingly and with great pride about his son Jon who was born with down’s syndrome. When the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or ACOG recommended genetic screening for women under the age of 35 for, among other things, downs syndrome Will wrote a column where he asked “What did Jon will and 350,000 American citizens like him do to tick off the ACOG? Since there is no way to cure downs, Will termed this screening a ‘search and destroy’ mission. Will recalls that this attitude of presumption about his son was in evidence early on–he writes:

On the second day of Jon’s life, the hospital’s geneticist asked his parents if they intended to take him home. Nonplused, they  answered that taking a baby home seemed like the thing to do.

Will wonders whether we project too much about what it means to be happy in life. He notes that Jon has disabilities and what people would term deficits- but deficit, of course is in the eye of the beholder. Will writes that many of us search after more and more in life and experience disappointment, sadness and jealousy, Jon however, with an underdeveloped entitlement mentality, has been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity.

As a fan of the Washington DC sports teams and frequenter of games Will says about his son:

Jon experiences life’s three elemental enjoyments–loving, being  loved, and ESPN. For Jon, as for most normal American males, the rest of life is details.

Will gives voice to populations of people born with horizontal identities. Their desire to be seen and understood. Their desire not be fixed, but loved.

And that is why I think that one of the most radical and mysterious mitzvot in the entire Torah is v’ahavta l’re’echa ka’mocha–Love your neighbor as yourself. Found elsewhere the Torah also teaches v’ahavtem et ha ger – Love the stranger, the foreigner.

What does it mean to love a stranger?

The 12th century rabbi Maimonides takes a Lockian/Rouseauian social contract perspective and says that we should be as mindful of other people’s property as our own.

The 16th century commentator Seforno thinks its about sympathy. He comments that if another is ill we should pray for his welfare in the same way we would hope others would do for us.

The 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra thinks its about what we all have in common–that we were each made in the image of God. When we see difference, we should remember what we have in common.

Social contract, sympathy, commonality.

I think these are all important, but I don’t think they get at how radical this mitzvah actually is.

Jim Sinclair may help us understand better. Sinclair, who is autistic, wrote a powerful essay called “Don’t Mourn for Us” in which he tries to distinguish between how other people see his autism and how he sees himself. He writes:

When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child ! instead.’ Read that again (Sinclair says) This is what I hear ! when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear !when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you !tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

Sinclair gets at the radical nature of the mitzvah of loving a stranger and how hard it is.

To love something that is different is to sacrifice. It is to give up the way we have come to construct our understanding of the world. It is to give up our centrality. It is a move of great humility. It is to acknowledge that love is sometimes larger than our hearts and as the midrash teaches–sometimes we have to build a heart of many rooms.

It is not easy, in fact it takes great bravery.

I have so often been in awe of parents whose children have horizontal identities. These children are like strangers delivered into families who reconstruct expectations, refashion dreams and exchange imagined love for real love.

But this real love is so very powerful. As Andrew Solomon says:

If some glorious angel descended into my living room and !offered to exchange my children for other, better children–brighter, kinder, funnier, more loving, more disciplined, ! more accomplished–I would clutch the ones I have and, like most parents, pray away the atrocious specter.

The only part I disagree with Solomon about is ‘more disciplined’–I’m not saying I would do it, but I would at least hear out the offer.

The truth is our children are never what we thought we would love but what we have grown to love.

And this is precisely what the mitzvah of loving the stranger is about. Its about that moment when difference is overcome by love. There was the moment when Bob Osbrink saw his son Rory thriving in a silent world that for Bob was unthinkable but for Rory was filled with meaning. It was then that Bob saw and loved his son. There was the moment that George Will saw his son Jon rooting for the Washington Nationals without a care in the world about personal achievement or advancement and it was then that George saw and loved his son. There was the moment that Neil heard his son identify with a way of being that was so foreign to him. And he looked at this stranger, told him to stand and hugged his son.

Solomon quotes one parent who says, “It would be nice to have a child who is the same as us. I want to be the same as my child. I want the baby to enjoy what we enjoy.”

Its not a radical statement until you realize that that quote is from two Deaf parents.

The deepest kind of love is the kind that enlarges our heart. The kind that makes us grow.

What would it mean for us to apply that theory to our entire life. That thing that is different. That person I don’t understand. That way of being that is foreign. There in that thing, in that person, in that way lie the seeds of my soul’s growth.

Of course if my brother, sister or I were ever to go through a soul expanding experience of loving and accepting something that challenged our categories and presumptions, my grandmother would have said proudly “where do you think they get it from?”