11.28.2016 No Comments

Hillel’s Paradox

“If I am not for myself,” wrote the ancient Jewish Rabbi, Hillel, “who then will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what then am I?”

In Hillel’s ancient question lies the political paradox of our time. This is one of the lessons of the recent election. The drive of the political left, the Democrats, has been, let’s be for more than ourselves alone. Let us not be for just ourselves, but let us welcome the stranger, the Syrian immigrant, the Hispanic immigrant. Let us watch out for the downtrodden and people who have been ignored by the system. Let us open our borders to refugees and people from countries having a civil war and who are starving. Let us open our arms to people who we wounded generations ago, the Native Americans, the African Americans we enslaved two centuries ago, and more.

Even the idea of political correctness, which earned such vitriol from our conservative, Republican, countrymen and women, is a way to express that we should protect the feelings of others, and not be for ourselves alone. All these drives and impulses are driven by the effort to not be for ourselves alone but to open up our arms and minds for a broader and broader swath of humanity. What drives the left, drives the democrats, is a beautiful and noble impulse. And I celebrate it.

It has helped us create a multicultural, open minded and and multicolored society, which has brought an enormous strength and dynamism to our civilization, cities and nation.

But in this urge the left and the Democratic Party have largely ignored the other side of the paradox. Who then will be for me? Who will be for the people of the farms and in the small town? Who will be for those of us that who have been in this country for generations?

If a culture opens its arms to “the other” endlessly, it is in danger of losing what has made it what it is. It is in danger of sacrificing something of the culture and the people that have made it so. American culture, vague though it may be, may be damaged if not lost if we open our arms endlessly. We need to protect the us that we have been, even as we open our arms to each other. The election has shown that that there is a limit to the endless stretching out of our welcome mat. Open borders have a cost. Welcoming, welcoming, welcoming has a cost, both in treasure and in time. As we think about welcoming we need also to think about revivifying the lives of people that have been here for generations.
This is not to say that I believe that the right answer is putting up some wall or closing our borders. Trade wars will not recover the jobs lost in Michigan or in Ohio to computers and robots in factories. It is a mistake to think that immigration has caused the problems in areas when the real issue is technology. But it is not a mistake to think that endless international trade and immigration will not have an effect on the folks in the rust belt who have lost jobs. Democrats need to communicate that they care about folks who have been here as well as folks who are just coming into their power. The new Democratic party needs to show that they are for all of us, care about people who have been working hard, paying their taxes, living decent lives and struggling. Democrats need to show that they, we, are for all the folks who make up this amazing country, even as we think about being not for ourselves alone. We need to protect and be for all our people, and for our culture, whatever and indefinable as it is. We need to stand for American values, and protect them, as well as protect the newcomer.

The so-called “values” voters focus on sexual behavior, which is a very narrow way to think about American values. But they are not wrong to think that there are values of our culture that we need to respect and to cherish. My Republican friends name values like hard work and keeping your word. If we tell ourselves the real truth, these values may be challenged when people look to a “Welfare State” for their assurance. The values of honesty, hard work and keeping your word have been challenged too much. There are other values that have made this country great besides “Be for the other.”
The election was a wake up call that we have gone as a nation and a body politic toward one side of Hillel’s paradox. We need to attend to both. We need to be for us, for the feelings and needs of those who have been here and struggled to live up to the values of our beloved culture.And we also need to attend to the feelings and needs of the downtrodden, of the stranger, of the immigrant… of the other. And Democrats need a vision that includes both sides of Hillel’s Paradox.


Robert K.C. Forman, Ph.D. is a retired Associate Professor of comparative religions at the City University of New York, Executive Director of The Forge Institute for Spirituality and Social Change, and author of 11 books, the most recent being Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be. He is currently serving as a hospital chaplain.


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