Praised be You, YHVH, our god, king of the universe, who has not made me a gentile;
Praised be You, YHVH, our god, king of the universe, who has not made me a slave;
Praised be You, YHVH, our god, king of the universe, who has not made me a woman
These three lines are recited daily as part of the series of blessings found at the beginning of the traditional Jewish morning liturgy. They have also been extensively discussed. Scholars have long noted the similarity of this triad to a similar daily thanksgiving attributed to the Greek philosopher Thales. Over the past century liberal Jews have wrestled with, and in most cases abandoned, these three blessings; they are too at odds with modern sensibilities.
These three blessings are but a single, relatively insignificant reflection of the binary thinking of ancient rabbis, which in turn reflect much much wider cultural assumptions. You are a “this” or a “that.” A man or a woman. One of us or one of them. For the sectarians who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls, you (if a man) were a “son of light” or a “son of darkness.” No “sons of beige” lived at Qumran.
In a funny way, we have not progressed all that far from this way of binary thinking. In most of our thinking and our forms, people are male or female; white or “ethnic”; Democrat or Republican. Sometimes we allow for other boxes as well, but these are often found on the spectrum defined by two poles that we define as opposites.
There is an article in a recent New Yorker describing a thought experiment offered by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Parfit asks us to imagine if we were replaced, cell by cell, with those of Greta Garbo. At the beginning of the process, we are clearly us, and at the end we are clearly Greta Garbo. But what about the middle? Who are we?
Parfit’s thought experiment is itself based on a spectrum anchored by a binary pair. But it reopens an old philosophical problem of the “self,” creating an opportunity for imagining selves – us and others – much more fluidly.
Here is another thought experiment: what if we refused to classify others or even ourselves in terms of checkable identities? How would our self-understanding change? On the one hand, it is easy to subscribe to the idea that we should recognize people in all of their unique, idiosyncratic glory. On the other, go ahead and try it. It is not at all easy to conceive of ourselves, to articulate our identities, without using blunt, pre-supplied categories.
Language thus becomes an agent of constraint, creating and limiting the very terms of our self, and different languages offer different limitations and opportunities for self-understanding. Am I the same in all languages? If not, who am I?