Tal Fortgang, a white, Jewish, Princeton freshman has written an essay, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” which has caused quite a stir.
He was objecting to “Check your privilege” as a reprimand: As a white male, he is where he is because he was born into privileges that do not apply to others. What Tal was objecting to was using “check your privilege” as a way “to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them.”
Tal objected to the idea that none of his achievements could be considered his own; they were just a function of his privileged position in a very unequal society. He doesn’t know what it feels like to be “judged by his race,” one person said, while others also talked of a sexist society that favors males. But Tal then went on to show how his Holocaust-survivor grandparents and his hard-working father had undergone heroic hardships and struggles.
His real privileges, he states, were the opportunities that America gave his family to flourish. “It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.” So too, “I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. My grandparents played an active role in my parents’ education, and some of my earliest memories included learning the Hebrew alphabet with my Dad.” “It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates “privilege.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.” He ends by saying, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”
In response, a student wrote in the Columbia Spectator that “We are not all born with the same opportunities to succeed—and that is not a conspiracy.” Michael Kaplan, in The Forward, goes further, taking a swipe at Tal’s heroic grandparents. They were able to come to the States to begin with, he writes, because they were whites. Andrew Apostolou responded in the Times of Israel that some of these “privileged” Jewish refugees had barely a 1% chance of survival during the war and that it was little better afterwards.
See here how the argument goes back and forth: “You are privileged.” “No, I am not.” “Yes you are.” “No, he is not.”
This argument is irrelevant, because it is wrong. It presumes that Tal’s arguments stand or fall on how hard he or his ancestors had to struggle to “make it”, as defined by the Western World, whether they somehow earned their privilege.
The Jewish perspective is that this world is a very unfair place, if the yardstick is equality. One person is born tall and another short; one is born rich and another poor; one has a beautiful, loving family and the other grew up with abuse and conflict. Some people seem to have it all, while others seem to have everything against them. God gave each person a package about which he or she had no choice. No doubt, it is better to have been born in America than the Soviet Union as far as rights, and wealth, and opportunity, and freedom are concerned. And it is better to be born with a calm disposition than an anxious one. And yes, it is better to be born white in the USA than black.
If God cares equally about the wellbeing of all humans, why did He do such a thing? Why did He create all the unfairness?
God created an incomplete world and gave it over to man. Man has to become God’s partner in completing the world. This is the real meaning of Tikun Olam – of correcting the world. Each person is given a small, unique part of this Tikun/correction. Each person should leave this world knowing that, because of him or her, the world is a little better than when he or she was born. In order for the world to reach completion, everyone has to make his or her contribution. We all need each other in a very fundamental way and that is a real, inherent equality, the only one we all really have.
The Tikun Olam is made up of two things. Everyone has a unique Tikun HaPrati (literally, a private Tikun) as well as a part of the Tikun HaKlali (lit., the general Tikun). The Tikun Haprati is made of the perfection of self, the development of character, sensitivity, kindness, wisdom, and other noble traits. It has to do with deepening our spirituality and getting close to God. The Tikun HaKlali is made up of the perfection of the environment – broadly defined – that each person comes into contact with. The Tikun Haprati is all about the perfection of our internal environments.
What matters to God is that each one of us fulfills our potential by contributing to our part of the Tikun. In that sense, we are unique individuals and yet part of the communal vision all in one. God gives each person the perfect set of tools – personal and environmental – for his or her Tikun tasks, and these tasks include helping anyone else we can in any way. As we grow, He keeps on changing those challenges, so that at any stage we have exactly what we need to fulfill our potential needs, no more and no less. What matters to God is the amount of Tikun we contribute and that is a function of the difference between our starting and end points, not any objective level, not any comparative level and not any privilege or lack thereof.
Let’s take an example.
Imagine that there are two people, Sammy South and David North. David is born “privileged”. He comes from a good, stable, upper-class family. He is intelligent, handsome, healthy, and naturally charismatic. He gets the best education. His family is full of good, spiritual values, and high ethical standards.
Sammy is the opposite. He grows up in a broken and impoverished home. He has a low IQ, is fat and pimply. He is sickly, nervous and withdrawn. He wasn’t taught many good values by his parents or his environment. His life is a constant struggle.
Let’s create an imaginary scale of privilege-based spiritual success from one to twenty. Let’s say that David is born on level 12 and Sammy on level 2.
Now, during their respective lifetimes, David grows and Sammy grows. Each one works on his character, wisdom and spirituality. By the end of his life, David is on level 16, a famous, wise and holy rabbi, while Sammy makes it to level 10, a back-row member of David’s community. Sammy didn’t even reach the level that David was born with. Yet Sammy moved through eight points on the scale (from two to ten), while David only moved through four (from twelve to sixteen). In man’s eyes, David is the one we look up to. He goes to the best colleges, goes to an elite yeshiva and becomes the rabbi. He seems to have character and refinement. Sammy, on the other hand finds himself a job doing manual labor, and struggles to keep his life together. But in God’s eyes, Sammy is the man. He is clearly greater, because he achieved more with his life. He created a greater Tikun in this world.
Think about it. If God is infinite, how do we ever get close to Him? We can move a million spiritual miles and He will still be an infinity away. We get close to God not by trying to overcome infinity, but rather by the momentum of spirituality we generate, the amount of points we move on our imaginary scale.
In a society that tells me that what is important is what college I got into, what profession I have and whether I made it to the suburbs, David has an unfair advantage. In God’s world, where what matters is how much spiritual growth you achieved in your life, David and Sammy start out exactly equal. David will have the same amount of challenges to grow at his level as Sammy will at his. They will have a completely different range of choices, but the amount of choices they get to make is exactly the same. God will know who is greater. Man can never tell.
The truth be told, most of who and what we are we didn’t choose. We didn’t choose who our parents are, what country we were born in and what our first language was. We didn’t choose our natural endowments, nor our initial environment and education. We all only have a certain range of choices and that range is imposed upon us. But it is exactly within that range that we are made or unmade. There lies our essential humanness.
In a world where this earth is all there is, he who is more successful financially, has better connections, and lives in a better country is ahead of the game. But, in a world where we are but in the first of two environments, he who engages his life’s struggles – whatever they might be – is the hero. We go to a meeting with a big shot CEO. We are received by her assistant, whom we barely acknowledge. We take it for granted that the CEO is the important one, the assistant a tea-server at best. But, there is a fifty percent chance that we are gloriously wrong. We can never know.
At first, Tal began to feel his way in the right direction, but it was unfortunate that he thought to use an intergenerational suffering-index to try and explain it.
Tal got one more thing right. The actions of our ancestors are building blocks on which we can stand and grow.
Animals never recognize their ancestors. Many never recognize their fathers. Some recognize their mothers only during the short period of their dependency. None recognize their grandparents. Animals are always starting from scratch. Each generation starts all over. This is why all those intelligent animals still haven’t come up with the wheel, let alone the iPhone. There can never be an animal civilization in the true sense, because there is no continuity.
Judaism has a word for continuity. We call it “Yichus”. Yichus comes from the word Yachas, a relationship (between things or people). Yichus is the ability for the generations to have Yachas – for grandparents to be connected to their grandchildren. Man recognizes his grandparents and inherits their achievements. Hence, human – uniquely so – can build civilization. It is a privilege indeed to have grandparents who left us great legacies. But what we do with that is up to us.
If “check your privilege” means to appreciate what we uniquely have, then I am all for it. The Jewish word is “hakarat ha’tov” – literally “recognition of the good”. This is a much broader principle than gratitude for privilege. Recognizing and appreciating one’s privilege inherently compares me to my neighbor. But, it should be clear from what I said above that we are competing only against ourselves. The right perspective is to have “hakarat hatov” – I recognize all the good that I have: I can breathe, my parents took care of me, the flowers are out, my heart is pumping, it is a lovely day – all the things that energize me, whether they are unique or not.
My privilege is that God took the trouble to design a unique world for me – my world. As the Sages say, “Every person is obligated to say: The World was created for me”. My privilege is that I get to be obligated in that world – because obligations mean that God cares for me. He is demanding that I fulfill my potential, my Tikun Prati and my part of the Tikun HaKlali. And yes, my privilege is that I have my connection to my ancestors, whoever they might be, because it is on their foundations that I am able to build.