The Genesis:3 Project
Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor. Genesis 49:3
My friend Rachel Laser spent some years as Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. When she told me she was leaving that position to devote some of her considerable energies to talking about privilege among Jews, I remember my head cocking and my eye squinting as I tried to come up with a response. What came out of my mouth, at least initially, was the same kind of noise I often hear when someone discovers that I am a rabbi. “Hmmm!”
Privilege has been in the news, part of the zeitgeist, the subject of contrition by some and scorn by others. I got the concept right away, if for no other reason that the types of conversations I have learned that people of color have with their children were never part of my upbringing. Yes, we got the talks about prejudice and Nazis, but the kind of anti-semitism I experienced most of my life was primarily inconvenient and laughable. A good scrubbing takes most paint and markers off any wall. (I did, however, manage genuine shock and outrage.) Understanding, however, is only intellectual.
Much more recently, I wound up teaching myself an inadvertent lesson. Speaking on a panel about Jews in America for a leadership cohort of Asian-Americans, I answered a question about how Asians could begin to replicate the success of Jews in politics and policy deliberation. I replied that Jews have two advantages over Asians.
The first is that we have a signature issue. While we are concerned about many things, when a non-Jewish public figure hears “Jews” the next thought is “Israel.” Not every Jew has Israel front and center, and even among those who do, there is a gamut of interests in the subject. But “owning” an issue helps to define us as a constituency. Asians are so diverse in their countries and cultures of origin, their religions and their political concerns that they are rarely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a voting bloc.
The second is that we can pass as white. Maybe we are white, at least culturally, but what most people mean by “white” is not merely Caucasian. We have more in common, slogans aside, with Black Lives Matter than with white supremacists, but even in my Jew-fro days, nobody mistook me for African American.
And here I stumble on the Biblical verse in question simply by the accident of choosing to comment on the third verse of each chapter of Genesis. I never took it out of its context, the long recitation of blessings Jacob offers to his sons. Standing alone, however, it speaks to me differently, especially as a first-born son myself.
If you are not the first-born in your family, you know the impact of this deeply-ingrained preference in our families. I don’t believe that a first-born is better-loved, but a first-born is differently loved. For parents, the very first indications of success at any stage of life is how that first child is doing. I am aware that every practical lesson I learned as a father has been taught to me by my eldest – and that our younger children benefited from the mistakes she endured. I have also felt the expectations of achievement and responsibility placed on my own life, and the conviction that my younger siblings got off easier because of them.
None of it is earned or deserved. It is a function of what today we call privilege. Its origins are in incidental but deeply ingrained “blessings” that are canonized in our sacred literature.
When we are struggling with the notions of privilege, which so often feel like an accusation, it is helpful to have a point of reference. Not everyone will absorb the importance of the advantages that having lighter skin or presumed benefits or justified faith in rights and protections. For most people of privilege, that’s what we call “normal.” But everyone is or isn’t a first-born and is conscious of the differences – without presumed prejudice – that the accident of position bestows on that child from birth to, well, to always.
To deny it is to lose an opportunity to balance the scales at least a little bit. The first-born needs to step back a little to make for peaceful relationships.
But if denial is missed opportunity, pretending it is meaningful in this day and age is cruel and ignorant. And that’s why this point of reference is so important. White people know privilege in American society, and in that regard, most Jews are white. If we are exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor, it must be earned, not presumed, and not at the expense of those whose circumstances of birth put them inherently behind.