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Shoftim 5781: Stereotyping: Evil or Necessary?

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! Usually when I write a column and send it off into the ether I wonder what readers will think of it. I often don’t have to wonder for very long; I am blessed with a very opinionated audience who, for the most part, provide positive feedback. I am also grateful for the critical feedback – even if they are wrong.

Of course, I also get my fair share of correspondence from conspiracy theory aficionados, and these days the issue du jour seems to revolve around the COVID vaccinations and vaccinations in general. I receive eye opening theories like, “Don’t take the COVID vaccinations because they are 99% graphene oxide, which is toxic and magnetic and can be activated by radio frequency waves.”

Or, “The entire pandemic is just a collusion of the medical and university industries to defraud the US government through direct marketing of the vaccinations.”

It's truly remarkable what people will come to believe. I generally ask these helpful readers to stop sending me their fanciful delusions and sometimes they even listen. Occasionally, I consider spending the time explaining to them why what they’re claiming is extremely far-fetched, if not outright impossible. But then I am reminded of the line I once heard from an exasperated teacher: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

However, I also receive relevant comments. Last week I wrote about the uniqueness of the American people in terms of their generosity when it came to giving gratuities. One reader responded with the following: “Do not stereotype people as in all Americans are, do, act like, tip, etc. This is not only incorrect it is wrong to stereotype anyone. This is the same thinking that causes antisemitism. The kettle calling out the pot. Stereotyping hurts all.”

Leaving for a moment the point of whether or not my stereotyping of the American people was right or wrong (though statistics say I am right), is it truly wrong to stereotype? As controversial as it may sound to the recently enlightened and “woke” psyche that seems to be in fashion, I really don’t think so.

It’s true that stereotypes have a bad reputation, and for good reasons. Decades of research have shown that stereotypes can facilitate intergroup hostility and give rise to toxic prejudices around sex, race, age, and multiple other social distinctions. Stereotypes are often used to justify injustice and discrimination, validate oppression, and rationalize violence. Jews know this fact as well as anyone.

One of the earliest lessons we learn from our parents and teachers is to be nice to others and not to judge a book by its cover. To promote the former, we are taught that if we cannot say anything nice, then we should not say anything at all. To promote the latter, we are actively discouraged from evaluating or even acknowledging others based on any prominent physical marker of social or cultural identity. We thus pretend that everyone is the same. This anti-stereotyping message is reinforced throughout all levels of education and has fostered an intolerance of intolerance.

Even positive stereotyping can foster resentment. Imagine going over to someone and saying, “You’re Asian – you must be good at math.” Stereotypes tend to lump an individual into a group. So when you find a stereotype applied to you, it removes some of your individuality. It can be frustrating to realize that someone views you solely as a member of a group and not as an individual. Furthermore, when someone uses a positive stereotype to judge you it is reasonable to assume that it is only a matter of time until they apply negative stereotypes as well.

However, we must also accept that while stereotypes are often harmful it does not mean that they are always inaccurate or that we should refrain from acting upon them.

In fact, stereotyping is a necessary part of life. Every day we are presented with an overwhelming amount of data to absorb. We must quickly process this data to make decisions and lead normal, productive lives. We need to make instant judgement calls and those judgments are very often going to be based on stereotypes.

For example, if you were lost, you wouldn’t approach a toddler to ask for directions. If you needed help unloading your piano from a moving truck you wouldn’t ask a 91 year old man to assist you. In both of those cases you are utilizing stereotypes.

As a society, we stereotype 13 year olds as incapable of driving and 16 year olds as possibly competent. Society has further determined that one needs to be 18 to make responsible independent decisions and that an 18 year old can also discern whether someone is worthy of being voted into office. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to alcohol a person cannot be trusted until they’re 21. These are all stereotypes.

Of course, there are 25 year olds who should not be trusted with alcohol and there are some 12 year olds who are fully capable of driving responsibly. But to have a functioning society we must have certain agreed upon stereotypes in place in order to operate efficiently.

In our personal lives these types of judgments are really a system of heuristics that allow us to efficiently absorb and process the overwhelming data with which we are presented. Unfortunately, as Daniel Kahneman points out in his well-known book Thinking, Fast and Slow, our minds are also riddled with biases and we ignore data we don’t see. We are also subject to confirmation bias – that is we tend to only see facts that are “evidence” in support of what we already believe to be true.

When we first meet someone, our brains condense all of the available information presented to form a picture of them; an identity we create before we even know the person. In fact, we all use this inherent tendency to stereotype to our advantage.

Identity is a construct of society, so we use societal stereotypes to place ourselves within the niche that we desire. We dress in a specific manner and associate with distinct segments of society specifically because we want to be lumped into a particular group and be perceived in a certain way.

To be sure, we all need to be aware that stereotyping, like most tools, is a double edged blade and we must be extremely careful. I believe that the first rule of stereotyping is that we mustn’t judge an individual member of a group as necessarily having the character traits believed to be inherent to that group. A few bad apples in law enforcement does not justify maligning all police officers or “defunding the police.”

In addition, stereotypical beliefs that are based on facts are often misunderstood. I recently met a builder who was constructing homes in a Jewish neighborhood and wanted his product to appeal to the Jewish community. Not having any professional experience with this demographic he asked me for some insight. I mentioned that, in general, Jews are going to be careful how they spend their money and that the product needs to reflect a certain quality.

He immediately asked, “So, the stereotype is true?” I explained that no, the stereotype of Jews being cheap is actually not true. I pointed out that on the whole Jews are among the most charitable of ethnic groups, and that Jews don’t have any issue spending large sums of money – they just want to be sure that they are getting real value for their money. Maybe some would characterize that as Jews being cheap, but I think that’s a misnomer.

We must also recognize that economics, genes, education, and of course, divine providence all factor hugely in forging our identities. Mankind does not start life on an even platform. But modern society, for the most part, has enabled us to change our identities from birth and to develop, grow, and define who we are and who we become.

That being said, I still stand firm in my conviction that I am correct in stereotyping Americans as being most charitable. According to a ten year study by the Charities Aid Foundation, surveying 1.3 million people from 100 different countries, and using three criteria for determining generosity (helping a stranger, donating money, and volunteering time), the United States was ranked number one as most generous (interestingly enough, China ranked dead last.)

A final thought: Don’t live in the shadow of your stereotypes. Perceive the world around you with your own eyes. Make judgements based on your own experience and maybe make an effort to stereotype a little less. As this week's parsha says, “Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue so that you will live and possess the Land that the Almighty your God, gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Torah Portion of the Week

Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9

Topics in this week’s portion include: Judges and Justice, “Sacred Trees and Pillars,” Blemished Sacrifice, Penalties for Idolatry, The Supreme Court, The King, Levitical Priests, Priestly Portions, Special Service, Divination and Prophecy, Cities of Refuge, Murder, Preserving Boundaries, Conspiring Witnesses, Preparing for War, Taking Captives, Conducting a Siege, and the Case of the Unsolved Murder.

This week we have the famous admonition: “Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue so that you will live and possess the Land that the Almighty your God, gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Candle Lighting Times

I wish we could become better strangers.
William Shakespeare (As You Like It)

Dedicated in Loving Memory of

Miriam bas Sarah &
Herschel ben Rose

Who were lost in the Surfside building collapse
May their Neshamas have an Aliya!


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