Throughout much of their history, Jews have intoned a prayer thanking God “for not making us like all the other people.” Elsewhere, the liturgy refers to “being chosen from among all others”. Taken literally, both seem to claim superiority — special, better. But there are alternative and usually preferred interpretations. "Not like all the other people” sets the behavior goal post high; “being chosen” means taking on the burden of special responsibilities. In a sense, these are not as much statements of who any of us are, but rather who we can (and should) be.
Lest you think these concepts are unique to one religious group or people, consider the American equivalent: exceptionalism. Unlike the more expansive interpretation given in the religious context, many of those who invoke American exceptionalism today do claim that we’re something special — the greatest country on the face of the earth. So to them, denying exceptionalism is to disrespect the nation, to be un-American. But those of us who are uncomfortable with the exceptionalism boast don’t deny specialness. It’s only that we see it as a goal, something to be achieved, not a pre-ordained gift. America is a work-in-progress with great opportunity to "perfect" our union.
The ideas embodied in those ancient Jewish prayers and in our American invocation of exceptionalism sow the seeds of utopian aspiration providing fertile ground for flourishing myth. That spirit undoubtedly captured the Founders’ imagination in 1776 and equally those who gave birth to the State of Israel 174 years later. The only problem is that, claims and aspirations aside, we are still just human beings. Sure we have enormous potential, but nothing comes to us without both intention and work.
I was reminded of that stark reality verses ideal and myth in reading that a bunch of Israeli teenage hooligans had been arrested in connection with the mob beating of Palestinians. All this happened in the holy city of Jerusalem. The report suggests an ugly hate crime. For sure, most Israelis were appalled, just as are we when such things happen in the US. But it did happen and so it’s fair to ask, are any of us different than “all the other people”? The answer is obvious. It’s not who we inherently are but who we can be. Often, as in the case of these teenagers, we make a muck of it. So it takes hard work.
As to exceptionalism, word from Georgia of all things brought me that reality check. Two American women — Condi Rice and Darla Moore — were admitted as members to the famous Augusta National Golf Club. Now people have been talking about this place’s discriminatory policies for years. When I was a kid citizens were outraged that Dwight Eisenhower played golf there despite the club's longstanding discrimination against blacks (only admitted in 1990) and, until now, against women. Yes, “there remains a long way to go baby”! Think of it, 2012 and allowing a woman to join a golf club is still page one news. Shame on us — exceptionalism falls short.
And of course the state of women in this exceptional country also raised its ugly head with the ignorant musings of the Republican pretender to the Missouri senate seat. As happens, it’s a seat held by Claire McCaskill, one of the still small minority of women in that august body. And the exceptional state of women also came through loud and clear in the proposed Republican platform’s Medieval plank on abortion. You can put all the women you want on the stage of a convention hall and it goes to naught if the goods you’re delivering make a mock of them. Myth, albeit embodied in clever catchy slogans, is nonetheless myth — a sham and a shame.
I’ve never believed that any of us were different from all others, that any of us are chosen or that by nature or right that we’re exceptional. I do think, even if we fall somewhat short, these are goals worth keeping in mind. We still have a long way to go to meet them.
Stay tuned — it’s called Transcenders and it will be coming soon.