"Village of the Soul: The Life of a Jewish Community" By Brad Benson
To a great extent, each one of us is the product of the sum of our various
experiences. This is only natural; as we face new experiences, we need to fall back on
memories we have of similar incidents that could help guide us toward successful
responses to new problems. If we learn properly, we take the lessons of all of our past
experiences into each new encounter. In this way, we attempt to navigate our way
through life’s obstacles. However, this process can be easily distorted. Such distortion occurs when a
person judges someone he meets not as an individual but only as a member of a group.
People certainly do have experiences as part of groups and different groups do have their
own histories, but no individual’s identity can rightly reduced to his incidental group
membership. From such judgments spring prejudice, bigotry, and other historical
hatreds. People can only avoid perpetuating such ills by ensuring that they do not
confuse a person with a paradigm. The best way to avoid this temptation is through selfeducation
about the histories of different groups, as well as by the cultivation of a sense
of empathy for the experiences of individuals.
The experiences of groups can be said to constitute genres of experience. Such
genres intertwine with the experiences of group members in ways unique to each
individual and evince themselves in almost every form of human endeavor. To take a
simple example; motherhood is an experiential genre in that billions of women have been
mothers, and they all have certain experiences in common, such as the act of childbirth
and the raising of children. However, no one mother faces exactly the same challenges in
exactly the same way that any other mother does. Two mothers can compare notes, but
each of them will interpret those notes according to what she has learned and experienced
in her own life.
Similarly, a person’s livelihood can fit the same pattern. Any farmer, physician,
or janitor has concerns that he would be likely to have in common with all others in his
vocation. However, each individual farmer, physician, or janitor faces challenges unique
to their own unique circumstances. This idea of the experiential genre repeats itself in
ways both large and small throughout people’s lives.
However, some genres of experience are innate and immutable. Unlike such
aspects of life as a career, which one can choose, immutable genres shadow lives from
cradle to grave. Probably the most influential of those permanent, unselected genres is
that of race and ethnicity. One cannot change the place where one was born, or the color
of one’s skin. However, “race” as it is generally defined in our society, is actually a false
genre; it has no intrinsic societal meaning other than as a method for dividing and
persecuting people. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together ought to be able to
realize this fact. Unfortunately, we have to deal in our society with the fact that this truth
has historically been brutally ignored.