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Different Strokes For Different Folks

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

The saying “different strokes for different folks” may be literally true.

A new biometric security system measures the pressure of keypad entries as well as the duration of pauses between strokes to identify the person making the entry. A thief using a stolen Personal Identification Number (PIN) may be thwarted when the cash machine sensor fails to recognize the number because the strokes are wrong.*

This new technology furnishes us with yet another example of the uniqueness of every person. Fingerprints have long testified to the fact that we are unique down to the tips of our fingers. But in recent years, a whole field called biometrics has flourished on the principle that human beings can be identified by the various shapes of the body. Physical biometrics include, fingerprint, face recognition, DNA, palm print, hand geometry and iris recognition. Another branch of study is called behavioral biometrics, which depends not on bodily shapes but on such behaviors as typing rhythm and voice patterns.

Face recognition, in the form of sketches and snapshots, is the oldest of the physical biometrics and remains standard. The Jewish Sages, though they lived centuries before Polaroid or the FBI artist sketching the Most Wanted, commented on the uniqueness of the human face: “Just as their faces are not the same, so too their opinions.”

Modern science has been busy refining the means to measure and identify different bodies. The Sages, on the other hand, were not occupied with identifying persons for criminological purposes. Their concern was rather the meaning of the observable outward uniqueness of people. What they wanted to know was: What does the outside tell us about the inside?

Their answer is that the inside is just as unique as the outside. Indeed, the Hebrew word for face, pnim, means inside. Because the face reveals the inner character of its bearer.

Furthermore, we are taught that just as you should not reject someone merely because his face is different from yours, so should you respect him even though his opinions differ. For both are the God-given configurations of flesh and bone, of thoughts and perspectives, not inherently better or worse than our own. Indeed, Judaism takes a positive attitude toward that uniqueness. More than just refraining from treading on the other because of his difference, we are enjoined to cultivate our own difference.

The idea is contained in the Torah commandment of teshuvah, or repentence. Teshuvah means literally return. In the context of conversation, it means returning an answer, a reply to a question. In the context of repentence, the dialogue is an inner one:

The question is: Who am I (that committed such sins)?

The answer is: I was driven to act that way because of my desires. But those desires do not constitute my essential self. They aren’t Me. I resolve now to return to my own unique self by renouncing those desires.**

Of course, every teshuva is different. Never are the circumstances of wrongdoing the same, never the level of regret, nor the emergence of the true self at the end of the process.

As the saying goes, Different strokes for different folks.

* The system has a way to go before it could be operational. So far, researchers have been able to identify subjects correctly 92.3% of the time, while the standard for biometric security is an error rate of less than 0.1 percent. “Cash Machine ‘Pressure Signature’ Could Thwart Thieves,” New Scientist, 17 February 2003.

** In Tehillim (Psalms 81), the desire to do evil within us is characterized as an “alien god,” not the essential self. This idea was adapted from Adam B’Yakar, Part II by Rav Shlomo Wolbe.

Permission to reprint from E-geress Online Torah Magazine.



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