Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How To Love Every Jew

Reb Nathan asked me a good question, and I'd like to try to answer it if I can.


How does one learn to love every Jew? In what magical way can we transcend boundaries and labels in order to make that happen, loving people for what they are and not for their affiliation? How can we look to see the person rather than the trappings; how can we see further than the symbols that immediately occur to us?

I think the answer is to consider what it is we love in people to begin with. I believe that we love sincerity, authenticity, what is genuine and true in a person. We love whatever it is in them that leads them to practice in accordance to their ideals, to seek and to search out the truth, no matter where it may lead them. We love their honesty, their passion, the fact that they have risked everything as far as that is concerned. And so, in order to love every Jew, ideally, we must meet a Jew of each sect who embodies this passion, this idealism, this search for the self and for God. We must meet Jews who are pained, anguished by their choices, but who could not choose differently. And it is at this point that we learn to love every Jew, because we have learned to appreciate in them something beautiful, and through that, we have learned to understand them.

I have been privileged to meet Jews of the main divisions who fulfill this every criteria. One of my best friends is a Reform Jew, and he humbles me in his dedication and desire for the Land of Israel, and the pride that he takes in his Jewish identity. He has many times told me of the pride he feels in being a Member of the Tribe, and every time that I am with him I can see it in his face, the joy and the grandeur that it is for him to be Jewish. And so, from him I learn the importance of pride in my people, my destiny and my heritage. From him more than anyone else do I see it displayed. I see his concern for his fellow Reform Jews who have no or little respect for their heritage, having survived their Hebrew School Education, they have forgotten the meaning of the word. And I see, too, how it flames in his face. To me he is the epitome of the words that Rav Kook are supposed to have said, "The holy feet that kick the holy ball," when speaking of Jews who play soccer on Sabbath. It is my firm belief that people such as my friend serve God as well, in their own way, to the best of their ability. The fact that he has determined to live in Israel if possible, that the land inflames him with passion and brings him joy, that no dark clouds can settle upon him in the "land of milk and honey," that in every way he identifies with Jewish culture and with every Jew who is important to him- whether it be poet or musician- all this to me demonstrates his sincerity and his love. And thus it is easy to love him, and by extension to love all Reform Jews. Because there is also the question of taking into account the opportunities offered these people. One cannot blame someone who is Reform for the redactions made by those who are their leaders. They were born into Reform Judaism, and like most people, they remain where they were situated. With the knowledge that they have and the ideals that have been cultivated in them, some will shine and some will live their normal lives, but each person has the ability to be sincere in his own fashion, and I have met one who is sincere.

My cousins are Conservative. My Scarsdale cousins, of whom I have written so often, are Conservative, and beautifully so. They are absolutely beautiful people, with a relationship to people which astonishes and moves me. They are always willing to help me, and what is more to help others. They are respectful of my family and our religious practices. I cannot count the number of times they have hosted us for Shabbat, making sure that everything was newly purchased or set on paper plates so that absolutely everything was kosher and available per our expectations. My cousin Yechiel is the leader of a USY Group and clearly identifies with his religion, desiring at some point to join the IDF. Another cousin of mine, Pamela, graduated from JTS after having done extensive work in the field of Jewish Studies. Pamela has affiliated herself with many different causes and charities, working for Children of Chernobyl and participating in danceathons in order to raise money for others. Her uniquely social personality does not in any way negate her strong Jewish identity and Jewish pride. The same can be said of my cousin Josh, who attended Brandeis after having been extremely active in USY and other groups. And this is to say nothing of any kind of Bnei Akiva involvement, or other outside activities. The ability to affiliate as Conservative and nevertheless take pride in one's Judaism and one's service to God is absolutely there. I have seen it with my own eyes. So it is easy to love anyone who is Conservative as well.

Now we venture into perhaps more familiar territory for many of you, the realm of the Modern Orthodox. Here, one is conflicted, because there are so many different types of Modern Orthodox. We have the philosophically Modern Orthodox who adhere to the ideals espoused by the various Rabbanim, and we have the culturally Modern Orthodox who participate in a socially acceptable form of Judaism. And oddly enough, I can love both of these people, even while I disagree with the way of living of the cultural set. The way to love people is to identify in them something that they have to teach you, a lesson that you must learn, something which you are unable to find in yourself. When you realize what that is, you will love them at the very least, out of gratitude, for they have taught you something you did not know before. If you are unable to find a point of commonality that way, the next thing to do is to try to look at the person to see what it is that bothers you about them, what flaw they have. You will often find that you either share or have shared that flaw yourself, which is why you are able to identify it. If not that, one simply reflects upon oneself and realizes that one has other flaws, just as this person is flawed, and that is not a reason to hate anybody. Once one recognizes the point of commonality, it is easy to love. It is also easy to love anybody who is trying. One of the most important things to keep in mind, and this was a lesson that was modelled for me by my parents but said to me most explicitly by my friend Marc Fein, is that people do not come from the same set of opportunities. I may have been given the opportunity to study and approach my Judaism in an academic forum, with all the questions I wanted to ask, and all the ideas at my disposal, but that does not mean many others have been. And so for me to immediately dismiss them because I do not like the way they practice means I am judging them as I would myself, a statement I would often use in defense- "But I wouldn't do it." Yet it is necessary to judge people in a completely different manner than one judges oneself, for they haven't had the opportunities you had, and they are doing the best with what they are given- they are trying their absolute best with what they have. And in that capacity, I respect every effort that people make, even if I believe it to be mistaken or misguided.

From Modern Orthodox we reach those whom one would term Haredi. Now, even within the Haredi community there are thinking and non-thinking members, those who adhere to the current for philosophical reasons and those who adhere to it simply because they are comfortable in that stratosphere. Since most of my exposure to that community has been to the latter, I had originally formed a rather negative opinion of it, especially due to my penchant of desiring things to be explained to me. But all it takes is one person, and once you meet one person who embodies the ideals of a community in a thoughtful manner, you are able to judge everyone else favorably. For me, this person was Jordan. Jordan lives the ideals of the Haredi community, whether it be in his service to God, his learning, or the way in which he explains his beliefs, and I respect all those who live by their ideals, and practice in accordance to them as well. In Jordan I could find the sincerity, genuineness and authenticity that enables me to respect others.

And now we reach the group whom I perhaps love best, the skeptics, atheists and those who went off-the-derech. I know this group intimately well, for the simple fact that I understand the thought behind such a process. There are different types of skeptics, atheists and irreligious Jews, of course, and far be it from me to force them all into one category. However, I believe I understand the two main derivations. Those of you who left our religion due to the cruelty you had practiced upon you, the stifling nature of its constituency, the negative experiences you had and the fact that you were taught as a rule that you could not fulfill your dreams within its bounds, I have been you, and still am you at times. And those of you who left after intellectual inquiry, having been persuaded by the science of our times, or the history, or whatever else it was you found which did not seem to stand before the Torah, I respect you. Because to me what this means is that your religion mattered enough for you to struggle, to invest the time and the energy into working through it and trying to prove it right, or more importantly, trying to follow wherever your search took you. And I believe that when you go up to God, you can honestly say that you tried your hardest to discover Him, and that your search was not an apathetic one, but a passionate one, fraught with meaning, and yet you did not. And so perhaps to the skeptic or atheist most of all, religion has meaning, for it was the fact that it had meaning which led him to question it and finally to leave it.

So how is it possible to love every Jew? It is possible to love the part in them that is pure, that is good, the burning ember as the Maggid of Dubno would term it. It is possible to love every Jew for whatever it is they have that I would like to embody myself, whether it be pride in their Jewish identity, the kindness they show to others, the passion and fervor with which they infuse their observance (or lack thereof), the truthful nature of their search. Every Jew has something to teach me, something which I have yet to learn, and can only learn from them. And this is to say nothing of people in general, for I believe it is quite possible to love the majority of the world, which includes our gentiles as well. It is possible to love every person who tries, who strives to be a good person in the best way they know how, who desires in some way to come close to a form of meaning in their life- and most people do. We will not all find the same path, and we do not all have the same route to God, but there is no doubt in my mind that we all desire that meaning, and we find it as it comes to us. There is beauty in everyone, and each person embodies a different facet of that beauty, no matter whether he be righteous or a sinner, perfect or flawed. It is easy to love everyone if one sees them as an extension of oneself, whom one loves most of all. And especially with Judaism, this is only the truth- I am an extension of you, and you are an extension of me, and hence, if I love what is good in myself, I will search for that good in you as well, and love you for it even as I do me.


Jewish Atheist said...

And those of you who left after intellectual inquiry, having been persuaded by the science of our times, or the history, or whatever else it was you found which did not seem to stand before the Torah, I respect you. Because to me what this means is that your religion mattered enough for you to struggle, to invest the time and the energy into working through it and trying to prove it right, or more importantly, trying to follow wherever your search took you.

Thanks, Chana. :-) Blogged.

Reb Nathan said...

thank you very much for making the time to address my question. I'm impressed yet once again! This post is a good read while on my break between the classes. I have observed(over at least past 10 years) consistency in the MO high school where I teach that some students are Orthoprax to some degree but not believers. Belief needs to be cultivated and nurtured by the parents,role models etc in the family environment . The desire to look for the positive in people is also very important. For example, I noticed that some students will have their kippot on during bentching,but won't have them on while in their science classes. There are some students who won't have much do to with other more Right wing students because it's not cool to be so black and white. Basically,tolerance for others (in this case) wasn't something that was discussed in the house,and if it was-then it wasn't productive. It becomes very challenging for the rebbeim to instill these very basic middot in the students because of the forged resistance on board. We try. Many times we succeed,there are times when we don't.
You are blessed to be able to think out of the box and surround yourself with people who share your atitudes . I'm sure your friends bask in your light for it's radiating and so inclusive.
Thank you for this meaningful post

Thomasd said...

The way to love people is to identify in them something that they have to teach you, a lesson that you must learn, something which you are unable to find in yourself. When you realize what that is, you will love them at the very least, out of gratitude, for they have taught you something you did not know before.

Something in there even for us non-jews.

Ariella from Stern said...

I recall how you used to welcome the new students both @ Arie Crown and HSBY. You used to invite people to walk over to the bakery to buy pastries,so that everyone feels included and happy. I know AU felt so grateful. So glad you didn't change your sweet and caring ways of dealing with people and also doing so beautifully @ Stern.

Dan said...

I enjoy very much. I posted a question inspired by this post on my blog.

uptown guy said...

This post did teach me a thing or two about loving every Jew. Chana,thanks for the wise tips.
I understand you are in NY for the summer. Having a good time?

AK said...

This is the kind of post that I believe most people-jew or gentile can relate to. Learned a lot. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Beautiful. I came across this blog so randomly but really loved this post.

Anonymous said...

"Yagati v'lo matzati, al taammin"

Those who truly strive, will indeed find. I believe--as I think you do--that we are called to put in the effort to find the Path.

But you go further, to find in that striving the basis for loving every Jew.

Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

s(b.) said...

Thank you. :)

David_on_the_Lake said...

This post made me feel hopeful and sad at the same time...
....because I know how few people there are out there that would be willing to look past all the negativity no matter how true they may be...and try to focus on the good and the things that bind us..
But the words of John Lennon...

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Elster said...

Interesting post vis a vis how to love every CATEGORY of Jew. However it is a far cry from loving every category of Jew to loving every jew within each category.

I know a jew who went off the derech for both categories A and B that you mentioned in that paragraph. I bet youd love to talk to this person.

Anonymous said...

A great piece of writing.