Friday, March 4, 2011

I Have Two Fingers

As some of you know, I am a regular commentator on a few blogs that deal with issues of interest and importance to Jews - all sorts of Jews, from Chassidic to Reform and unaffiliated. Occasionally, the topic of discussion revolves around Israel, and related issues, but more often the conversation concerns (often divergent) currents in Jewish thought, learning, divine service and so forth. It is a matter of discomfort for me to witness Jews of more observant upbringing debating Jews from less observant or unaffiliated backgrounds. Rather, the irritant is not so much witnessing such conversations, or participating in them, but in observing the participants summarily dig their respective trenches, self-radicalize and budge not an inch, with all the predictable outcomes one can imagine from dogma standing up to dogma.

To be clear, my expectations for who must bear the burden of meaningful, sensitive discourse are much higher for those who have had a Jewish education than for those who have not, and for reasons that should be obvious. Thus, and often despite myself, I almost routinely come out on the side of less observant Jews, picking apart the argument of the more observant where I think or know they've strayed from the texts and commentaries they're quoting. Alternately, I might step in if I feel they are doing more damage in falsely presenting a concept they themselves may not fully understand, or if they do understand it, in presenting it in a manner that won't be well received, than were they to simply disengage. It doesn't hurt that the competition of debate often spurs my own interest and passions in learning more, and more thoroughly, than I otherwise would have.

It was in the midst of observing such a heated discussion just recently, that I could not restrain myself from intervening. However, instead of challenging the person directly, I asked that they contact me privately. We've now exchanged a few thoughtful emails, one of which I'm posting below. It is a fair summation of a few things I've been thinking about over the past month or two, and may be of interest to others.

To set this up, if I haven't already, in the course of a discussion of the type I've explained above, I felt that a more observant Jew, increasingly besieged by multiple parties - in hostile territory, so to speak, that being a blog belonging to a community of  less observant Jews - was speaking very forcefully in an effort to defend what he felt were the spirit of Torah and mitzvot, and the honor of G-d Himself. The goal is laudable indeed, but the method he chose, by bracing his back to the wall and drawing clear borders between those who stand with G-d, and those who don't, was backfiring horribly by alienating others from his substantive views, as it usually does. I call this the path of rhetorical martyrdom, as in, "I'm going down, but I'm taking all of you down with me." You lose the argument, in that your original intent was to inform and transform the hearts and minds of others, and you failed in doing so, but before you go, you lob one last hand grenade and make sure to let your opponent know that G-d hates them, and that G-d loves you, and that you really won in the end. You've just compounded your failure, but at least you feel better about it. Ok, great.

Let's call my friend Andrew. You won't hear much from Andrew, frankly because I wrote much more than he did, and also because I'm more focused on a singular idea he expressed, than his remarks in total. So, without further delay, I asked Andrew to write me privately, and he did. The following are select, edited excerpts of that conversation.

Me: To fight for G-d is good, but one can’t fight for G-d but against Jews. That’s nonsensical. To fight for G-d means to fight for Jews, even the ones who drive on Shabbos, even those with same-sex partners, even those who do nothing but have kids and study Gemara in Itamar.

Andrew: There are examples in Torah where the fight for G-d did indeed go against Jews. Read about Korach and what happened to his rebellious supporters. Read about Pinchas and how he saved the Jews from G-d’s wrath. Read about the plagues that happened to the Jews during their journey in the desert.

Me: Indeed, let's read them together.

The plagues in the desert were introduced by G-d, not by men. So, too, with Korah, the earth opened up and swallowed them. These don't quite make your point, because G-d doesn't fight for Himself, for His honor. Of what value is that to him, to kill people in vengeance? What He wants is a broken spirit and a contrite heart that returns to Him, as we read in Tehillim, and throughout the texts. And, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah, Rambam explains that death is a form of penitence for the body. We Jews don't punish people for their behavior. Even when a Jewish court sentences a Jew to death, it is not bloodlust or retribution - there is no place for vengeance in Jewish law - but in order that the experience cleanse their body and soul. Our absolute concern, even in disagreement, remains the spiritual health of other Jews.

The incident with Pinchas demonstrates my point fully, and is the one I had hoped you'd bring up. Pinchas was a zealot. Do you know what a zealot is? You can't want to be a zealot, or train for it, or plan for it. Any mental inclination towards zealotous behavior immediately disqualifies an individual from being a zealot. A zealot is a spontaneous instrument of purity, not of scheme or vengeance. The Torah goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the Pinchas was a true zealot by tracing his lineage, showing him of a good nature, and not of cruel, wicked stock. Even in this one instant of a zealot in the entire Torah it is necessary to defend him against suspicion that he acted against a fellow Jew. Pinchas acted, without even thinking, to enforce a Torah law - a public and wanton desecration of G-d's name - for all Jews, including those who strayed, not against them.

And what were the rest of the congregation doing when "Pinchas arose and executed judgment"? What were Moses and Aaron and the rest of the leaders doing? They were weeping, sobbing. Why? Because they knew that any attempt to restrain those engaged in illicit activity would only embolden them further, as is the nature of things, and the zealot clause in the law was hidden from them. The Torah is making a very important point here, a timeless lesson.

When an observant Jew goes on [this blog] and starts rebuking what he thinks are wayward Jews left and right, there can only be one outcome, and it is not repentance, but rebellion. Furthermore, this is not a proper approach to rebuking a fellow. The first condition for a rebuke of a Jew is that you identify with him and love him unconditionally, that the rebuke is not to satisfy your vanity but because their activity is hurting them, that you can feel the pain they are inflicting on themselves and you want to help them. How can you act against a Jew who you love unconditionally, the way you love your own self? It's nonsensical. The second condition is that a Jew can only rebuke someone of equal or greater stature than him. Tzadikim or prophets can do as they wish, because there is no blemish in them, or they are fulfilling G-d's exact will, but for those of us who are blemished and imperfect, this is not the case. A third condition is that you do not cause unnecessary embarrassment by rebuking in public, unless it is a deliberate public rebuke.

All of this has been borne out by my experience on [this blog], which is reaching into it's third year. Whenever a newcomer appears and sets to work "fighting for G-d", he tends to do so by distancing the very Jews who are the battleground which needs to be won over. To rebuke may feel very satisfying, but in this audience, that satisfaction is nothing more than self-indulgence, it contributes nothing, and may actually do damage. Purely from a practical perspective, such action doesn't work. Which is not to say that no one on [this blog] needs rebuking, but it may be that you or I are not the right instrument, at the right time, to be doing so.

There are two paths to connecting with G-d - fear and love. For many centuries, fear was enough - fear of sin, fear of social ostracism, fear of punishment. For many Jews, this is no longer sufficient. The alternative to fear is love, to draw a Jew closer with affection, sincerity and kindness, to reach them at a level where their finely honed cynicism cannot mount a defense. And when it is necessary to stand firm on a point of Torah and mitzvot, and on [this blog] it often is, this has to be done with scholarship and sensitivity, with clear understanding that the goal is not to hurt or insult, but to reach out and educate, the way you wish that someone would have done it to you, with patience and affection. To distance another Jew through false zealousness for G-d is a betrayal of them and G-d, who wants the Jewish people unified with and in service of Him. As my father would say, "I have two fingers (sons). It only takes one to hurt for me to feel pain, and it doesn't matter which one."

Our weekly Parshah is Vayakhel, which, among many other lessons, teaches the value of each individual Jew's unique contribution within the context of Jewish community. It tells how each individual was tasked with contributing to building the Mishkan and its various components. Some built the menorah, others constructed the wash-basin, while others still contributed animal skins, or spun wool. But each of these individual acts, even though they had intrinsic value, had no independent value. A menorah or a wash-basin without a Mishkan or Temple in which to employ them are useless. Even if everything were ready and proper but the priestly garments were not completed, or not constructed properly, the entire services of the Temple could not proceed. This is the dual importance of every Jew - their individual contribution is vital to our divine service as a community. And at the same time, their individual contribution alone, even though it might have intrinsic value, is useless without being part of the group effort.

This is all the more important when we consider that the purpose in the construction of the Mishkan, and the Temple after it, was to repent for the sin of the golden calf - avodah zarah, a form of idolatry. Because the entire Jewish community participated in the sin of idolatry, which negates that G-d is One and the Only Master of all the Earth, the entire Jewish community had to atone through individual acts of contribution towards the building of the Mishkan. And what is the Mishkan? A dwelling place for G-d in the physical world - the firm rooting of the spiritual concept of the One G-d within the material, the exact opposite of idolatry - which attributes supernatural power to physical objects which have no power of their own - and also the reason for the creation of the world.

But as we already discussed, the Mishkan, necessarily, is the sum of its individual parts, and while those individual parts may have intrinsic value, they have no value as individual objects, but only within their role in the Mishkan. Similarly, the teshuvah for the sin of idolatry, of which the entire people were guilty, must the sum of its individual parts - the contributions of individual Jews to the teshuvah of our entire people. And just as with the Mishkan, our teshuvah as a people is not complete while the teshuvah of individual Jews is not complete. Similarly, an individual Jew's teshuvah, while having intrinsic value, is only able to be fully expressed and realized within the context of the teshuvah of the community.

To distance a fellow Jew from Torah and mitzvot is to distance yourself from Torah and mitzvot. We are not spiritually complete, either as individuals or as a people, until every Jew is spiritually complete. This is why building Jewish unity is so vital, and so desired by G-d, especially when doing so is difficult and even painful. As we learn in Gemara, and as is taught by Chofetz Chaim in support of Shmiras Haloshon (the laws of proper speech), that when Jews were good to one another, even when they were all performing avodah zarah, the Accuser was silenced. Such is the power of Jewish unity, of having sensitivity and love for one's fellow, especially when it is difficult and inconvenient, that even occasional transgressions are treated as if they never took place.

Many speak of drawing Jews closer. Many launch campaigns to do so, and some are successful. In my experience, those who are successful are those who understand that our goal is not to draw another Jew closer to G-d. The relationship between a Jew and G-d is not in our hands. If we can't draw a Jew closer to G-d, at least we can draw close to a Jew. Some conceptualize throwing a lasso around a Jew and pulling, or dragging their struggling bodies closer to us. This is the very opposite of what is needed. We need to throw a lasso around ourselves and throw the rope to our fellow, and let them pull us towards them. If they're not doing the pulling they'll be doing the struggling, so let them pull, and let us not struggle.
 Good Shabbos.

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