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Sacred Pluralism

There is a Hasidic story told of a great master named Reb Zusya, who lived two centuries ago. Once Rabbi Zusya came to an inn, and when he saw the innkeeper, he looked right into the innkeeper’s soul and saw long years of sin. For a while Zusya neither spoke nor moved as he sensed all the terrible things that this innkeeper had done in his life. But when he was alone in his room which had been assigned to him, the shudder of vicarious experience overcame Zusya in the midst of singing psalms and Zusya cried aloud: “Zusya, Zusya, you wicked man! What have you done! There is no lie that failed to tempt you, and no crime you have not committed. Zusya, foolish, erring man , what will be the end of this?’ Then he enumerated the sins of the innkeeper, giving the time and place of each, as his own, and sobbed. The innkeeper had quietly followed this strange man. He stood at the door and heard him. First he was seized with dull dismay, but then penitence and grace were lit within him, and the innkeeper woke to God.

It’s quite a story. There’s a lot to unpack here. Zusya is typically a larger than life figure who reveals astonishing truths through his outrageously selfless behaviors. In this instance, he sees all the innkeepers sins and depravities as his own. He becomes the ultimate exemplar of the famous commandment ‘Ve’Ahavta Lere’echa Kamocha,’ You shall love your neighbor as yourself—literally, as yourself in this instance. Why would he do this? It’s not that he was pretending. Zusya was so lofty in his connection to Heaven that he couldn’t help but see the innkeeper’s heart as his own. No matter how depraved the sins of that innkeeper, Zusya looked into his soul and found only himself.

Reb Yaakov Yitzhak of P’zhysha, also known as the Yehudi, “The Jew,” was another master rebbe of the late eighteenth century. He taught the following: “Everything can be tested in some particular way to discover whether it is any good. And what is the test for the man of Israel? It is Ahavat Yisrael—the Love of the People Israel. When he sees the love of Israel growing in his soul day after day, he knows that he is ascending in the service of God.”[1] In other words, the Yehudi wants us to know that each of us, the Jewish people, are tested by God in this life. And the test is this: can we love our Jewish people, even as they disagree with us? Can we love them even as they live their lives in a way that is totally anathema to what we believe is right? The Yehudi teaches that until we can do this, we are not passing the test! To love the Jewish people is to live with an attitude so courageously open-hearted, so tolerant of other perspectives that, like the ancient sage Hillel, we are willing to teach our students the view of our opponents even before we teach our own positions. To pass this test, we must live, as our highest value, the dictum, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh baZeh,” “All Israel, all Jewish people are responsible, interconnected with one another.”

In May of this year, a young Israeli woman named Noa Raz was attacked by an ultra-Orthodox man at a bus stop. Noa is a Conservative Jew. That morning, while davening, or praying at home, Noa donned her Tefilin, her leather phylacteries, and the straps made a tell-tale mark on her arm. The Orthodox man questioned if she had indeed donned the tefilin. At first, she tried to evade his question. When he pressed her, she answered ‘yes.’ Immediately, he physically attacked her, kicking her and screaming words like ‘women are an abomination,’ and ‘desecration.’ Thank God, Noa escaped without any physical harm. Later, she commented on the experience: This is not a story about a man attacking someone at a bus station,” she said. “It’s not even a story about violence against women. It’s a story about religious violence…. The problem does not only lie with that man, the attacker. It lies with those who educated him, with his leaders who shamelessly and violently talk out against any religious practice that is not Haredi [ultra-Orthodox]…”

Indeed, Noa Raz is not mistaken. Somehow in that ultra-Orthodox man’s background and education, the wisdom of Reb Zusya and the Yehudi, the wisdom of Ahavat Yisrael, of all Jews interconnected with one another, has failed to penetrate a wall of anger and fear and even violence. By now, most of us have seen the constant attacks on the Women of the Wall, the group of women who seek only to daven at the Western Wall in the way that they wish—as egalitarian-minded women who wear kipot and tallitot. Perhaps we have seen the images of the Orthodox Jewish men hurling chairs over the divider at the women; or we have read how Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall, was arrested by Israeli police for simply carrying a sefer Torah from the Wall to the official “Conservative” section of the wall at Robinson’s Arch. And it’s not just about women. This summer, legislation was put forward in the Knesset that would place all authority for conversion anywhere in the world solely in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox, effectively disqualifying and nullifying the validity of any stream of Judaism that is not ultra-Orthodox. What is happening in Israel? Where is Zusya’s wisdom of seeing every Jew as ourselves?

These experiences of such frustrating and disappointing news are just another in a series of such reports that lays bare a profoundly disturbing reality: that Jews in Israel, and around the world, are growing apart: Jews attacking other Jews because of religious beliefs; Jews rejecting other Jews because of their lifestyles, or because they are intermarried; Jews attacking other Jews over political squabbles about Israel, or issues here at home. And saddest of all: Jews giving up on their own people and heritage and Jewish future, because they have simply had it with bitter squabbling, corruption, judgment, and nasty politics – yet we are all Am Yisrael, and like it or not, we are aravim zeh bazeh, our souls are interconnected with one another.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) famously asks about why God destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era. “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? …Because during the time it stood, ‘sinat chinam,’--baseless hatred--prevailed. This is to teach you that sinat chinam-baseless hatred is deemed as grave as all three [greatest] sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, combined!” If we look deeply into the current reality of the Jewish people in Israel and at home, it would seem that the greatest sin of all, hatred: Jew-against-Jew, the sin that brings on the destruction of the Jewish people itself—is rearing its head once again.

Of course, we Jews have always argued with each other. It’s probably what we do best. Ask two Jews a question, get three opinions! Argument, disagreement, makes us who we are. The Mishnah radically claims, however, that it is how we argue that can be the very salvation of the Jewish people and the world. Argue LeShem Shamayim, ‘for the sake of Heaven,’ says the Mishnah, and we become a Light to the Nations. Argue and attack one another for petty rivalries and power-grabs and hatreds, and our greatest blessing, our capacity to embrace disagreement, can become our very downfall: our Light turns to darkness. To be a Jew is a great test: can we lift up one light, one heart, one Torah--through multiple voices and multiple experiences?

Here’s another way to explain the test: to be a Jew means my ability to say this: See that Jew throwing a chair at another Jew? Yes, it’s disgusting. Not only because it’s an act of violence. It’s disgusting also because he’s throwing that chair at me! But it goes even deeper than that: That man throwing that chair is also a Jew! He’s connected to me, a part of me! In what ways am I responsible for his throwing that chair? And even deeper: In what ways do I attack, and do my own version of throwing chairs at other Jews, or at any other human beings? That woman victim of violent intolerance--her heart is my heart. But much more disturbingly, that chair-thrower, his heart too is my heart! This is Ahavat Yisrael, the love of the Jewish people! Think you can do that so easily? Can we indeed see each other through the eyes that Zusya saw the innkeeper? To be a Jew is, indeed, a radical test!

But we must also remember that this radical spiritual test is ultimately the root of the great radical experiment of democracy itself. It is the spiritual core of what makes pluralism not just a useful value, but a sacred value—a profoundly ancient and Jewish value! The claim of Judaism is that when the Jews master the art of Ahavat Yisrael with one another, then they can be a Light to the Nations of the world, for how to practice Ahavat Olam, pluralist love of all peoples of the world. It is the essential teaching that no one among our people deserves to be abandoned. No matter what they believe, no matter how they choose to live their lives. To be a Jew means that we see all our people as our family.

But our times are complex. Family doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Ultra-Orthodox Jews see women davening with tefilin and carrying the Torah, and praying right beside men, and they see in this the dissolution of everything they believe “the family” stands for. Over here, we can clearly see the error of the ultra-Orthodox view: these women and egalitarian men—people just like you and me--we are renewing and growing together with Judaism, as we find wonderful ways to make the tradition speak the language of a new world! If anything, we are saving the Jewish people! But many of our ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters can only see us through the eyes of fear! And guess what: as soon as we look at our own people through the eyes of fear instead of love, we are failing that tricky test!

What is true in Israel is equally true for us here in America. During these difficult times for our community here, we must ask ourselves a tough question: are we really practicing Ahavat Yisrael here? Are we seeing our fellow Jews with whom we disagree with eyes of love or eyes of fear as well? Are we willing to strive for empathy even with those who disagree with us about intermarriage, Israeli politics, homosexuality, the role of women? Perhaps we feel the urge to metaphorically throw chairs at our own people because we fear that if their opinions are received by the world, this will be a betrayal of “the family?” If indeed, our aim is to silence dissent and an honest voicing of opinion within our own community on any of these issues, then we too are failing the test of Ahavat Yisrael. We’re failing because we are looking at our own people not through the eyes of love, but through the eyes of fear. If, indeed, we want to see an end to the intolerance we despise in Israel, then we had better begin by ridding ourselves of our intolerance within our own hearts and minds as well!

Intolerance is so insidious because it begins in such subtle ways. It begins when we surround ourselves only with people with whom we agree—on anything: politics or religion or culture. It begins with all the little condescending and judgmental remarks we make with a smile on our face with our friends at dinner parties and at the office—about those ‘idiots’ on the other side of the political spectrum, or those ‘maniacs’ with their barbaric or insane views on religion. Have you ever done that? And because we have the smiles and approval of those around us, we feel empowered to reject and disapprove of them even more. And some of us will go so far as to dehumanize ‘them,’ and deem them worthy of abandonment and even violence. This familiar scenario is sad enough when it occurs among any groups of humanity. It is beyond tragic as it rears its head more and more among and within Bnai Yisrael, the Jewish people! There’s only one way to break the chain of intolerance and fear among the Jewish people and in the world, and it begins with each of us.

There’s a Hasidic story told of a reb Mottel of Kalshin, a businessman who spoke fluent Polish , who was asked to go before an anti-Semitic Polish government official and to ask him to repeal a law that was threatening the Jews of Poland. Reb Mottel was terrified. He thought it was certain death to ask such a thing of this anti-Semitic Polish official. Reb Mottel’s Rebbe, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki summoned Mottel and told him a story: “When Moses went to Pharaoh to demand that he free the slaves,” the rebbe said, “do you think Moses was unafraid?” “No,” Reb Mottel said. “Of course he was afraid, how could he not be?” “Exactly,” the rebbe said. “He was afraid that Pharaoh would kill him. It was for this reason that, in the Torah, God says ‘Bo El Par’o,’ ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ It says ‘come’ and not ‘go’ to Pharaoh. Why? Because what God meant to say was ‘Come with me to Pharaoh: I, God, will always come with you when you plead the cause of your people. Reb Mottel lost his fear with this story. He went before the Polish official, and the evil decree was repealed.[2]

The message of this story is not that God will magically be with the Jewish people and prevent despots ever from hurting us. The point is that when we shift our perspective from ‘going’ to our adversary, to ‘coming to’ our adversary—when we let go of our fear inside ourselves—then, and only then, is all Redemption of the Jewish people, and the world, possible! The great test that we are all being called to in this New Year is: can we ‘come to’ all of our people no matter what they say, or who they are, or what choices they have made? Can we strive to see how all those with different perspectives on God, on Judaism, on Israel, on politics, are all ‘coming with God,’ no matter how much they challenge us? Can we find the strength inside to understand that even those Jewish people who live differently than we, and who are proud to speak out and argue for their beliefs are, in fact, arguing LeShem Shamayim—for the sake of Heaven, for the Love of God, or for the Love of the people Israel—can we ‘come to them’ even if we fear that their position is a foolish one? Of course, there are limits to our pluralism as well--Jews who try to convert Jews to other religions, or Jews who give money directly to anit-Israel terrorist organizations, such Jews are not working toward a future of the Jewish people. But short of these extremes, all other Jews deserve our love, support, and commitment. On this day, if we want a future for our children and their children as Jews, we must be willing to make the effort to come together. The Jewish people of the State of Israel have to figure out how to make this work. And we can help them do it—right here in this synagogue. You see here in America, a synagogue like this one is the only place where Jews of all walks and stripes can come together, despite differences, and call themselves ONE community! Adas Israel is one of the few congregations in the world where pluralism is lived. We can see this in our multiple services of different styles every Shabbat. Right here, every week, every day, we practice a kind of multi-faceted Jewish life that can be an inspiration to Jews everywhere. A synagogue like ours is not just a place of prayer and life-cycle celebrations. It’s a place of Jewish people coming together to do nothing less than change the world—by facing even those who are different from us within our own people, and eventually inspire other people—beyond the Jewish community--to live by the same pluralism.

This is why, in the coming year, you will see new kinds of experiences at Adas Israel. You will see special “Three Pillar conference weekends” where the whole community is invited, with all our different perspectives and backgrounds, to study together, to join together to effect Tikkun Olam, or Social Justice, and also to explore and strengthen, our connection to Israel, as well as our potential to take action for Israel’s sake, together as one community, with many faces. We will sometimes disagree, but we will really hear one another, and speak not from fear, but from love of our people. When our purpose is grounded in Sacred Pluralism, then we can teach each other, the Jews of Israel, and the whole world what it means to come together celebrating difference rather than trying to erase difference.

In this year, 5771, may we take this leap of faith, this leap of courage, this leap of trust and of love for the sake of our People of Israel. May we pass this great test of our people, overcome sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and seek to heal the fractures and rifts that have been tearing us apart. May we stand together to combat intolerance and injustice in the land of Israel—and may we accomplish this not through fear or hatred, but through Ahavat Yisrael—through our deepest knowledge that their destiny is our destiny. May we overcome our fear of one another here at home, so that we may shine as a Light to our brothers and sisters in Israel. And together, may all of us, the people of Israel, finally serve as a Light to the Nations.

[1] Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2 p. 232.

[2] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales, p. 51-53.


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