We need to see that everyone who is not just like us is not some kind of restoration project, just waiting for us to "fix" them and turn them into poor imitations of ourselves. Do we really want a world of people who look, think, and act just like we do? That's not spiritual depth or religious growth, but simply narcisissm with lots of footnotes.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is one of the co-presidents of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Along with the other co-president, Rabbi Irwin Kula, he teaches at our Rabbis Without Borders fellows retreats. On my way home from our most recent retreat, I started reading his book You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.
I knew that R' Brad identifies as Orthodox, and I had a vague sense that his spiritual trajectory had been quite a journey. But I didn't realize quite how broad that journey was until I began reading this book. In the early chapters he describes his falling-in-love with Orthodoxy; his desire, as a senior in high school, to study for a year in Israel; and his immersion in the culture of the settlers of Hebron.
I visited Hebron back in 2008 (see A day in Bethlehem and Hebron), but I didn't go into the settlement, and I didn't meet anyone who lived in that part of the city. Early in this book, R' Brad offers a stark and unflinching description both of what drew him into the movement -- and what caused him to leave. This is the longest quote I'll offer, but I don't want to abridge it any further, because this is such a powerful recounting, and it's a voice I haven't seen in print elsewhere. R' Brad writes:
I was a pilgrim who had finally reached his destination. I felt whole. Complete. This was what God wanted. This was what God had commanded: Brad Hirschfield, nice Jewish boy from the North Shore, standing at a tomb in Hebron, surrounded by one hundred thousand Palestinians who hated my presence there, singing Hebrew prayers.
I know it may sound ridiculous now, but then I didn't question it for one moment. There was not an inkling of doubt.
[The settle underground] began advocating for an increasingly harsh response against violence directed at Jews....Most of this made sense to me. Jews were being killed for settling in what had once been Jewish homes. This was our land, given to us by God.
For two years I gave myself over to Levinger and his group and the militant arm of the settlers' movement. When settlers Menachem Livni, Shauli Nir, and Uzi Shabaraf (whom I knew, although I was not in Hebron that day) fired into the Hebron Islamic College and killed two Palestinian children, I really felt sick...
Most of my group felt it was a tragic mistake, but they also thought it a natural result of continuous violence against us...No one questioned the wisdom of building the Hebron community in light of what had happened.
I found myself outside the fold. I stopped going to Hebron. I had no idea how to discuss how I felt with anyone within the settlers' movement. And I had no desire to talk to anyone outside about it, either... I was no longer a pilgrim. I didn't quiet know what I was.
It's so easy for those of us outside of a particular fold to castigate those within, and vice versa. And that's true whether the fold is the settler movement, a religious denomination, a community, a subculture, a nation. This book opened up for me both some of what might draw a person into religious fanaticism -- and also the unique lessons such a person could bring with them upon, mercifully, exiting that world for one which is more expansive and pluralistic.
After 9/11, he writes, he realized that he needed to confront his own past, to begin writing and speaking about his experiences as an ardent young settler. "Religion had flown those planes into the Twin Towers, and I had practiced a form of that religion. It is the religion of pilgrims, of people who see no way but their own way, and treat people who do not support them as mistakes that need to be erased," writes R' Brad. Near as I can tell, he's dedicated his rabbinate to teaching that there is another way.