9 Nisan: Asking
10 Nisan: Leaving

You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism

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.

You-dont-have-be-wrong-for-me-brad-hirschfield-paperback-cover-artThat's the kind of wisdom I've come to expect from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.

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.

In one of my favorite one-liners of the book, R' Brad writes, "I have come to believe that religious traditions exist not to serve the faithful, but to help the faithful serve the world." As a rabbi and as a Jew, that could be one of my mission statements. And serving the world doesn't mean reshaping the entire world in one's own image. Later in the book, he notes:

Isaiah's prophetic vision of a perfect world rests on the principle that "perfect" looks different to different people. Isaiah's house of prayer is for all peoples -- plural, not singular. It most emphatically does not require a flattening-out of all distinctions.

In other words: we don't all need to be the same. I don't need everyone in the world to be Jewish. I don't need every Jew to choose the form of Judaism I myself have chosen, even though I love and am enlivened by this version of my tradition! It gets back to the first lines I quoted in this post: wanting to make everyone else just like me is narcissism. Learning to interact with, to respect, and even to love people who are different from me (without trying, or even wanting, to change them to make us more alike) isn't always easy, but it's valuable spiritual work. He continues:

Why is that to make things, even spiritual things, more ours, we so often have to make them less someone else's? Why does being right depend on everyone else being wrong? Do other children need to be failures in order for ours to be successful? Do other women need to be ugly in order for my wife to be beautiful? In love and beauty we can make room for difference, or at least we seem to know that we should, but we have a harder time applying this expansiveness to tradition and truth.

Right. Everyone can agree that just because my son is beautiful, that doesn't make someone else's son less beautiful. Beauty and love are not zero-sum games. There's always room for one more beautiful song, one more beautiful child, one more beautiful sunset. It's much harder to wrap one's mind around the notion that tradition and truth are also forms of love and beauty -- that just because Judaism is beautiful and true, that doesn't mean Christianity or Islam or Buddhism aren't.

This is one of the teachings I most value in Jewish Renewal. Over the years I've heard Reb Zalman teach time and again that each religion is a necessary organ in the body of humanity, that we need each religious tradition to be what it uniquely is. If the heart tried to be the liver, or the liver tried to be the brain, the body would be in trouble! And -- if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in trouble too. Each religion needs to be what it is, and each religion needs to be in community and conversation with its counterparts.

There's a powerful chapter about the rededication of a synagogue in Auschwitz. In that context, R' Brad writes:

We have within us a greater capacity for overcoming the pain of our pasts than we realize. We can make the walls that divide us fall down, and we can come together to create new realities that acknowledge history without being chained by it.

That's a valuable teaching not only in the context of Holocaust history, but also in the context of contemporary Israeli/Palestinian violence. We can acknowledge history without being chained by it. It isn't always easy, but we can.

I've been all over the spectrum on what kind of God it is that I think I'm praying to, but I've found that in my life prayer has value in and of itself to the person who prays. It's not so much about changing God's mind as it is about changing our own mind, which in the end is the only thing we can control anyway.

This is a teaching I have often given over to my own congregants and students. Prayer has value in and of itself, in my life and my experience. I don't know if it changes external reality or effects theurgical transformation on high, but I know that the practice of Jewish prayer changes and transforms me.

Late in the book, R' Brad acknowledges that the kind of pluralism he espouses isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea.

In a sophisticated pluralistic community there will be some people who say "I want no part of this; count me out." That's fine. In fact, those people play a very important role as border guards who help ensure the integrity and security of the community. But all borders have to have gates; otherwise they imprison those within as much as they keep perceived danger away. Some people are better at guarding the gates, and others are better at scouting the territory beyond them. We always need both kinds of people, and at different times in our lives we need to draw on each of those approaches.

I've heard Reb Zalman speak about this idea, too. This is another place where he uses a metaphor of the human body, teaching that within the body of the Jewish community, some of us are well-suited to be the "skeleton" (rigid and unyielding, sticking to the center) while others are well-suited to be the "heart" (more attuned to emotional realities), and so on. In other words: we who are out here on the lefty fringe of what my sister calls "groovy Judaism" need to be in relationship with those who are rigid and stringent, and they need to be in relationship with us. The Jewish community writ large needs those of us on the margins, and those of us in the center, both, always. That's part of what I hear R' Brad saying in this passage, too.

The long and the short of it: this is a powerful and poignant book, well-written and tight, and there's a lot of rich material here. I know I'll be returning to this text in years to come. I'm really grateful that it's out there as part of our communal conversation.