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From the West Bank to the Upper West Side

Susan Reimer-Torn
June 9, 2015

On the Anniversary of the Murder of Three Jewish Boys

by Susan Reimer-Torn

Makor-Chaim-Yeshiva-3I DON'T REALLY listen, not with a truly open mind, to those who hold views that are, politically or religiously, opposed to my own. My progressive principles are liberally laced with intolerance. I’m prejudiced, even close-minded, against the arguments of whole groups of people whom I consider to be the less-evolved. Here is my intransigent point of view: Highly evolved individuals (and I have no idea how we get to be this way) understand the unity of all being. That understanding allows us to be cooperative, trusting, inclusive, experimental, and concerned with the well being of others. The less-evolved are mired in tribal loyalties, tethered by frameworks such as “us” and “them,” stunted by fears of not having enough, and with a fight-or-flight reactivity that is easily triggered. They are not able to extend to others the same rights they accord themselves in a threatening universe.

Enter a long-bearded rabbi: Rav Dov Zinger of Jerusalem, whom I first encountered about 18 months ago. His long white beard, huge yarmulke, visible prayer fringes, and esteemed position as the head of an all-boys yeshiva in the West Bank all disqualified him to me as a potential teacher. Nonetheless, he went on to lead a workshop in prayer that had a profound effect on my relationship with my son. It was an incongruity I could not ignore: A patriarchal rabbi whose evolutionary level I ranked low had enlightened me in a critical matter.

It was thus with keen distress that I heard, along with the rest of the world, of the kidnap-disappearance of three of Rav Dov’s students who were hitchhiking home from their West Bank school on a dark night last June 12: Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Gilad Sha’ar, 16. In the angst-ridden interval between the young men's abduction and the discovery of their slain bodies, Rav Dov was in deep meditative retreat while a spirit of bereaved, anguished solidarity swept over Jews worldwide. When Rav Dov finally emerged, he spoke at the joint funeral in Mod’in at which over 100,000 people gathered.

Rav Dov asked the assembled to take upon themselves the biblical injunction, one that the mystical Ari affixed as a prelude to daily morning prayer: And you will love the other as yourself.

I HAVE BEEN losing sleep over a crucial question ever since: Who is Rav Dov including when he asks us to love “the other”? Is the teaching rooted in the “us and them” framework, limiting our love to our own? Or, could it be that this religious leader was exhorting his listeners at a time of grievous loss, at a moment that turned out to presage a devastating war in Gaza, to love, even -– or especially -- their enemies, and, moreover, to accord them humane treatment in spite of the calamitous events?

It seemed to me that the answer is key to this man’s influential teaching, as well as to the future course of religious Zionism and the governmental coalitions in which it sustains rightist political policies that we progressives abhor.

So I pondered the meaning and activity of loving others, finding guidance in Erich Fromm. Raised (as was I) in a Jewish Orthodoxy that he ultimately rejected, Fromm, a psychoanalyst and social philosopher, wrote a manual, The Art of Loving, which became a worldwide best seller. His consciousness was shaped by the same biblical injunction about loving the other as oneself, and he went about parsing its meaning for millions of readers. He declaimed, “Love is the only satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” Its practice demands “care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.”

I am more convinced than ever that willingness to take this on, as an awareness and a practice is the true legacy of the Judaism I value -– and the defining mark of the enlightened soul.

LAST MONTH, I finally had an opportunity to ask Rav Dov my question. He came to the Upper West Side to teach another class on prayer, directly from the airport after landing here from Israel. By his body clock, we were going on through the night; I dared detain him for only a few minutes more at the end of class.

He told me that he did not know why he had chosen that particular injunction. It rose up within him as the right thing to do at a time of exceptional Jewish solidarity. I urgently asked him, “Solidarity with whom? Does the other include the enemy, the Palestinians, the kidnapper who pulled the trigger on the boys being buried that day?”

He replied that it was up to each individual to define the boundaries. “The other includes whoever each individual has the capacity to include. Some people have to try hard to love their own spouse or their own family. Some can extend this to a whole tribe or group. Still others have the capacity to love the outsider and some can extend love to their adversaries. By taking this injunction upon his or herself, each individual will expand their own capacity a little more and so we will slowly bring the world into the right way of being.”

I knew I would have to let him go any minute. Speaking in Hebrew, hoping not to stumble over my words, I asked him if he believed any settlers or students of his would come to love their enemies -– or even begin to see them as equally worthy human beings. He did not answer directly. He said, “Our hope is not to add to the hatred that exists in the world. We need to find a balance between meeting our own needs and not adding to hatred.”

I walked the twenty blocks home on already-darkened Broadway, sensing that something had again shifted inside me. I was no longer in the grips of a conundrum as to how to get others to evolve to some high-minded progressive plateau. I understood, as I had not before, that everyone is experiencing life and meeting its moral and survival challenges according to his or her own capacity. Yes, it is good to find a way to expand that capacity, even a small amount, even in the worst of times. It is very good to recall the injunction to love, as did Erich Fromm and, in his own way, Rav Dov. My ideas about human evolution notwithstanding, it is not for me to tell anybody else who and how they must love. This is something I am simply not called upon to do.

I am called upon to be authentic and to admit that is not always possible to love. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that is sadly so. Rav Dov knows that is tragically so. That may be why he reverts to a less exalted resolution: He will henceforth teach the non-proliferation of hatred. To the progressive in me, it falls short of the evolutionary level I promote. To the fallible human within, it is more than enough work for this lifetime.

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: A Memoir of Rupture and Return, published by our Blue Thread Books and Music imprint.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.