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by Susan Reimer-Torn AT THE CEREMONY in Mod’in for the three slain Israeli teenagers, Rav Dov Zinger asks the assembled multitude that they repeat after him: “With this I accept upon myself the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha, loving thy neighbor as thyself.” Hundreds of thousands of people agree to take that commandment upon themselves. This is the latest news I have about Rav Dov’s response to the national tragedy. The first I heard was one Friday night in early June. Rabbi Roly told us from the B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) pulpit that he had received a frantic call from his friend, Rabbi Dov Zinger in Israel. (The two are pictured at right in a photo by Danny Flamberg.) Three of Zinger’s students had disappeared since hitchhiking home from school the day before. The head teacher of the boys’ school, Rav Dov, as he is known, requested that we join in communal prayer. We invoked the words of a medieval mystic petitioning for the “untying of knots.” Rav Dov was working on multiple levels: The knots to be loosened referred to both external and internal bonds, to the captives’ plight and to the constraints within ourselves. I MET RABBI ZINGER on the BJ Israel trip last November. If there is such a thing as an expert in the power of intention, Rav Dov is one. At first, many of us were not enthusiastic about this rabbi-settler coming to teach. We are members of a progressive Upper West Side synagogue known for its leftist politics and insistence on the shared humanity of all beings. Rav Dov is the head of an Orthodox, all-male school on the West Bank. His presence in Gush Etzion, beyond the Green Line, is an unwavering endorsement of the religious settlers’ ideology. We have not known him to express concern about Palestinian rights. When, the year before, the whole group visited Zinger’s yeshiva, BJ women had to wear skirts and more than one complained of a stale, claustrophobic odor in the air. This time, Rav Dov came to the relatively liberal Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, at Rabbi Roly’s invitation. He looked out of place with his black-brimmed hat and long white beard; he did not seem at ease addressing a skeptical group that included women, gays, and non-Jews. Having grown up in an observant world and alienated by the rigidity of my own Orthodox father, I was resistant to Rav Dov and his teaching. But he overcame it all and left us with a potent spiritual tool: how to craft a personal version of a five-word biblical prayer. As it happens, the five words contained the name of my son Raphael, with whom I was going through a painful estrangement. I followed the rabbi’s instructions, added a twist of my own, and despite my serious doubts, the words brought about a palpable change in our mother-son relations. ON THIS FRIDAY NIGHT in June, when I hear of Rav Dov’s request that we pray for the safe return of other sons to their anguished mothers, I respond with focused emotion. When, three weeks later, the boys’ bodies are discovered, we all, regardless of our politics, inhabit Rav Dov’s grief. There are those who call out for vengeance. Others pray that these deaths will catalyze a new awareness and ultimately hasten a process of peace. Where, I wonder, does Rav Dov stand in all this? What teaching will he salvage from the sacrificial wreckage? A blogger, Anat Sharbat, describes the scene at the ceremony in Mod’in: “the rosh yeshiva of the boys’ school requested that we repeat after him. ‘With this I accept upon myself the mitzvah of loving my neighbor as myself.’ Ha’rav Dov Zinger requested this and we followed suit: Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Israel, from all shades of the political and religious spectrum, all types, all kinds. Women, men, teenagers, children. We were all there, standing shoulder to shoulder, no room to move, in the blazing heat.” Rav Dov is a man who knows well the power of communal intention. He is no miracle-worker, nor does he believe that even the most passionate collective plea can change destiny. Rather, he knows that a focused, prayerful intention can bring about transformation from within. Reoriented hearts and minds can untie internal knots and overcome impediments. Spiritual transformation of individuals can generate a new collective attitude that leads to reconsidered actions and the possibility of change. He has the mourners take the injunction upon themselves like a pledge of allegiance, or a collective vow. But a critical question goes unanswered. The injunction he invoked is found in Leviticus 19. Since ancient times, our sages have debated the meaning of the word “re’akha,” variously translated as your friend, your neighbor, the other. How far does the injunction to love — or at least empathize with the humanity of — the other extend? Some would say it is limited to Jews, others say it includes the stranger dwelling in our midst, some venture to say it includes all human beings. It was, however, famously left to Jesus to insist that word must include even — or especially — our enemies. I ask around, questioning former students and study partners. Is Rav Dov’s exhortation limited to Jews whose atypical unity in time of tragedy he would understandably like to preserve? Or, is his a far more provocative intention? Does he use the word “re’akha” to include the Palestinian in whose midst he and his disciples daily dwell? I’m surprised by my own acute need to know: What does Rav Dov mean to bring about as he buries three beloved boys and unites hearts at a critical crossroad? I ask around, but no one replies with certainty. Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the recent memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by Blue Thread, the Jewish Currents book imprint.
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