This is a guest post by Zalman Bendet: Born and bred in St. Paul, Rabbi Bendet has recently returned to Minnesota together his wife and daughter after studying abroad in Israel and the United States. He has graduated from the Rabbinical College of America and received his Rabbinical Ordination from the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, OBM. Rabbi Bendet is involved in both primary and adult Jewish Education,and he currently directs and instructs the St. Paul chapter of the Jewish Learning Institute.
If you ask me, the ugly scenes that have recently unfolded in Bet Shemesh are the symptoms of a severe identity crisis.
Now before you accuse me of underplaying the severity of the incident or “going soft” on these violent extremists, let me say in unequivocal terms: what happened in Bet Shemesh is inexcusable and indefensible. These disgraceful actions leave yet another painful scar on the already blemished perception of Jewry in general and Orthodoxy in particular. I join the hundreds of voices of condemnation against these violent acts of hatred.
By now you have certainly heard this incident analyzed to death from every possible angle and by every Rabbi, pundit and columnist worth their salt. It has been described in terms varying from the Chilul Hashem [desecration of G-d’s name] of the century, to a hate crime and everything in between. I will not bore you with yet another cookie cutter statement reiterating the obvious.
So why do I describe it as an “identity crisis”?
Let me put it his way: How is it possible that Jews – Jews who claim to be the upholders of G-d’s word , the Torah – are able stoop to such a severe level of misguided zealotry? Where have they gone wrong?
The Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim9:4) relates the following parable: a butcher, while slicing meat with his right hand, mistakenly slipped and cut his left hand. The injured left hand thinks to itself “that clumsy fool. I’ll show it a think or two”, and picks up the knife to stab the horrified right hand in retaliation. “Wait you idiots” shouts the head, “don’t you realize that you are part of the same body – you are only harming yourself!”
The Jewish people are one organic unit and each Jew is spiritually connected with his fellow. To take revenge on a fellow Jew is like the left hand retaliating on the right hand. They are two parts of the same whole. The mistake of these misguided souls – their “identity crisis” – is their failure to appreciate this.
The Talmud’s parable, as simplistic as it appears, can help us understand what Rabbi Akiva called the basis of the holy Torah – the “Golden Rule”- the precept of Ahavat Yisrael, love for one’s fellow Jews. On the surface this commandment appears to make no sense, based as it is upon the Biblical teaching, “Love your fellow like yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Love everyone?! Like yourself?!
Is it reasonably possible to expect someone to love anyone [let alone everyone] as much as they love themselves?
The teachings of Kabalah offer further insight.
The Arizal [Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi, foremost rabbi and mystic in Safed (1534 – 1572)] teaches that the community of Israel may be compared to one single body. A body is comprised of many individual organs, each with their specific function and utility. Yet, notwithstanding their wide variations, none of these organs are independent of each other. An infection in one organ – or treatment of an organ – affects others. This interdependence derives from their common source, the life force of the Neshamah [soul], which is harbored in the brain, and diffused from there throughout the body.
In the words of a song I heard in my youth:
Look inside through the heart of a Jew
Open up its many doors
The soul that you’ll see there inside
Is a reflection of yours
For each soul is a part of one whole
That joins us to each other
We are all part of one another
And we have always been one
So when the Torah says “love your fellow as yourself”, it does not mean as much as yourself, rather, in the same manner that you love yourself. Just as you love yourself unconditionally – imperfect character and all, so should you strive to love your fellow. And this is only possible with the recognition that you both are part of and contain the same essence.
In his wonderful book ‘The Art of Loving’ Eric Fromm, writes: “The idea expressed in the Biblical “love thy neighbor as thyself!” implies that respect for ones own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for my own self is inseparably connected with the love for any other being”.
So when I think of those individuals in Bet Shemesh who are so full of hatred – hatred towards others, and therefore themselves – I feel anger and sadness, but most of all I feel pity. For perhaps more tragic than their lack of love towards their fellow Jew is their lack of appreciation for the priceless value of what they truly are; their own inviolable preciousness which stems from the soul inside of them -the very soul which is inextricably part of all other Jewish souls.
In Fromm’s words:
“It is true that selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either. “