Respect the Commitment
I have previously expressed my belief that almost any person sitting next to you on a transatlantic flight will prove worthy of a column if you ask the right questions and listen carefully. On a recent flight from Israel to the States, however, I was well on the way to missing the column waiting to be discovered in the woman sitting next to me.
Seven hours into the flight, I had still not exchanged a word with her, except for a comment of mine into the air that elicited no response. The problem had nothing to do with her being introverted. Quite the opposite. Before we had even taken off, she had already engaged in animated conversation with one of the stewardesses and with a Christian couple from Denver returning from their first trip to Israel.
Not until we were long over the Atlantic did I have an opening to initiate conversation. While it was still pitch black outside, she took out her siddur and prepared to daven Shachris. I pointed out that it was way too early to daven Shachris, and would likely remain so until after we landed in New York. The fact that it was already 9:00 a.m. in Israel, I assured her, was irrelevant with respect to the time for Shachris on board the plane.
From that point on, she spent most of the flight studying Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook's Orot Hateshuvah. But I did learn enough of her history to understand how she came to speak both Hebrew and English at the level of a native speaker and to discover that she and her husband had been members of my friend Rabbi Moshe Hauer's shul in Baltimore for three years.
I also experienced a twinge of jealousy, or perhaps a sense of failure, when she described how at her family's Shabbos table the conversation consists exclusively of divrei Torah and zemiros. Thirty-five years ago, at the onset of parenthood, I may have aspired to such a standard, but it has long since been forgotten.
Everything about my neighbor gave proof of her elevated spiritual level – her Torah study, her eagerness to daven, her description of her Shabbos table -- and the seriousness with which she and her husband approach the task of educating their children in their path. For instance, she told me that her daughter calls home at least twice a week while doing her IDF service to learn Kuzari.
When I mentioned that I might write something about our conversation, she insisted that I not mention her or her husband's name on the grounds that any success they have had in child-rearing can only be attributed to siyata d'Shmaya, and she would not want to do anything to jeopardize that Divine assistance by calling attention to it.
While finding much to admire about her, I also had to acknowledge that on many matters we could not have been further apart hashkafically. Her daughter, for instance, took it for granted that she would do army service, something that for me was placed in the category of yeharag v'al ya'avor by the gedolim of Eretz Yisrael more than sixty years ago. And it was clear to me that we would have found a good deal to disagree about concerning the nature of rabbinic authority had I chosen to pursue a conversation about those matters. I did not.
There should be nothing any more disconcerting about discovering that we find much to admire and even emulate in someone with whom we have important – even fundamental – hashkafic differences than in realizing that someone who does not share our political views is a fine person. Yet I suspect I'm not alone in being somewhat discomfited by the less than complete intersection between those who share my hashkafic views and those whom I view as committed avdei Hashem.
A friend in Lakewood pointed me to an interesting Beis Halevi in parashas Vayigash to help me reconcile hashkafic differences with admiration for a fellow Jew's religious sincerity and commitment. The Bais Halevi describes two different types of Jews: one who follows a particular hashkafic path with complete consistency and another who flits back and forth between two divergent paths, with no consistency whatsoever.
The former might be making a great error and living his entire life in error, but there is no reason to doubt that he is fully dedicated to doing the ratzon haBorei (the Will of His Creator.) The latter, however, shows by his inconsistency that he is not really serving Hashem but rather following his own desires and then attaching religious justification to them.
The value of the Bais Halevi's perspective is that it places religious commitment and determination to do Hashem's Will and the correctness of a particular hashkafic stance on different planes. It allows us to fully identify that which is admirable about our fellow Jew, without feeling our own differing hashkafic views are thereby threatened.
In short, we can focus on what is positive about another Jew, without wasting time in what is likely to prove a fruitless and possibly contentious effort to dissuade them of views to which they adhere rigorously.
To Get Along, Listen
Near the top of the lengthy list of reasons I'm delighted that I decamped from the United States for Israel over nearly four decades ago is the ever increasing bitterness of the political divisions and the incivility of the discourse in America.
That is what happens when political opinions become the prime source of personal identity. In that vein, the Democratic National Committee and vox.com, a left-wing media site, both published prior to Thanksgiving lists of talking points to be carried at the ready lest any relative at the traditional family feast express unacceptable political opinions.
While most of my college and law school friends inhabited a fairly narrow band of the political spectrum, I do not recall imposing political litmus tests for friendship, being constantly on the lookout for micro-aggressions, or judging my professors according to their conformity to my political opinions. Differing political views did not yet preclude civil, even deep, human relations.
While there is plenty of blame to go around for the unhealthy division of America into "red" and "blue," I blame the Left more. Progressives are more likely than conservatives to equate political beliefs with one's moral standing – "I'm for Head Start no matter how many studies show it has no lasting impact because I care about disadvantaged children" – and therefore to view those who do not share their views as either immoral or incorrigibly stupid. Because conservatives have a generally more restrictive view of government and seek a more expansive private realm where government dare not tread they are more likely to judge a person by the virtues exhibited in his day-to-day life than by his political opinions.
Agreed upon procedures – a level playing field -- for conflict resolution are one means of keeping political disputes less virulent: If my team does not prevail today, perhaps it will prevail tomorrow. But to the extent that politics is equated with morality, the temptation will always be great to ignore proper procedures and constitutional limits to achieve "good" ends.
At the Paris climate summit, California governor Jerrry Brown boasted, "Never underestimate the coercive power of the central state for good." President Obama's resort to executive orders to rewrite legislation and to by-pass a recalcitrant Congress is one example. When one side appropriates the role of both player and umpire, things are likely to get testy.
THIS PAST WEEK, I had an opportunity to spend some time with two of my nieces, both relatively recent graduates of Yale, which has been at the center of much of the recent campus follies. It was important to me, and, I think, to them as well, that this rare time together go pleasantly. To that end, I settled on a couple of techniques for deflecting tension that did not require limiting the conversation to the trivial.
The first technique: When the discussion turns political, listen to what someone who cannot be counted to think like you has to say. Since most of us tend to read only that which reinforces our beliefs, we may actually learn something by listening. I definitely learned from one niece's description of studies showing the different ways that female and male scientists are evaluated by colleagues and from her younger sister's impassioned account of her black and Latino friends experience at Yale. Because I listened to the younger with an open ear she was able to agree that part of the psychological fragility of minority students is the result of having been set up for failure by being accepted to an institution for which they were not prepared to compete on equal terms.
Second technique for meaningful conversation: Focus on those things about which the other person is passionate – e.g., my elder niece's Phd. Research on Lou Gehrig's disease. For many bright people, politics may be the realm where they most likely to just be going along with the crowd (though in the case of that niece the description does not fit). Engage them instead in those areas where they have expertise that you lack and the conversation is likely to be both more congenial and genuinely informative to the listener.
Learn TaNaCh for Ezra
Two weeks before he was shot and killed by a Palestinian terrorist, while on his way to do chesed in Gush Etzion, Ezra Schwartz, H"yd, an eighteen-year-old American yeshiva bochur learning in Beit Shemesh, undertook to learn all of TaNaCh. He set aside time towards that goal every night and was making steady progress when his life was tragically cut short.
Ezra will never achieve his goal. But he can serve as the inspiration for thousands of Jews around the globe to do so. Already a number of shuls have divided up TaNaCh in order to complete it by the shloshim. But the even more ambitious goal is for individuals to learn all of TaNaCh l'ilui nishma of Yechiel Ezra ben Ari Yona and for the protection of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.
In consultation with the Schwartz family and their rav, an email address has been established – [email protected] – to which individuals can send a brief note whenever they finish a book of TaNaCh. Each such email will be a consolation for the Schwartz family.
May Jews all over the world undertaking such an ambitious project also serve to unite the Jewish people.