In the abstract, love is about as good as it gets. Yet Jewish wisdom seems to know just how hard it is to love, how inclined we are to move in the opposite direction.
In the book of Leviticus, we learn: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” (19:17) The Torah seems to understand that each of us will find some people so challenging that we will be inclined to harbor the deepest of ill will toward them. The verse continues: “Reprove your kinsman, but/and incur no guilt because of him.” The Torah, again, recognizes that we are often so agitated by our fellows that we feel compelled to point out their bad behavior, irritating attitudes, and outright objectionableness. The second half of the verse offers instruction on how to vent one’s spleen: Call it as you see it, but do so in a way that doesn’t make you as loathsome as that boor you are chastising.
And then, the Torah continues: “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” If ever there were words to live by today, these are the words. And yet, today I find that loving the people Israel — particularly some individuals — is a truly challenging proposition.
By way of example, the recently confirmed U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, in a New York Magazine opinion piece written in June of 2016, referred to members of J Street: The Political Home for Pro-Israel Pro-Peace Americans as “far worse than kapos.” In Friedman’s camp, Jews who criticize Israel publicly or try to influence Israeli politics toward the center or left, are an existential threat to Israel and, by extension, to the Jewish people. (While Friedman apologized for his remark, the fact that the apology came during his Senate confirmation hearing and the fact of his failure to apologize directly to the people he’d impugned, makes it all less believable.) In the other camp are Jews who see Israel’s right-of-center political leadership hurtling the country toward a seemingly inevitable demise as a democratic Jewish state. While referring to another Jew as “far worse than kapos” may be crossing a line, the current use of sloppy, incendiary language makes me less concerned with the specifics of a comment like Friedman’s and more concerned with what it reveals about our enmity for one another. We are living through a period of intense communal acrimony, one that gives license to forgetting that the Torah pronounces all human beings as having been created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.
While “the good old days” may never have existed, the ubiquity of electronic communication, social media, and our networked reality tend to amplify and spread enmity. To partially reference the old story about the advice the rabbi gives to the slandered, there are more feathers of hate in the pillow, and they are spread much farther, much faster. All of this leads to this question: How do I hate your ideas or actions without growing to hate you — perhaps even while continuing to love you?
The Hasidic teacher Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pzhysha taught that we should carry two truths in our pockets at all times. The first, “I am but dust and ashes,” reminds us of our humility. The second, “For my sake was the universe created,” reminds us of our inherent preciousness. Rav Bunim taught us that when we feel prideful, we should read the first quote to bring us down to size. And when we feel insignificant, even worthless, we should read the second quote to remind us of our inherent value.
Another way to read Rav Bunim’s teaching is that we can hold two seemingly conflicting ideas simultaneously; thus, we transcend a false dichotomy. Holding two truths together, I can find it loathsome that Friedman could refer to liberal Jews as “far worse than kapos” without needing to find him loathsome. I can condemn Friedman’s language and attitude while still acknowledging that he is created b’tzelem Elohim.
This is not easy. And I don’t always get it right. It is far more instinctual for me — for most of us — to respond to an attack with a counterattack, to meet revulsion with revulsion. But revenge seldom, if ever, cures our ills.
Loving anyone is a task. Even love that comes naturally — for our children and parents — is fraught. And the love we feel for our partners is even more complicated. So, is it possible to love a people? The notion of loving the whole Jewish people, ahavat ha’am, seems more aspirational than practical. Most of us have loved the idea of our people much more than its actuality. The idea of a people, of a collective striving toward the core values our tradition teaches — loving kindness, righteousness, mercy, peace — is profoundly compelling.
Perhaps it is too much for most of us to love the actual people. People are difficult, flawed, and complicated. They say and do things to us that should never be said or done. But the fact that individual Jews can be remarkably irritating (or downright evil) does not detract from the beauty of Judaism, of Jewishness. The idea of a Jewish people remains essential; it serves our need to be part of and to serve a collective. This seems particularly essential in today’s anonymizing, globalized world. And that impels us toward the idea of ahavat ha’am. If we work hard enough to love the idea of the Jewish people, we may just end up loving a few more actual people than we otherwise would have.
Adam Weisberg has worked in the Jewish community for 25 years as an educator and agency director. He has extensive experience as an adviser, coach, and mentor to young and mid-career professionals. He serves on the boards of Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, and the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.