As Thyself

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The other day, the local public radio station aired an interview with the author of a book about the talented American musician Bruce Springsteen. Mr. Springsteen is renowned, it seems, for his ability to identify with and convey to his listeners the real life situations of working class and middle class folk, their aspirations, fears and frustrations.

Not surprisingly, the conversation turned to the question of whether a multi-millionaire celebrity like Springsteen, whose lifestyle is about as divorced from the reality of middle-class American life as one can imagine, can accurately and sincerely depict that reality in song. The interviewer and interviewee concurred that empathic identification of that sort is indeed achievable and is precisely what makes actors and actresses successful in their roles on stage and screen.

I found it interesting that this exchange took place on a station that frequently airs discussions about ethnic and cultural diversity in various societal settings. The following issue is often at the heart of such discussions: Should a particular position, e.g., a Cabinet post, a board of directors seat, a professorship, be awarded to a member of an ethnic minority that is underrepresented in that field, notwithstanding that merit alone would not recommend such an appointment. That is: does the understanding of, and sense of identification with a certain group that membership in that group presumably grants, provide enough justification for o overriding more conventional qualifications like experience, education and competence and selecting a member of such group purely for diversity’s sake?

Framed even more bluntly: should a white male with a track record of fair-mindedness and absence of bias be chosen for a position for which he is otherwise the most qualified candidate, or shall we rather posit that his gender and race prevent him from being fully able to perceive and act upon the needs of those ethnically or culturally unlike him? The example of Mr. Springsteen and numerous other performance artists whose devotees feel the former speak on their behalf would seem to argue in favor of basing decisions in hiring and appointments on merit much more than on diversity.

There is a Jewish angle to this topic as well; specifically, regarding the tendency of some in feminist quarters to question the ability of “the rabbis” to evince sufficient empathy for female concerns, which in turn, so goes the claim, colors their halachic decisions. This assertion — courtesy of the folks who brought us that classic bon mot “where there’ s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way” (or is it “when there’s a feminist will, there’s a way out”? Now I’m all confused) — betrays an embarassing unfamiliarity with the halachic literature and process, but that’s for another day.

The point for now is that “the rabbis” of even our own spiritually impoverished times, never mind chachameinu zichronam liv’racha, need not at all worry about comparisons to, l’havdil, warbler Bruce and his Hollywood friends. Stories like those of Rav Schach, zt”l, making a late-night trip to Yerushalayim in his eighties to wait outside the apartment of a therapist to whom Rav Schach had sent a troubled young advice-seeker, or of the Chassidic great who needed to change his sweat-drenched kapote after each session with pain-filled individuals weren’t anomalies but rather the stuff of their everyday lives.

The empathy of our greats didn’t, and doesn’t, issue forth from within gated compounds and phalanxes of handlers and acolytes designed to keep the unwashed, albeit adoring, masses at bay. Their identification with the common man isn’t produced and packaged to enrich themselves handsomely or at all. Nor do they exhibit the sort of conflicted attitude that Justice William O. Douglas’ biographer noted in his subject: “He loved humanity in general, but hated people in particular.” Theirs, instead, is a caring rooted in a deep love of both humanity in general and of Jews in particular, that is manifest in the dedication of every resource they possess — emotional, physical, financial — to each of the countless individuals and organizations that beat a path to their doors. They are ever accessible, often too much so for their own physical wellbeing.

This isn’t hagiography; it’s unadorned fact. We live with them, study under them, interact with them, observe them. The throngs at funerals of authentic Jewish leaders are no surprise: they genuinely love us and we love them back.

Don’t misunderstand: Producing songs that tell of the misery and mistreatment of Mexican farm workers is commendable, certainly when it gives them a voice and brings attention to their plight, and particularly when contrasted with what preoccupies most other performers and their artistic output. But it’s far, far from aproaching the pinnacle of moral greatness.

Come to think of it, another part of the conversation with the author of the Springsteen book related to the notion that “you never want to actually meet your heroes” lest you find out what they’re like up close. This was also a theme of a later segment on the same station about storied radio raconteur Jean Shepard (to whose late night show I faithfully listened on my little transistor under the covers during one period in my youth.) For innumerable similar examples of the inverse relationship between intellectual/artistic prowess and moral greatness in the societal pantheon of the arts, sciences, humanities, etc., you need only check out the biography section of your local public library. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals is a good starting point.

I didn’t begin this post intending to write about the uniqueness of great Torah personalities (and, in fact, I’ve only touched upon one facet of these many-splendored human gems), but, simply stated, I get carried away on this topic. Better: blown away — by what their example teaches us a human being can make of him or herself, and by the deep affirmation these greats provide for Torah as a system for successful living that has consistently produced results that no comparable human society or system has yet approximated.

Apropos of this, I conclude with a poignant anecdote related by the brilliant contemporary Jewish writer Jonathan Rosenblum in his 1993 review of Piety and Power , a book highly critical of Israel’s charedim, authored by David Landau. Landau, an Israeli journalist who had a yeshiva background, asked Rosenblum how a university-educated person could possibly identify with the charedi community. Rosenblum writes:

I did not engage him in theological disputation, but answered simply that one finds in the charedi world a type of tzaddik found nowhere else. Some are famous, some not, but all are characterized by their mesiras nefesh, the internal consistency of their lives, and their ability to rise above all considerations of self in evaluating a situation. He thought for a minute before replying, “Yes. That’s the hardest thing for me to deal with.” Indeed.

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2 Responses

  1. YK says:

    Im not sure what to take away from that last comment “Yes. That’s the hardest thing for me to deal with.”

    does he mean that its something he misses now that he is no longer a part of that community?

    or rather is it somthing he admires so much that it might nullify his other criticisms of charedim?

    is that review online anywhere?

  2. Sholom Simon says:

    There is one huge difference you seem to have missed regarding Springstein’s ability to relate to the working class. And that is: he _used_ to be working class. He didn’t grow up rich — and that’s why he can relate to the non-rich.

    Will I, as a white man, ever be able to fully appreciate what daily life is like as a black or a woman? I doubt it. OK, perhaps some tzaddikim can, but I don’t think I can. (Indeed, I recall reading a story by a reporter who, through some sort of skin coloring or drugs or something or other, was able to pass as a black, and he wrote a story of his experiences. He said that otherwise mundane life was extremely different, and that he had been previously unable to imagine it.)

    (Hmmm, come to think of it: do the frum often think that the non-frum understand what living a frum life is like? Can _anyone_ fully understand what shabbos is short of actually experiencing it?)