After some initial hesitation, I am ready to declare the much-lamented “Monsey Summit” a complete success. Definitely much-lamented. Some lament the bombastic name; others lament the fact that it took place altogether. But much lament and hand-wringing.
For me, it was a bee trap. Ever hang one of those low-tech bee traps outside the sukkah? I have nothing against bees. I respect their industry and utility. I just don’t like them flying kamikaze runs against my guests. So occasionally I hang one of those traps, put in the bait, and wait with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’d rather that all the neighborhood bees flew south for the winter. On the other, I feel pretty useless until one or more takes a wrong turn and flies into the trap, its last stop on the way to Bee Heaven. A trapped bee is evidence of a successful campaign to upgrade the comfort level of the sukkah.
Monsey Summits work the same way. As I wrote previously in what has become a topic of controversy, I walked into the meeting with minimum expectations and two intentions. I believed that people who claim that they are in pain and want a platform to talk about it should be accepted at their word, and given the chance to be heard. I believed that listening carefully to what some of the more voluble people who had left Torah practice had to say could jump-start our making whatever changes, if any, are appropriate.
I have no regrets or disappointments regarding either of these goals. Some people disagree; you can see some of their arguments in the comments to the aforementioned essay. Those arguments pale in comparison to some of the stuff that could not be published. All told, however, they amount to bees in the trap. They made the enterprise worthwhile, because they demonstrated that there are some issues that could use some discussion. If any readers accept half of what I will now say, the journey will have been worth the investment of time.
Three primary objections emerged. 1) Meeting with the no-longer-observant conferred respectability to their ideology. 2) People who were once practicing frum Jews and then choose to reject Torah are entitled to no sympathy. They are different from the majority of non-observant people, who have no real responsibility for their ignorance. 3) Because we believe in freedom of will, there is nothing to be gained in listening to people’s complaints about mistreatment that led them away from observance. They made their choices, and they are responsible according to Torah thought, regardless of what pitfalls others placed in front of them.
The first of these can be dealt with quickly, so we might just as well move it off the playing field. No one in the traditional group that I am aware of budged an inch from our position of the non-negotiable truth of Torah. Some in the other group would have loved some sort of concession that what is right for us, is not necessarily right for them. None of us gave that assurance. None of us should be held responsible for the subsequent articulation by any individual writer of how people in attendance felt, or any claim that we gave too much ground.
Too many people accepted the second point above. I do not understand why. Do we respect others, or recognize the humanity only of those with whom we agree? What about tzelem Elokim – even when possessed by people whose values and/or behavior run antipodally different from the ones by which we swear? Can’t I react with sympathy to the cry of any human being – even those whose beliefs I utterly reject? Is empathy conditional?
It is likely that many people foundered on this point because they think that the Torah wishes us to distance ourselves from those whose actions and beliefs – for whatever the reason – run counter to Hashem’s Will, as expressed by the Torah. Furthermore, they think that we fulfill this obligation to emotionally reject som people by pushing them out of our circle of caring.
They are correct about the first assumption, and mistaken about the second. A reread of the Netziv’s introduction to Bereishis is in order.
This was praiseworthy about the Avos: Besides being tzadikim and chasidim and lovers of Hashem to the maximum extent possible, they were also yesharim. This means that they conducted themselves with the nations of the world – even with despicable idolaters – with love, and sought their good, because such is contributory to the sustaining of Creation. We see this in Avrohom prostrating himself in prayer on behalf of Sodom, even though he greatly hated them and their king for their evil. Nonetheless, he desired their continued existence. Chazal explain Tehilim (45:8) אהבת לצדק ותשנא רשע to mean, “You loved to vindicate my creatures, and refrained from finding them liable. This is precisely consistent with his role as the “father of many nations.” Despite a son’s not taking an appropriate path, a father still seeks the peace and well-being of his son. Similarly, we see how easily Yitzchok was appeased from the actions of his enemies…and Yaakov, after initially being angered when he learned that Lavan was prepared to destroy him were it not for Hashem’s intervention, nonetheless speaks gently with him…
Avrohom hated – and loved! How can imperatives towards opposing emotions coexist? The simple answer is that the Torah can be pretty demanding in trying to make good human beings out of us. No one ever said it was supposed to be easy. Life is nuanced; Torah life is even more nuanced. The folks who have it down to a simple formula usually have it wrong. The Torah can ask us to hate the person for his/her evil – but to love the person.
Should you think that only someone like Avrohom could figure this out, think again. Look at Tosafos Pesachim 113B, speaking to us, not to Avrohom. A person who must decide between unloading the suffering animal of his friend, or reloading the animal of his inconvenienced enemy should chose the latter, according to the gemara. Forcing himself to resist the inner nature that spurns his enemy is more important, says the gemara, than addressing the pain of an animal. He should choose to help his enemy load, in order to whip his inner self into shape. But wait, say Tosafos. The enemy of the pasuk isn’t your ex-spouse, whom you are really not supposed to hate. The Torah doesn’t address such petty behavior. The enemy is someone who violates the law, is warned, and continues to violate Torah law. You are allowed/supposed to hate such a person. This is puzzling, say Tosafos. What room is left to force a person to bend his nature to hate? He is supposed to hate this evildoer!
Tosafos answer that he still must bend his nature. He must prevail upon himself to keep the hatred within, rather than allow it to become manifest to anyone else, which would lead to “full hatred.” The Be’er Yosef (Parshas Kedoshim) observes that this might technically solve the problem, but it doesn’t make much sense. Bottom line, if the Torah does not wish the hatred of an evildoer to become manifest in overt behavior, why allow a little bit of hate, and then work to keep it in check? Don’t encourage the hatred in the first place!
Be’er Yosef explains that the Torah has to encourage a bit of hatred, in a quantity safely kept to oneself. Its function is to protect the neshamah of the person who has witnessed the evil. What we see, what we encounter, leaves an imprint. It is easy to become inured to evil, just by being touched by, or surrounded by enough of it. The Torah wishes us to emotionally resist evil, and allows a bit of emotional charge in distancing ourselves from it. The clear target is the evil and the stain it leaves within the beholder – not the evildoer.
But surely, some of you are thinking, the group we met with is a special case. They represent a more potent form of evil than most, because by sharing their stories with the world, they are probably leading others astray. Certainly we should teach ourselves to hate them, just as we would the classic meisis u-madiach of the Torah.
Maybe not. Some years ago, I was conflicted about my friendship with a prominent member of another Jewish denomination. Certainly a group that has led people astray in spades. I spoke to Rav Zelik Epstein zt”l, who asked me if this person was a good human being. I assured him that he was. His response was illuminating. “’משאניך ד’ אשנא / Those who hate You, Hashem, I will hate’ doesn’t have to be the first mitzvah you grab hold of.”
Bottom line: the avodah of people in that room was to act as humans, feeling the pain of others, all the while mindful of the tzaara d’Shechinah that their new life styles was causing. I think we handled it acceptably.
This leaves us with the final, major objection voiced by readers. Listening to tales of woe is pointless, they argued. Mitigating factors are simply nisyanos. People are responsible for their conduct, even under trying circumstances. Nothing can excuse turning one’s back fully on his Torah, his G-d, and his people.
This is wrong on multiple levels. There is good reason for Avos to tell us אל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו/ Don’t judge your friend till you get to his place – which effectively means never. It is true that a court must look at the crime alone, and judge a person to be guilty of its commission as long as the perpetrator was sane. But Hashem’s judgment is not cut of the same cloth. He does take all those predisposing factors and mitigating circumstances into account. And we are bidden to do the same – when we are not in court, or rendering halachic judgment about a person’s status. Those factors and circumstances do count. If so, we can learn from them.
Not worth our while, you say. Those factors are not our business. It is sad that some behaviors of some people in our community are not what they should be, and that people who walk out of halachic Judaism point to those behaviors as having impacted them. Still, that is between Hashem, the people who wronged them, and them. What concern is that of ours?
Conceivably, in some cases, we are ones who wronged them and continue to do so. Even putting those cases aside, the thinking is still flawed. Remember the gemara’s question (Sotah 45B) about the declaration of the elders of the city close to where a murder victim is found? Why should they have to declare that they did not shed his blood? Do we really believe that the murderer is to be found among them? Rather, they must declare that they did not allow a visitor to the city to leave without food and accompaniment. We understand that to mean that if the victim was not provided with these amenities, he was an easier target for the highwaymen who murdered him.
Maybe. But that is not what Rashi says. Rashi says that by not providing the visitor with his needs, he became desperate and turned to crime to provide for himself. He was killed in a botched robberyt attempt. According to Rashi the corpse belongs to an attempted felon, not to his target.
Oh, my! Sounds like something that “liberals” believe! Society bears some responsibility for creating the conditions that lead people to crime!
Perhaps someone will work diligently to assure us that we don’t “pasken” like this Rashi. Until then, it does appear that it is worthwhile examining the factors that made Jewish brothers and sisters make the worst decisions of their lives. We, too, will have to declare one day that our hands did not shed their blood.
I stand by the decision to attend, and would encourage others to do the same. If we are going about some things the wrong way and nudging people in the wrong direction, we need to think about it. Hearing the stories of those who have been there – as much as we must disagree with their present positions, and resist any of their attempts to export their decisions to the rest of the community – will be more powerful than listening to a rov speak about the same issues. Drama works.
And to those who cannot muster empathy for the pain of another human, I suspect that we are not members of the same faith-group.