How much sadder it is when Jews themselves fail to see the danger and enthusiastically add fuel to the flames
I ended last week’s column by stating that the “work that needs to be done in healing our rifts is finding ways for Americans to come together, to meet and talk, and to see each other as they are.” Now I’d like to follow up with some further reflections on that theme and a relevant personal experience.
One day last week, this text appeared in the spam message box of my cellphone: “It’s very difficult to discern if today’s essay is a product of achzariyus (cruelty) or ignorance. Either way it’s unfit for print.” Without even checking, I knew who had written it. They’re actually the words of a frum Jew, someone who runs a chinuch institution for tinokos shel beis rabban.
For some background, much of the feedback I receive to what I write here is positive, but certainly not all, and when people register their upset, I sometimes reach out to them via email, offering to talk about the issue they’ve raised.
Well, one Erev Shabbos several years ago, someone sent an email to my address at the magazine with a subject line that read “Krume Deois.” Intrigued, I read on. “Bnei Torah are not impressed with a phantom gadol baTorah, nor do I trust your ability to assess one, present to one, or understand his response. Your advanced vocabulary and terrific writing skills have not extended toward a mature understanding of this world or on how our heilige Torah views it. You blindly trust lies and allegations thrown by those who hate morality and you defend media who work to advance the gimmel chamurois. Please stop writing and rather attend a shiur in Chumash Rashi to be mechazek your emunah.”
And to this, he had no problem affixing his name: Rabbi So-and-so, menahel of Yeshivah Such-and-such.
His email followed a column expressing a particular view about the then-current president, citing my consultations with one of America’s gedolei Torah, a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah whose counsel is widely sought, but whose name I didn’t mention, at his request. My correspondent was apparently perturbed by this, but instead of simply raising the legitimate question of whether it’s appropriate to quote unnamed Torah authorities, he chose to go a different route. The low road, one might say.
My practice of contacting letter-writers with an offer to schmooze things over is usually limited to people whose tone indicates basic menschlichkeit, but still, I decided to respond:
“Dear Reb So-and-so, I’d be happy to speak with you by phone if you’ll give me a number to call, to discuss your concerns and to share with you my discussion with the gadol baTorah to whom I referred. In the interim, thank you for writing and for your concern for my development in ruchniyus. Ah guten Shabbos to you and yours, Eytan.”
A reply wasn’t long in coming, this time with a distinctly different tone: “Thank you very much. I appreciate you responding. Yes, it would be an honor to speak with you. I am sure you are quite busy, and sometimes I am as well, so I hope we don’t end up playing phone tag. My number is…. Thanks again and looking forward.”
Eager to honor another Jew with something as simple as a phone call, I called him, and although we disagreed, it was all rather amicable. But this fellow kept my number. And for years now, he has regularly been sending messages to my phone about my columns — which for some reason invariably land in my phone’s spam box.
I recently happened upon them, and in truth, I was saddened — not so much by the content, but by the image of a frum Yid — one whom parents have entrusted with the chinuch of their little ones in middos tovos — who consciously chooses to bombard the phone of someone he’s never met, someone who reached out to him, with messages foaming with words like, “You continue to promote retzichah and the other two chamuros… your ignorance is embarrassing and shameful,” or “Keep writing irrelevant meaningless articles while everything you’ve promoted causes massive devastation… You have lots of teshuvah to do but you are too arrogant to see.”
I was struck in particular by the irony that my unwanted, compulsively critical correspondent chose to refer to last week’s column as a “product of achzariyus (cruelty) or ignorance,” when in fact the theme was that “overwhelmingly, American citizens are decent folks who don’t harbor animus for real-life individuals, and whenever given the opportunity to meet and spend time with people of even sharply differing worldviews… at the very least, we come to see them as people, with whom we share a common humanity and who deserve respect and a chance to be heard. And that should give cause for hope.”
I generally try to make sure my words have a tie-in to the spiritual or material wellbeing of Jews, sometimes more discernable and sometimes less so, even when addressing political or general societal topics. And last week’s column was no different.
I offered a more optimistic, and I believe realistic, view countering the narrative of America as hopelessly driven by partisanship and doomed to decline and fall, not just because it’s true, but also because I believe that the single most important issue for Jews here is not any of the culture-war issues that so rile people, including in our community. It is, instead, the perpetuation of a reasonably stable, placid and tolerant America.
We have a crucial stake in ensuring that this country, which Rav Chaim Volozhiner famously foresaw as the letzteh stanziah, the last stop for Jews in galus before Mashiach’s arrival, remains a welcoming host, where the temperature of national debate is low, and extremists and opportunists of all persuasions — and at all levels of power — are unable to inflame passions and tear at the societal fabric.
When warring political or racial factions are at each other’s throats, even for reasons unrelated to Jews, that is a preeminent Jewish issue, because the eventual losers will invariably be those perennial scapegoats, the Jews. And how much sadder it is when Jews themselves fail to see the danger and enthusiastically add fuel to the flames of the accelerating hyper-partisan fevers. We’re the ones, after all, who are urged to daven for shlomah shel malchus, seeking to avert — not cheer on — the nightmare of “every man swallowing the next one” (Avos 3:2). And it’s sadder still when Jews themselves can’t even muster the basic ability to address each other as brothers, however much they disagree.
I will say, however, that this little saga of the one-way pen pal has a somewhat happy ending, at least for me: When I realized recently that someone had been flooding my spam message box with such unseemly sentiments, I looked to find out a bit more about him, and I came upon a video clip in which this person speaks. And the effect for me was a bit of a “Daryl Davis moment,” referring to the black musician I wrote about last week whose outreach to Klansmen has produced wondrous results.
Once you see another human being, even if just in a video, his being becomes… human. He turns from an easy-to-abhor abstraction into a real person, with feelings and thoughts, family and friends and a life history. It becomes difficult to dismiss him out-of-hand as unworthy of the effort to try to understand him, even if not to ultimately agree with him or justify his behavior.
The first step in arriving at v’ahavta lerei’acha, a feeling of caring for another — or at least an absence of ill will — is kamocha, acknowledging his humanity is on par with yours.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 871. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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