I was flabbergasted. A person I respected deeply had called me with a reprimand for making her feel uncomfortable, as I tried to help out. She gave me the benefit of the doubt, she told me she knew I didn’t mean to, but she felt bad and ever so gently let me have it.
I wasn’t upset because she criticized me. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this person of sterling character, who lives her life in accordance with halacha (Jewish law) didn’t do what I would have done – give the benefit of the doubt and let it slide. Wouldn’t that constitute true love of your fellow man and real ahavat Israel?
It was only years later and after learning more Torah (more specifically the Rambam) that I realized that what she did was exactly what Jewish law requires. True love of your fellow man doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut. True ahavat Israel doesn’t mean not calling things as you see them. It means doing so respectfully, while believing in the divine spark in your opponent. It means trying to create a dialogue.
Ever since Ronit Peskin and I established Women FOR the Wall three months ago, we have been accused of breeding discord. This is despite our concerted effort to promote a respectful, meaningful conversation. In our society plagued by self-doubt, people tend to build identities around ideologies. Then, when the ideology is challenged, instead of discussing the real hard issues, the knee-jerk response is to make the challenge go away at all cost before it shatters the identity. And so these accusations at us are a convenient and clean way to make us shut up and disappear.
But we won’t, because although both of us are paying a heavy personal and financial price (we are both self-employed business owners), we cannot sit idly by and watch what we perceive to be the collateral damage of the Women of the Wall’s struggle. We cannot agree to the erosion of the Kotel’s status as the symbol of Judaism and Israel’s national unity. We cannot agree to the blackening of Israel’s face as a misogynist state in the international media. We cannot agree to the use of prayer as a means for reaching a political goal. We cannot agree to leave the tens of thousands of traditional and observant women, who call the Kotel their spiritual home, without a voice.
And so we will continue to hold Women of the Wall up to a standard by keeping tabs on their rhetoric and reflecting it back to them. We will continue to model what prayer looks like when it is not done in front of the cameras. And we will continue to do so in the spirit of Jewish unity by giving respect to Women of the Wall as people and calling them to join us in dialogue, even if at present they aren’t willing to talk to us.
In the coming months, we will read the Torah book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), in which the Jewish People get ready to conquer the Land of Israel from the seven nations of Canaan. Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch draws an analogy between the seven nations and the seven negative character traits each person needs to overcome to reach the “promised land” of spiritual elevation.
What is the difference between positive and negative traits? None, they are one and the same. Yet what turns a character flaw into an asset is balance. It is the ability to understand situations and act on them in their complexity, applying different, sometimes opposite personality traits. It is the ability to approach a situation from a place of thinking and ensure that our intellect rules over our emotions and not the other way round.
A classic example is our Sages’ teaching that parents need to draw children close with their right hand and push them away with their left or in other words shower children with love while at the same time maintaining firm nonnegotiable boundaries. The same complex approach applies to every life circumstance: social trends and interpersonal relationships, theology and politics.
With the month of Av upon is, it is incumbent upon all of us develop true ahavat Israel. To pursue our disagreement from a place of dignity. To speak our minds with authenticity. To recognize the humanity of the opponent. It’s ok to disagree; we all just need to learn how.