Fear: The Enemy of Ahavat Chinam

We now find ourselves in the Nine Days, a time when we reflect upon the sins that led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.  We hear calls to end sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and pleas that we should all get along.  We proclaim the statement of Rav Kook that if the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, then it will be rebuilt due to ahavat chinam, baseless love.  It seems that people are serious, in theory, about treating everyone respectfully, and about learning how to disagree without being disagreeable.  But here’s the problem.

The leaders of the Open Orthodox movement.  The rabbis of the charedi community.  Ben Shapiro.  Bernie Sanders.  Many of these individuals are beloved by their followers and ridiculed or even reviled by their opponents.  I read a beautiful edition in HaMizrachi, the religious Zionist Torah newsletter, about trying to bridge the charedi-religious Zionist divide, about trying to focus on what unites us and not what divides us.  And that’s a wonderful thing, because, after all, we want to promote ahavat chinam, love and friendship across the Jewish community.  I wonder how many of those who advocate a friendlier and more respectful tone towards the charedi community in the name achdut and ahavat chinam feel the same way about the modern orthodox community’s relationship with the open orthodox community and have advocated that even if we disagree about some fundamental issues, we should advocate a friendlier and more respectful tone towards the leaders of that community.

I have been reading about and listening to the response to the disgraceful behavior of a group of young orthodox Jews about a month ago who disrupted bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian plaza of the Kotel, and how many orthodox Jews have been advocating a friendlier and more respectful tone towards non-Orthodox Jews in the name of achdut and ahavat chinam.  I wonder how many of them feel the same way about the charedi community and have advocated that even if we disagree about some fundamental issues, like the public role of women in the Jewish community, we should advocate a friendlier and more respectful tone towards that community.

How many of us believe that even if we fundamentally disagree with either the political philosophy or the tone of Ben Shapiro or Bernie Sanders, that we must refrain from ad hominem attacks on them in the name of ahavat chinam?  Or do we pick and choose where we want to focus on ahavat chinam?  Do we say, yes, I wholeheartedly believe in promoting goodwill and unity, but he or she is or they are too much of a threat to us, so I must speak up harshly against him, her or them?  Do we truly want to build bridges or do we only want to strengthen those bridges in which we already believe?

At the end of the day, the greatest threat to ahavat chinam is fear.  We are afraid of the other.  We would love to promote peace and friendship, but he or she or they threaten my way of life and it is insufficient for me to express disagreement in a respectful way.   In order to persuade people of the legitimacy of my position, I must evoke anger and cynicism and ridicule and personally attack the other because I am afraid of him or her or them.

I know how people will respond to my call for ahavat chinam across the board.  They will make distinctions and they will say that the charedi community has a mesora and gedolim who support their position so even if I disagree with their philosophy about how women are treated, I should respect them.  However, the open orthodox movement has no mesora relating to their positions and they are distorting orthodox Judaism so it is actually dangerous to respect them. Others will argue that charedi culture is influencing my modern orthodox community and we cannot tolerate how women are being treated like second-class citizens by their community and they are afforded so much respect so we must come out and strongly ridicule them.  We can argue that Bernie Sanders is a self-hating Jew because he is so anti-Israel as evidenced by his political positions, so it’s a mitzvah to hate him, and we can argue that the way Ben Shapiro demeans his opponents while wearing a yarmulke causes a tremendous chillul Hashem so it’s important that we publicly denounce and delegitimize him.

If we make these distinctions, then ahavat chinam becomes important except when there is a lot of fear, and everyone defines fear differently.   While I am not equating any of these people or these groups per se, the result of making these distinctions is that we don’t increase ahavat chinam in our communities because we live in a culture of fear.  Because of fear, we don’t see the other who espouses viewpoints that are diametrically opposed to ours as having a “tzelem elokim,” as being created in the image of God.  After all, if we truly believed that, then we would accord everyone with respect.  There is a story in the gemara (Brachot 10a) that hooligans were harassing Rabbi Meir in his neighborhood.  Rabbi Meir prayed that God should kill them.  Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruria, explained to him that the pasuk in Tehillim (104:35) states, “yitamu chata’im min ha’aretz,” or “let sins cease from the land.”  The pasuk does not state “yitamu chot’im min ha’aretz,” that sinners should cease from the land.  Rather, one should pray for an end to their sins, but not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.  Bruria conveys the importance of sensitivity to every person, even someone who may cause us pain and anguish by what they do or what they say.

Additionally, because of fear, sometimes we are afraid to consider that there may be something of value in a position or a group with which we disagree.  It’s much easier to see things in black and white.  I think we fear that our own message will be weakened if we acknowledge the rare occasion when we do agree with the other side.

In practice, what does ahavat chinam look like?

First, ahavat chinam means that I truly respect and care about you because everyone was created in the image of God even if I think you are wrong.

Second, ahavat chinam means that I consider that there may be something of value in your position even if I generally disagree with your religious or political worldview.

Third, ahavat chinam means that I understand your motivations for excluding women from pictures or, alternatively, for advocating for women rabbis (whatever the issue is), even if I disagree with your conclusions.

Fourth, ahavat chinam means that I explain why I disagree without expressing anger, disgust, cynicism or ridicule.  (Please see an example of this approach when  I discussed the decision of an orthodox young woman to compete for the Olympics on Shabbat. )

Fifth, ahavat chinam means that I do not accuse you of insincere motivations, even if you may have expressed an inconsistent position elsewhere.  After all, nobody is ever one hundred percent consistent.

Sixth, ahavat chinam doesn’t abdicate my responsibility to passionately advocate for my beliefs, but it means that I do not operate on the basis of fear; rather, I strongly advocate my position and hope to convince others with my passion for my position as opposed to my passion against my opponent.

Seventh, ahavat chinam means that even if someone else uses an inappropriate tone in his or her argument, I don’t respond in kind; rather, I model Beit Hillel who are praised in the gemara for being easy going and allowing themselves to be insulted without responding (Eruvin 13a).

Are there any exceptions to ahavat chinam?  Maybe there is an exception when there is near unanimous agreement within the broader community, such as Get refusal.  Here there is some degree of consensus that public pressure may be the only direct way to persuade the Get refuser to give a Get.  Here you are not attacking someone for his views.  You are attacking someone because of his behavior and because you believe that doing so will lead to a change in his behavior.  But I would hesitate to expand the list beyond that case and maybe a few other extreme situations.

Unfortunately, I have read too many well-meaning social media posts which are rants that express anger, disgust, and cynicism towards others.  I have read too many well-meaning ad hominem attacks on others.  And I have read too many “likes” to these posts on Facebook and I understand why.  It’s the fear that if nobody speaks up, then the dangerous philosophy with which you disagree, whether it’s political or religious, may creep into your community.  And we can continue to do that.  Just realize that there is another way to express disagreement, and fear ultimately comes at the cost of ahavat chinam.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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