The Violence of Our Reactions

Last week on Facebook, someone posted a message asking “where are the New York Jews when it comes to standing up for Israel?” I could have received his message had he taken the time to sense how others might hear it. Unfortunately, his point was lost when he added “shame on you for not doing more” and other judgments about how lazy and apathetic us New York Jews are.

In the Jewish community, reactivity levels are outrageously high when it comes to differing beliefs. Our unanimity may have helped us survive all these years but currently, our continued insistence on conformity at all costs is killing us. We attack our own people when their views oppose our own.

Several weeks ago when we learned about the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers, our sense of “us” and “them” dissolved. “We are one” was the heartfelt message.

Granted, this horrific loss and the devastating feelings around it have heightened our fear and volatility. But as soon as Hamas and the IDF started their recent attacks on one another we lost this incredible sense of unity.

Sadly, this is nothing new. The topics change but the dynamics persist.

Presently, some who have made Aliyah are attacking those who live in America “You don’t live here. You have no right to speak about this!” while others with more conservative leanings are bashing their liberal peers as “self-hating Jews…” and on it goes.

Most of my friends fear posting differing opinions online about the conflict lest they be lambasted while others have closed their social media accounts following weeks of arguing saying “I can’t do this anymore. I feel heartbroken, drained, distressed.”

It is devastating to see us cause each other pain.

What happened to us being “brothers”? Can we only be unified when people see things our way?

We have become obsessed and over identified with our opinions and beliefs living as if these opinions are all that define us. We display a life or death need to be right, trying to force others into agreement with us even at the expense of our connections to them. When they don’t agree, we shame and marginalize them calling them “angry” or “mentally ill” on topics ranging from sexual abuse to women seeking greater equality. Ultimately, we punish them for not being who we want them to be.

This evaluative posture is starkly at odds with the stated values of our most revered texts. If a person is asked to either surrender another to be killed or allow himself to be killed, the Talmud states he must let himself be killed. The text asks rhetorically, if not metaphorically “how do you know your blood is redder than his? maybe his blood is redder than yours?” Our lives are of equal preciousness in the eyes of God.

How have we become so righteous in our own views that we think each of us is an arbiter of who is a better Jew or who cares more about Israel? Do we know the contents of another’s heart? Is judging the other because their view doesn’t neatly fit with our own, loving our neighbor as he is or as we feel he should be?

Judging and insisting we’re right comes from our deep misconception that our only value comes from our opinions. We fear losing who we think we are so we fight like hell to preserve our views. Sadly, we haven’t been taught the most magnificent truth at the heart of Judaism. We are infinite and luminescent beings. We transcend everything our finite minds can conceive of. This irrevocable sacredness of our spirit is the birthright of all human beings. It is what endures when we die and is our essence beyond our egos and ideas.

A recent study conducted by Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske discovered that we dehumanize people when they don’t match our expectations of them and feel warmer towards them when they comply. In generalizing about people, we distance ourselves from them and lose touch with our own humanity. Judging is the surest sign that we are out of alignment with our divine nature, our hearts.

It’s not that we can’t have opinions rather how do we disagree with or differ from another? How much force do we use to make a point and at what cost? Can we let people differ without making them wrong? Can our culture preserve itself without blame and judgment?

Tolerating difference is the hallmark of intimacy and the anchor for peace in any relationship. I used to think it was also the bedrock of Judaism but it’s difficult to sense much healthy differentiation these days amongst us. When a couple seeks therapy, each partner often hopes the therapist will tell their spouse “you’re wrong”. Therapists commonly remark “do you want to be right or do you want to be connected?” Having a right to your view doesn’t mean someone else has to be wrong.

We learn to tolerate difference by pausing before we react, noticing how tense our bodies become and then seeing we have choice to respond from a gentler place. This is hard because the mind moves so quickly. We can say “help me understand why you see it that way even though I can feel this is hard for me”. Or, “New York Jews, we need to feel you are with us. Here’s what you can do.”

What if we said “I’d rather not get into this, I care too much about our relationship” or more humbly, “maybe I don’t have to know what I think about this right now” We can use some humility right now.

When our ego relaxes, our heart remembers you are me, and like me you too have a right to be heard. We agree to disagree. The mind knows only right and wrong. It lives on ideas and words and it divides. The heart on the other hand, is so vast, it can make space to hold all opinions (as God holds all his children). The heart is beyond words and lets go of the antagonism of right and wrong, black and white.

Standing before our friend, colleague or child we might sense just how urgent it feels to have an opinion and ask ourselves “what am I afraid I will lose if I don’t make this point?”. “And how likely am I to change their mind by yelling at them?”

The great spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti wrote: “Violence is not merely killing another. It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush away a person.. So violence isn’t merely organized butchery in the name of God, in the name of society or country. Violence is much more subtle, much deeper”

We are violent and oppressive when our own people fear ridicule for expressing differing views and choices.

Spiritual progress as a people requires that we soften our righteous need for certainty which is a precursor of fanaticism. When we pause, our ego will be petrified that it’s dying if we don’t make our one point. Paradoxically, nothing dies but our fear.

Peace cannot find a home where there is contention and violence. Do we need to be right more than we want peace? And what comes first- our humanity or our opinions?

Peace is not something we obtain outside ourselves. Peace is something we awaken within.

Peace begins with you.

About the Author
Stacey Klein, LCSW is a child, adolescent and adult psychotherapist practicing in Manhattan. Her approach is holistic, synthesizing Western therapies with elements of Eastern and Western spiritual practice. She is also an advocate for more awareness around child abuse in the Jewish Community. Her greatest passion is helping people discover and embody the spectacular light living inside them.
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