Understanding the “Other”

It’s a story I tell a lot, since, well, its point comes up a lot.  Blessedly, my audience, at least judging from its response, hadn’t heard it before.

The psychiatrist asks the new patient what the problem is.  “I’m dead,” he confides earnestly, “but my family won’t believe me.”

The doctor raises an eyebrow, thinks a moment, and asks the patient what he knows about dead people.  After listing a few things – they don’t breathe, their hearts don’t beat – the patient adds, “and they don’t bleed very much.”  At which point the psychiatrist pulls out a blade and runs it against patient’s arm, which begins to bleed, profusely.

The patient is aghast and puzzled.  He looks up from his wound at the slyly smiling doctor and concedes, “I guess I was wrong.”

“Dead people,” he continues, “do bleed.”

I interrupted the laughter with the sobering suggestion that it’s not only the emotionally compromised victims of delusions, however, who see the world through their own particular lenses.  Most of us do, at least if we have strong convictions.  And the yields of those sometimes very different lenses are the stuff of conflict.

My brief presentation took place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, as part of an April 23 panel discussion hosted by the 92nd St. Y and Gesher (in partnership with “Israel Talks,” a JCRC-NY initiative).  It featured former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, Gesher CEO Ilan Geal-Dor and me; the discussion was moderated by Professor Ari Goldman of Columbia University.  The topic: “Resolving Conflict with Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Community.”

The point I sought to make with my little story and postscript was that a secular Jew and a religious Jew live in different universes, each providing its own perspective on reality.  The first step toward lessening the interpersonal tensions born of those alternate perspectives, I suggested, is simply recognizing that fact.  And the second is seeking – if you’re standing, you might want to sit down here – to occupy, if only for a few moments, the mind of the “other.”

That suggestion won’t sit well with those who imagine that all less-observant or non-observant Israelis are hateful, evil people, or with those who look down at the charedi community as a hopelessly backward and useless bunch.

But it’s a vital one for them, and everyone in both communities, to consider.  We charedim need to understand that many other Jews have never experienced a truly Jewish life and as a result have come to regard Jewish observance as a mere cultural heritage, and Torah-study as an unproductive vocation. No, not to accept those contentions, G-d forbid, but to understand  them, to perceive the roots of the secular disdain for Torah and for those who live and study it – giving us the tools to, at least where it can be done, change misperceptions.

Conversely, though, I continued, non-charedim, like most of the people I was addressing (though I greatly appreciated the presence of a handful of attendees who resembled my wife and me), do themselves a disservice if they don’t “try on” the perspective yielded by charedi convictions.  Again, not to succumb to the charedi mindset, just to better understand it.

And so, I touched on several issues.  We charedim really believe, I confided, that Torah – its observance and its study – protects the Jewish people.  Really.

We really believe, I continued, that what some call an “Orthodox monopoly” in religious matters in Israel is nothing other than an authentically Jewish standard – the only one that can preserve the oneness of Jewish people in the Jewish state.  Really.

We really believe that the peaceful spirit of Jewish unity that the Western Wall has evidenced for more than 40 years is threatened by those who want to change the mode of public worship there.  Really.

We really believe that traditional Jewish modesty is not misogynistic or prudish but as deeply Jewish an ideal as providing for the poor or caring for the sick.  Really.

Do any or all of those beliefs, I asked my listeners, strike you as bizarre?  “Of course they do!” I answered on the audience’s behalf.  (I read minds.)

“But you know what?” I went on.  “The non-charedi takes on security, pluralism, the Kotel and standards of dress are no less bizarre to us.”

The discussion that followed, primed by questions from the moderator and the audience, was an exercise in civility and intellectual give-and-take, particularly noteworthy considering the attempts of late by various parties in the media to bring a host of simmering issues to a boil.

At one point I mused how odd how it is that political conservatives tend to listen almost exclusively to Rush Limbaugh, and liberals, just as religiously, to NPR.  It really, I suggested, should be just the opposite.  After all, if you’re not listening to your adversary, you’re just listening to yourself.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran


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