Loving the Stranger (within)
by Dr. William Kolbrener
What I’m getting from the first ripples I’m making in the blogosphere is that there really is no such thing as ‘openminded’ Torah. Yaakov (who is a colleague of mine) wonders whether being charedi (I’m glad he didn’t say ultra-orthodox) may preclude being open-minded; Daniel suggests, from a totally different perspective, that the Torah requires a form of self-nullification–without which one ends up being a heretic.
If openminded is the perspective of the non-committed relativist, then I’d have to assent to Yaakov’s doubts and Daniel’s assertion. Perhaps something more on what I understand by “open-minded” will help.
In the same portion of the Torah which enjoins the Jewish people to love one’s neighbor, there is the command to love the “stranger.” Rashi writes that one might come to hate the stranger because he manifests a מום or a ‘defect,’ and the presence of such a defect arouses a desire to afflict him, or distance him from our midst. Such a person was once immersed in עבודה זרה, idolatry, and now he dares to want to imbibe the Torah of Hashem, to sit and learn in the same yeshivot and seminaries with us! What an extraordinary chutzpah!
Yet, the verse continues: “you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The verse not only explains why we should love the stranger, but it also provides the license for Rashi’s explanation for why we might come to hate him. The very characteristics which we can’t acknowledge about ourselves–things that are too painful or unpleasant to recall–we externalize in hatred for the other. As we recall from the Pesach seder: we were once ourselves slaves in Egypt, immersed in idolatry. So we look at the stranger and project upon him the very characteristic which we fear might be most true (no, is true!) about ourselves. We have a natural propensity, the Torah tell us, to not only be in denial about our past, but to identify in others the very supposed shortcomings which we most want to escape. We hate the thing which–in a way we can’t yet face–defines who we are! Our liturgy is filled with references to the G-d who took us out of Egypt. Not the G-d who created the heavens and the earth, but the G-d who took the Jewish people out of Egypt. Such prayers emphasize the message: remember who you are!; remember where you came from! The price for forgetting, on both the personal and community levels, can be pathology. Like in the case of the school administrator, who is so disturbed about his niece with down’s syndrome–in ways that he can’t even begin to acknowledge–that he finds that the proximity of such a child (in this case, our Shmuel) to his institution unthinkable–proclaiming it would give the school a ‘bad name.’
Showing how individuals or communities deny their latent identifications with the very practices or people they wish to exclude is tempting, but ultimately too easy, and a deflection of what really matters. The Torah was not given to sociologists, and the sociological groupings of secular and orthodox, Reform and charedi (and so many others) aside from being divisive, distract from more important business. That business includes knowing oneself. To love the stranger means being open minded first and foremost to the stranger in oneself. Such internal psychic harmony is the pre-requisite for marital harmony, family harmony–more modest projects with which to begin before we tackle communal harmony. That may mean acknowledging (strange) parts of ourselves which don’t necessarily fit within the ideal image of who it is we want to become. But the paradox is: if I do not acknowledge the stranger within, I will likely never become that ideal person of my dreams. G-d created our tri-partite soul (and by this I do not mean id, ego and super ego, but rather nefesh, ruach, and neshama), so it makes sense to attend to it. To be open-minded in this sense means to be open to the energies which will transform me into the person I want to become. Without incorporating those energies, I will remain in silent battle with those part of myself I can’t face, instead of using those energies as a means of personal transformation. This not only means acknowledging things about which I’d rather forget (or repress) about myself; it also may mean acknowledging a past from which I had hoped to distance myself, the stranger within.
But acknowledgment is only the first step. It’s not that, to use a primitive example, I say, ‘John Henry Bonham used to be my favorite drummer, but now I’ve renounced music altogether to learn in yeshiva day and night.’ But rather: ‘I learn in yeshiva during the days, and at night I play in a band at weddings; and, if you listen carefully, you can hear some of the rhythms of Led Zepellin.’ I don’t merely acknowledge, ‘I have skeletons in my closet,’ but I go further. From acknowledgment to integration. Those skeletons in the closet are part of me. Through love (not an indulgence often mistaken for love), I rectify my past and even those desires and fears for which I may feel shame: I do not give them free reign, but I raise them to a higher level.
When the Torah speaks of the festival of Passover, the verse says, “Even on the first day…” Our Sages say the first day is the day preceding the seven day festival. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that the ‘first day’ at once precedes the redemptive process commemorated by the festival, but is also an integral part of it. For the holiday requires that we remember where we came from. It’s our collective memory as a nation of slaves that has enabled us to become who we are today. Indeed, our divine service is made possible by who we once were, integrated into who we are today. To remember the ‘stranger in our midst’ also means remembering the stranger within–to be open-minded to who we are, and who we want to become.
To be open-minded in this sense is not a path to solipsism and heresy, but the pre-requisite for authentic avodas Hashem–service of G-d.
Bill Kolbrener teaches English Literature at Bar Ilan and lectures and writes widely on Jewish topics. His new blog is www.openmindedtorah.blogspot.com