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

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5 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “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…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.”

    Very thoughtful piece! I think that there are two aspects to any appropriate “Torah-Open Mindedness”:

    First, “intellectual empathy”, the ability to appropriately identify with another’s mindset. In conversation, this would mean when appropriate, listening to a person without agreeing with their point of view, but entering their mindset to make them feel genuinely understood, which could be included under nosei b’ol im chaveiro.

    Second, there is honestly recognizing and accepting one’s own humanity, rather than disowning it. R. Yerucham Levovitz(Daas Torah, V’zos Haberacha)writes that the Chovos HaLevavos himself, may have gone through the challenges mentioned in Shaar Yichud Hama’aseh(including, I assume, the intellectual ones listed there), and successfully overcome them.

    There are sources which go further and say that it is specifically the challenges or the “skeletons in the closet” which are the cause of growth in avodas Hashem (eg, the letter from R. Hutner where he says about gedolim, “but who knows about their struggles, their failures, their falls and their regressions”). As far the application to “Torah-Open Mindedness” is concerned, if one realizes that one suffers or had suffered from the same or a similar malady, it could lead to a greater understanding of another.

  2. sarah shapiro says:

    The idea of understanding “love the stranger” as a command to “love the stranger within” is for me a new, fascinating interpretion, one that’s rich with multi-faceted meanings.

    Yet the phrase itself — “Openminded Torah” — still grates, somehow, and strikes me as a misnomer. Even though it’s clear from the above essay that this is not at all Dr. Kolbrener’s intent, my inner ear still hears those words as if they were apologetically acquiescing to those who view the Torah-observant as “narrow-minded.”

  3. evanstonjew says:

    I enjoyed the piece but I think you made it too easy. The disowned material is usually split off in some way, either vertically as unconscious material or horizontally as living in two conscious worlds and refusing to bring them together. If all the material is available upon straightforward introspection why isn’t it acknowledged and integrated. There is a reason why people thought the division of the mind as id, ego etc is useful. What sort of psychodynamics do you get from nefesh, ruach, neshama?

    My other point which is related is that where we come from can be described in more than one way, and not knowing where you come from means choosing certain descriptions over others. It is not a simple case of amnesia…who knew we were slaves in Egypt? It is recognizing that the people of Israel under the leadership of Hashem and through his servant Moses rebelled against an oppressive regime and risked their lives for freedom. Put this way it sounds vaguely radical and rebellious, the sort of thing an anarchist might say and one that does not fit in with normal politics. Obviously we remember the more passive description “G-d took us out of Egypt.”

  4. William Kolbrener says:

    I’m grateful for the comments and thought I’d take the chance to respond. Sarah correctly intuited my intention (notwithstanding her diyuk on my blog title). I don’t want to give the impression that Torah observant Jews are narrow-minded, but I do think that there are representations of Torah (appearing extremely authoritative to some) which give the impression that somehow being ‘open minded’ goes against the spirit of authentic Torah. I’m not writing from a sociological perspective, but hoping to write something that may be enabling to those who–in the service of their yiddishkeit–want to be more open-minded to themselves.

    As ‘Evanston Jew’ suggests the process of being open to oneself is in fact not so easy (because of all sorts of mechanisms of repression, avoidance, etc). Self-consciousness, as he suggests, may not even be enough to acheive such psychic balance. Bridging the gap between parts of the soul or psyche requires labor–and probably help from ba’alie mussar and perhaps psychologists. Integration is certainly a task of under-estimated difficulty. As for the psychic dynamic of ruach-nefesh-neshama, it’s something about which I’m still thinking…

    And with Baruch, I find Rav Hutner’s letter inspiring. The various reactions to that letter provides a window into the different segments of c’lal yisroel (oops, I am sounding like a sociologist), and how they might react–or have already reacted–to a book like The Making of a Gadol…

  5. Moshe Schorr says:

    I _like_ that quotation from R. Hutner. Where is the letter available? I
    have heard that the book Making of a Gadol (unexpurgated version) is fetching $1,500 on Amazon!

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