Divisiveness & Love, Part 2
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd
of a two part series addressing the issue of Rabbis and
their role in fostering respect or, G-d forbid, divisiveness
in our communities (For Last week's article, see Love
This message is particularly appropriate in
these Days of the Omer (the present period between Passover
and Shavuot) which are marked by the tragic epidemic that struck
24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva for ‘not treating each other
with respect’ (Talmud, Yevamot 62b). In response to and as a
form of tikkun (repair) of the wounds of dissent, we double
and triple our efforts in these days to act with unconditional
respect and love for each other. We also work on refining our
own character during these 49 days of Omer, each day corresponding
to another one of our 49 (7x7) emotional attributes.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today
is divisiveness. Splintered families, fragmented communities,
national, racial and cultural rifts have all become the norm
of our age. Not to mention the spilt within our psyches.
Has it always been this way?
Difficult to say. Comparing generations is always a tricky endeavor,
because each generation tends to see its problems in the strongest
light. Distinctions of time and place also contribute to the
difficulty of making accurate comparisons.
One thing is for sure: Prosperity and comforts
tend to intensify the divide between people. Oppression of a
people has the power to unite them. It elicits their vigilance
and fortitude. It forces a crystallization of values and standards.
However, when people live in peace and comfort, natural apathy
seeps back in, creating (or exposing) deeper schisms between
classes, families, communities and individuals.
The Jewish people are a perfect example of this.
Oppression did not allow them the free time and luxury to fight
with each other, especially over petty matters. Unquestionably,
there were many disagreements among Jews throughout history.
Yet, a ‘comfortable divisiveness’ – one that becomes structurally
solidified as an integral part of society – is a modern phenomenon.
Here is not the place to discuss the ironic paradox,
why human comfort should cause more separation and misery, but
the facts are the facts. I am not advocating a return to oppression
(G-d forbid), but rather pointing out the challenge of freedom
What follows below is an account of one of the
most defining moments in my life that allowed me a glimpse into
It happened a few years ago. I was invited to
sit on a panel discussion at Touro Law School in Huntington,
New York. The discussion was about some of the principles of
Jewish faith including a dialogue on Moshiach and redemption
(geulah). My co-panelists were two other Rabbis, one
Orthodox and another Conservative. From the story you will see
why I don’t call myself an ‘orthodox’ Rabbi. Our mediator presented
ten questions on the given topics to all three of us and we
all responded to them in a cordial way.
After we finished answering the mediator’s questions,
the audience was invited to ask their questions. We were in
an auditorium filled with maybe three, four hundred people.
A woman stood up in the back of the room and asked the following
question. “I speak on behalf of the largest segment of Jews
today, the 90% of the Jewish people who are assimilated and
unaffiliated with any type of denomination. Some of us question
the existence of G-d, many of us don’t go to any synagogue.
Many are disappointed in their religious leaders and others
are just plain apathetic. I want to know this: you Rabbis all
talk so eloquently about a final redemption and a world that
will be driven by G-d and spirituality in the quest for divine
knowledge rather than material pursuits. I want to know what
will happen to myself and 90% of Jews today who are totally
non-observant and not committed to any mitzvahs or any of the
Torah laws, what will happen to us if Moshiach were to come
“Oh man, pretty good question,” I say to myself.
The order of response was first the orthodox Rabbi.
He said four words: “G-d will have mercy”… Subsequently, a resounding
‘boo’ arose from the entire crowd. Clearly they were not satisfied
with his answer and found it condescending. This was not exactly
a reverent audience, you can imagine, so they didn’t mind booing
a Rabbi. That’s what he said and that’s how they responded to
Then came the Conservative Rabbi’s turn. He actually
turned to me and said, “yes, I have the same question Rabbi
Jacobson. What will happen to the unaffiliated?” The crowd laughed.
That would have been bad enough, but then he added the following.
His voice dripping with cynicism, he said that he once heard
in the name of one of the Torah leaders and scholars of the
last generation (I won’t mention the name), that the Holocaust
was G-d’s punishment of the Jews for breaking Jewish law, particularly
those in central Europe, France and Germany (where the reform
movement was born, etc.). And the Rabbi went on to list how
every atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis was a result of another
broken commandment broken. Their hair was shorn was because
they didn’t cover their hair, their arms were hurt was because
they didn’t put on Tefillin. Children were killed because they
weren’t born in purity, etc. etc. “And so if the Messiah were
to come tonight,” the conservative Rabbi turned to me and asked,
“Is that what you believe will happen to 90% of the Jewish people,
the people that don’t keep the Mitzvot, will they experience
His words were chilling -- he had succeeded in
unsettling the entire crowd and getting them riled up. A profound
tension filled the air.
There are questions and there
are questions. This woman’s question was one of those moments
of truth. Because ultimately her simple question touches the
heart of all of Judaism; it exposes what we really believe,
it touches us all. And the Conservative Rabbi’s unnerving remarks
only helped accentuate the issues at hand.
I must tell you that this was
one of the most powerful experiences in my life. Imagine the
scene of 400 stunned people sitting there waiting for my response.
I sat there on the podium under those glaring lights, getting
hotter under the collar. A thundering silence filled the room.
Clearly, this question went straight to people’s hearts. The
question was provocative but to the point. And how?
As it came my turn to speak, every second turned
into an hour. Frankly, I had no idea what I was going to say.
One thing was for sure. I was not going to get away with some
evasive cliché or humorous answer. This was a real moment
of truth. Sometimes your entire life training is to prepare
you to answer this type of question. I knew that my response
– especially in context of the other Rabbis… what shall we call
it? -- could make it or break it for hundreds of people.
So, what does one do in a time like this? You
pray that G-d put the right words in your mouth. I thought to
myself: How would Moses, the Baal Shem Tov, the Rebbe – all
the true Jew lovers – what would they say to this question?
What would G-d Himself say to this woman?
I prayed to G-d to put the right words in my mouth.
I took a deep breath and here is what came out of my mouth:
“One of the Rebbe’s once said that if you are
asked a question and you don’t have an answer you should tell
a story and if that doesn’t work you should sing a song. I will
try to tell a story and I hope this story answers your question
and I won’t need to sing.
“In the 19th century there was a Rebbe that lived
in a town in Russia, a great Rebbe, mystic and scholar, and
very well respected. One Simchat Torah in 1887 the Rebbe spoke
about the great virtues of simple folk. He spoke very highly
about their special stature, and how they are in some ways even
greater than the scholar and pious person. These were not just
words. Among the Rebbe’s close acquaintances was a secular,
non-observant Jew. He was neither a scholar nor very pious,
but the Rebbe spent serious time with him.
“Following the talk, one of the elder Chassidim
came to the Rebbe and asked with respect. ”The Rebbe encourages
us to ask questions, so I have a question. While I understand
that a simple person has certain virtues, yet the way the Rebbe
described it seems somewhat ‘stretching it.’ I respect the Rebbe’s
choices but how is it that the Rebbe can justify spending so
much disproportionate time with this fellow who is neither a
scholar nor a pious man, when so many of his students and followers
would give their lives to spend just a few minutes with the
Rebbe, for wisdom, for inspiration.
“Knowing that this Chassid was a diamond merchant,
the Rebbe asked him to bring several diamonds of different values
so that he (the Rebbe) could choose the most precious one of
the lot. It was a strange request but when the Rebbe asks, a
Chassid complies although he didn’t know what the Rebbe was
getting at. He gathered several precious stones of different
values and placed them before the Rebbe. The Rebbe chose the
largest and brightest stone and exclaimed: “this is the most
precious of the lot – am I right?!” The Chassid didn’t want
to contradict the Rebbe so he remained quiet. But after the
Rebbe insisted, the Chassid said, “well, that is not really
the most precious one.”
“But the stone looks so beautiful and large” asked
the Rebbe. The Chassid replied, “With all due respect Rebbe,
you need to have a trained eye. The naked eye cannot tell the
value of a stone, the cut, color, clarity and carat.” The Rebbe
smiled and said to him, “With all due respect, if that is the
case with stones, how much more so with neshamot, souls.
The value of a soul is not what meets the eye, you need to have
a trained eye, the naked eye can’t tell anything about neshamot”
The Rebbe was telling him that he cannot judge the value of
After telling this story, I continued: “There
is no human being in the world that can measure souls because
souls are not man made, they are divine. Therefore only G-d
knows the true nature of our souls, we humans don’t. I don’t
know whose neshama is greater, whether it is yours (I
pointed to the woman) or mine or someone else’s, or this orthodox
Rabbi’s or this conservative Rabbi’s or anyone else in this
room. Not only don’t I know, but it doesn’t even matter. It
is not our business to know, judge or measure the value of souls.
If we had to know the nature of the soul, we would have been
told. It is not our job and function to know. The fact is that
we all have neshamot and we do not know whose is greater.
Sometimes the one with the greatest challenges is the one with
the greatest soul.
“We know very little about a soul and its journey.
Remember, none of us chose to be born into the families that
we were born into. Why for instance, is one child born into
a healthy, nurturing home, and another child is born into a
dysfunctional, abusive home? Why is one child born into a home
which provided the child with a strong spiritual education,
one that offered a proud and educated Jewish influence, and
another child is born into a home that provided no education,
or a very negative and illiterate one? These are part of G-d’s
mysterious ways and only G-d knows the answer to these questions.
One thing is for sure: Each soul is pure and holy, and no one
has the right or the knowledge to know the level of a soul.
We cannot judge anyone, because we don’t know all the forces
that have shaped their lives.
“None of us chose to be born into the families
that we were born into. I didn’t choose my parents and the education
and level of observance they provided me. You didn’t choose
your family, and the 90% of the unaffiliated Jews that you described
also didn’t choose. It is all driven by Divine intervention,
G-d chooses. In other words, the type of education, the kind
of family and environment that we would be exposed to is totally
not up to us. We therefore cannot judge people and measure them.
“The only thing we could measure – even if we
had that right – is: what did you do with the abilities and
opportunities that were presented to you?
“One step further. It says in holy books that
Moses was shown all the generations to come. Moses is the first
and greatest leader of the Jewish people, their ultimate shepherd,
‘roeh Yisroel.’ Before he passed away, G-d wanted to
show him the future generations so that he would have nachas
(pleasure) to see how they would thrive under all circumstances.
Of all the things he saw what impressed Moses most was the effort
and commitment of the last generation. The Torah tells us that
Moses is the humblest man that walked the face of this earth.
Why was he so humble? He was humble before our generation. When
he saw this generation – one so assimilated, so secular, a generation
that grew out of generations who suffered so much – and yet
there are Jews trying to connect to G-d, that humbled Moses.
This one tries to keep a Shabbos, this one tries to light a
Shabbos candle, Yizkor on Yom Kippur, whatever. That humbled
“You know why? Because Moses’ generation was ‘enlightened.‘
They all witnessed and experienced miracles. The exodus from
Egypt, the parting of the sea, revelation at Sinai, forty years
of miracles in the wilderness and yet they were far from perfect.
But this generation did not see miracles. It is a generation
that has every reason to deny G-d. A generation that followed
the holocaust and before that, the pogroms in Eastern Europe,
the Cossacks, and before that the Inquisition and the Crusaders.
On and On, you name it – and still, there are people walking
the streets of New York or Bangkok, Melbourne or Stockholm,
Tel Aviv or Capetown, wherever it may be, and are aspiring and
trying – that humbled Moses more than anything else.”
Then I concluded:
“I don’t know much more than you do, and I don’t
understand it all on a cosmic level, but in reply to your question,
I can say this: I was taught by my Rebbes that if Moshiach is
to come tonight, all of us, including the 90% unaffiliated will
march with him. Indeed, people with the greatest challenges
will march first – being the ones that made Moses humble. If
Moshiach comes tonight, by tomorrow morning you and every person
on this earth will recognize that Mitzvos and Torah is the healthiest
and best way for a person and a Jew to self-actualize and to
live up to their divine calling and their highest potential.”
There was silent hush in the room after I finished
speaking. I felt a very strong emotional reaction coming from
the crowd, a powerful surge of electricity that was felt across
the entire room. People were crying and the woman who asked
the question came over to me in tears. It was amazing, beyond
description. I was deeply moved and never forgot that evening.
I sincerely say this with all humility – because
I know that my answer was not my own. I truly feel privileged
to have a Rebbe who taught me how to answer this question. Without
that I honestly believe that I would have had the same blank
response as the other two rabbis did.
I must admit that I felt proud
at that moment, and every time I think about that evening. Not
arrogant pride, but blessed pride. A pride that is mixed with
deep sadness, because right here before my eyes I saw both the
tragedy and blessing of our times. These two so-called Rabbis
could not answer this earth shattering and life-defining question.
If they cannot answer such a fundamental question, what are
they doing to their constituents?! Without the basic understanding
of the soul, are they truly able to foster love and respect
for people that are not like themselves – people from other
communities, people who may dress and behave differently, people
who may go to other synagogues, unaffiliated Jews and so on?
The reason they could not answer the question
is because they never learned about the neshama – the
soul. They may know much about the Torah’s laws and dictates,
but not much about the human spirit. The reason I was able
to address the issue was not because of my innovation or creative
skills, but because I was taught these principles.
The indispensable value and sanctity of every individual soul
– despite its challenges and opportunities – is the most fundamental
principle in Judaism. This is what Torah is all about; everything
else is commentary.
G-d created the neshama. Each human being
has a soul that is created in a divine image and all of us are
trying our best through the information we have and through
study and commitment to live up to it. Without knowledge or
awareness of every soul’s value, there is no way that we could
find ways to love each other unconditionally. The mitzvah of
“love thy fellow as yourself’ is only possible because we have
souls that unite, and we are not just bodies that divide.
And this is precisely what is lacking today in
our education system, including the education of many of our
Rabbis. This is one of the reasons that I struggle with the
title “Rabbi” and “Orthodox.” Because these names are
labels that either don’t mean anything, or even worse. I don’t
want to be stereotyped because of the behavior or ignorance
of many so-called “Rabbis.”
We all are essentially souls of G-d walking around
in material bodies. Titles are not that important, especially
titles that become bureaucratic and tend to obscure the truth.
Those two Rabbis were very nice guys. The fact
that they couldn’t answer the question was not due to their
own fault. They were never taught this information. Even if
they were aware of the concepts, for them it was only a concept,
not a viable reality. And without knowing the reality of this
fundamental principle, how could they ever communicate the message
of Torah to the unaffiliated 90% (or whatever number it is)
of the Jewish people. The answer is they don’t communicate it!
They may communicate it to the other ten percent, their constituents,
but this inherently creates an immediate separation between
‘us and them,’ so to speak, between this group and that group,
because there is no spiritual common denominator between different
types of Jews. Everyone is going their own way, completely oblivious
that we are all interdependent souls, and each of us is incomplete
without the other souls.
I repeat again: The only way to bridge and unite
diverse people is through recognizing the sanctity and indispensability
of each individual soul, regardless of background.
Last week I wrote about a foolproof method to
determine the status of your Rabbi by asking him for his sources.
In the same vein, if you want to have a good understanding of
any Rabbi – and for that matter any scholar – ask him this woman’s
question: What will happen to the people who transgressed when
Let me conclude with the following words: There
may be no perfect rabbis today. There may be no perfect synagogues
and communities. However, G-d tells us that he does not ask
us to accomplish our mission without giving us the abilities
to do so. We have everything it takes to fulfill our calling.
Therefore, we clearly have the power to search, discover and
recognize the appropriate Torah authorities and mentors that
will assist us in our life journey.
Remember, we are all in the same boat. We all
face challenges of people not living up to the standards of
their belief system; we all have experienced hypocrisy and the
inevitable disappointments. But we also have been given strength
to face these challenges, and we do not come alone. We are like
‘midgets’ that stand on the shoulders of ‘giants’ – all the
generations that come before us. With this enormous accumulative
power we have within ourselves the ability to face corruption
and not become victims. Indeed, to actually transform the corruption
What each of us has to do is find the best people
around us, ask the right questions, have the courage
to ask them, and always remember that each of us, even Rabbis,
are an indispensable musical note in a grand cosmic composition.