Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller was kind enough to allow us to repost this article on Beyond BT during the 3 weeks. For more tapes and articles by Rebbetzin Heller please visit her site. To listen or download her mp3s please visit the Aish Audio site. This is the third and final part of this series.
So now Rambam, the great halachist, presents us with the following issue: What about people whom we don’t like for good reason?
Remember what I said in the beginning: Nobody gets up in the morning and announces: “It’s a great day today—I think I’ll hate people. I’ll put a little butter on the stairs; I’ll turn the TV volume all the way up and leave the house…” When we hear that the Sages said senseless hatred is a terrible sin, we say, “Oh, yes, it’s really terrible. I don’t hate any people senselessly—but apes, like my upstairs neighbors…”
I wouldn’t blame the people who live beneath us for hating us. They’re lovely. They’re immaculate. They mind their own business. They didn’t deserve what happened to them. When we bought the apartment above them, all of my numerous children still lived at home, plus my mother lived with us, so we’re talking about an awful lot of people in one apartment. They didn’t know this. One day, before we moved in, the wife saw my husband and me coming down from the apartment. She smiled and said, “I hope you’re quiet people.” I thought: She’s going to find out the truth soon enough; let her sleep tonight. So I just smiled back. Then moving day came. She sees one kid, and another, and another, and another—a whole procession—and then my mother…
Anyway, Rambam talks about hatred, so we have to define what hatred is. Love, in Jewish terms, is bonding. Hatred, then, is detachment and separation.
There are halachas about hatred. The Torah says: “Don’t hate your brother in your heart.” What exactly does that mean? It means you want nothing to do with him. If he calls, you don’t want to be home. If you see him coming towards you, you cross the street. If you could press a button and have him removed from reality, it would be a nice button.
The halacha is that if you conscientiously detach three days or more, then you’ve transgressed. You’re considered to be somebody who hates his brother in his heart.
So what should you do? The Rambam’s answer is: Don’t keep it in your heart. It won’t get better there. Decide what you think the other person has done wrong and talk to her about it.
Suppose she’s done nothing wrong. You just don’t like him. He makes you feel funny. His existence is threatening to you. Or you don’t like his lifestyle. He moved into the apartment upstairs from you with a herd of goats. In this case, Rambam says, get to the source. What you really don’t like is his dissimilarity. Which means you’re coming from a place of self-worship. You’re not willing to expand into someone else’s consciousness.
When you meet new people, you have to ask yourself two questions: One, what can I learn from this person? And two, how can I help this person?—because helping also creates bonding.
What can I learn from this person? Someone may be less religious than you, but very soft-spoken. Someone may be more religious than you, but very principled. You can learn something from her.
To do this, you have to learn not to judge. This is especially difficult in family life.
Imagine two sisters. One is a cultured intellectual. She reads non-fiction. She plays the violin. Her sister reads People magazine and listens to rock.
Now, here’s the trap: Each believes she’s normal. The cultured intellectual thinks: Who wants to read nonsense? Who wants to hear noise? My sister is abnormal. The other sister thinks: Get a life. Get with it. You’re weird.
So, in family life we tend to categorize people as “other” because of differences in personality. In communal life we tend to categorize people as “other” because of differences in view. The first thing to do in either situation is to ask: What can I learn? What can I give?
The Role of Insecurity
Now, there’s a big enemy at work here. It’s called lack of self-esteem. Let’s go back to the two sisters. If the cultured, intellectual sister is in fact worried about who she is, she’ll have a greater need to make her sister her clone. If the other sister is not really sure how valuable she is, she’ll have the same need.
This is true also in communal life. If you’re sure of who you are, you can learn from another. If you’re not sure, another person’s very existence can be a threat to you. This destroys communities. When you believe you have something to give and something to learn, you can accept difference.
An example is the situation of getting into an Israeli religious high school. It’s very difficult. When I was a student, it was different. The principal of my seminary, Rav Wolf, would tell us how, in the early ‘40s, he would knock on doors and convince parents to send their girls to his high school. He believed those girls, who otherwise would have been sent to work at age 14, were adding to the quality of the seminary. He wasn’t out to homogenize them. Today in Israel, virtually every group accepts only their own. In the charedi (“black hat”) world, there are different gradations of charedi; in the leumi (“knitted kippah”) world there are different gradations of leumi; in the secular world, there are different gradations of secular. And if you’re not the right gradation, you’re not in. This all comes from fear and insecurity. The more you believe you have something to learn and something to give, the more loving and successful your community will be.
When the Problem is Real
But what if there’s a genuine problem? Not that something hasn’t met your expectations or isn’t your cup of tea, but it’s against the Torah? According to the Rambam, you have to discuss it with the offending party. There are five steps to this:
Privacy. Privacy prevents embarrassment, and people are sometimes embarrassed to admit they did something wrong. “What will they say?” So the fewer people around, the more likely you’ll be able to have real communication.
Privacy also means communicating directly, not through an intermediary. There are two exceptions, however. The first is good food for your fantasy life: You have such great stature that the person you’re speaking to would be terribly humiliated. Picture Rav Ovadya Yosef, in his chief rabbi outfit, telling somebody, “Your slip’s showing.” She would die. In that case, you can ask someone ordinary to speak in your place. The other exception is more realistic: You have so little credibility with the person that she won’t take you seriously. Then you may have to ask someone whom she deems more credible.
Discuss actions, not character. Don’t ask “Why are you so insensitive?” Ask “Why did you do that?” You may be surprised to find that you now understand the person better. What she did may not seem so bad once you know why she did it.
Let her know you heard her by repeating what she said in different words. Also, when someone knows she’s been heard, it takes away her motivation to yell.
If her reason for doing what she did clearly isn’t valid, suggest how she might remedy the situation. Before you start, however, be sure of your emotional agenda. You want her to be better. You want her to grow. You’re not looking for validation.
Assuming she has accepted your suggestion, you now must build up the relationship. You can’t let it disintegrate into one in which you tell and she hears. You can’t learn anything from another person that way. You have to restore equality.
This is the Rambam’s system. And it works most of the time—but not all the time. Certain things can sabotage it. Many are subjective: You don’t want resolution; you want validation. Or you’re comfortable in the role of martyr. Other reasons for the system failing are objective: Although we all wish there was a magic button someone could press to rid us of a bad trait or habit, there isn’t. So even if you talk to someone and she hears you sincerely, she may not be able to change.
Take lying. We usually lie to save face. In other words, lying comes from insecurity. So you can’t just say, “You know, you really shouldn’t lie so much.” The only way to get someone to stop lying is to build up her security. And this is a long-term project.
The system may not work also because the other person has a different set of assumptions than you do. For example, a person may sincerely believe that the end justifies the means. If her education is so far from yours that she won’t accept what you say, you have to back up and tell her your view. You also have to hear her perspective and empathize. She may then possibly alter her position.
Then there are people who can’t hear what you say because they don’t like you. They’ll hear it from somebody else but not from you. Imagine being fifteen years old, and your mother has helpful advice about choosing a career: “Sweetheart, I’ve been around a lot longer than you have. I really think this decision is too big for you to make, given that you’re only fifteen, whereas I know so much more than you.” Would listen to your mother? So if the person’s not going to hear it from you, don’t say it.
Again, let’s review: We’ve said that people rarely admit to hatred, but in fact, we do hate each other on the basis of difference, whether personal or ideological. The hatred is sourced in insecurity. We’ve said that we have to learn to ask two questions: what can I learn, and what can I give.
Let me quote from the Orchot Tzaddikim. He says there are times when maintaining joy and tranquility is difficult and requires trust in G-d. One such time is when you have a problem with someone. In that situation, we have to see ourselves as G-d’s messenger and just do whatever we can that’s right. Whatever the other’s response, we can take comfort in knowing we did our best. We have to relinquish the control we’d like to have over other people’s choices.
Questions and Answers
Q. Suppose someone in my environment constantly speaks lashon hara. This means I need to avoid them. But if I do so for three days, aren’t I transgressing the prohibition against hating your brother in your heart?
A. It depends. If they’re trying actively to influence you, your first obligation is to protect yourself, even if that means detachment. But if their behavior is coming just from ignorance, you have to reach out to them.
Q. Do the rules you’ve delineated apply to non-Jews?
A. The rules for non-Jews are different. Sometimes you’ll hear someone say, “I love everyone.” Is that really true? No. Love, by definition, requires some basis of connection. There’s a Judaic premise, both rationally and mystically, that all Jews are bonded, so it’s possible to love any Jew. We don’t have the same automatic bond with non-Jews. However, you’re not more pious for hating them. The author of Sha’arei Kedusha, a great mystic, idealizes the person who feels a bond even to a leaf or to a blade of grass, simply because it’s a creation, although he doesn’t call that love. Non-Jews are creations of God. So, even if we aren’t expected to love them, we are expected to treat them decently and morally.
There are people, mostly in the older generation, who’ve suffered at the hands of non-Jews and therefore speak about them derogatorily. I personally have never suffered for being Jewish (except for once when I lost a summer job because they thought I was Italian), so it’s easy for me to judge these people negatively. We have to be careful about this. Unless you’ve suffered, don’t judge someone who has.
Q: How exactly do you help someone fix himself?
A: Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav says that if a person is wrong, but nevertheless sincere, there must be a spark of truth in what he’s saying. Your job is to find it. Once you do, and validate it, he’ll feel heard and will hear you. Picture someone on the extreme Israeli left whom I might feel great disaffection for. Assuming he’s sincere, what’s his truth? That he loves peace. Only if he understands that I hear that and also love peace will we be able to talk.
I’ll end with a story. I have a friend who lives on the West Bank, in Efrat. There was a hill just outside the city they were going to build on, and then the government withdrew permission. My friend joined the demonstrators on the hill. Soldiers were called in and ordered to physically remove them. An 18- or 19-year-old soldier approached my friend and said, “Geveret [lady], what’s it gonna be? Am I going to take you off the hill or are you going to go by yourself?” She said, “Are you so sure you’re right? What do you think? I’m not so sure I’m right.” He said, “When are you going to decide?” She said, “Come back in five minutes.” He didn’t come back. In the end, she walked down the hill herself. The reason he didn’t come back is because he didn’t want to have to treat her forcibly—because she saw him as a human, and he saw her as one.