January 21, 2009
The Circling Rabbi
Rabbi Perry Netter lost his enthusiasm for our conversation when I popped him the question. We were discussing, over a long lunch at Shilo’s, the topic of human conflict, and I asked him if he could recall a special moment of conflict while he was growing up — something that might have marked him. This made him uneasy. He had a pleasant and normal childhood, he kept telling me. He really couldn’t think of anything. But I insisted.
Finally, he remembered one thing. While in fifth grade in public school, he nearly came to blows with a tough kid named Tony Brown. Brown “chose him out,” he said, and they met later at a football field for the traditional after-school showdown. They circled each other for a while, neither side wanting to throw the first blow. After some long minutes of this minuet, Brown tripped Netter, who fell and quickly got up. They circled each other again, but as he remembers it now, by then the “fighting energy” was gone.
No one got hurt, and they both went home.
You have to know Rabbi Netter to understand how this innocuous little story connects to his larger life story. He breathes for these moments — moments when he can say to himself: “The fighting energy was gone. No one got hurt, and they both went home.”
You see, Netter is not just a rabbi. He’s a rabbi who mediates between married couples who want to get divorced.
Years ago, I squirmed when I first saw his name. Netter had just written a book with maybe the worst title ever: “Divorce Is a Mitzvah.” The notion that breaking up a marriage and a family could be associated with the holy, unifying, God-connecting energy of the word “mitzvah” was, well, an unholy thought.
To his credit, Netter didn’t get defensive when I told him how I felt about his title. He admits that it might have been a little misleading, and that it overpowered the more accurate subtitle (“A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies”). At the same time, though, he says the shock value of the title served a purpose: it dramatized the fact that in Judaism, even a worst-case scenario like a divorce can be infused with holiness.
Netter had some experience counseling couples in his previous life, as a popular rabbi at Temple Beth Am, a big Conservative congregation adjacent to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. In those days, couples would come to him at all stages of marital discord, from initial signs of stress to utter exasperation.
And at every stage, the same fragile question just had to be asked: Can this marriage be saved?
Netter wrote his book, he says, for those couples for whom the answer was clearly no.
These were couples who might have felt the unspoken community pressures to “stay married and try to work it out,” but who, for whatever reason, simply couldn’t. They needed help. They felt guilt, shame and fear, and many of them had trouble readjusting to their communities as newly single parents.
Of course, the most difficult adjustment for divorcing couples is toward one another. To get past the resentments, the sense of betrayal, the upheaval of emotions, the shudder at the thought of a new and uncertain life.
Netter’s been through it himself. He knows the emotional traps. He knows how to diffuse the bombs. He’s also spent a good part of the past year honing his mediation skills, including taking classes with someone he calls a “world-class expert.”
A good mediator, he writes, “minimizes the natural urge of the disputants to blame and accuse, while at the same time assists the parties in discovering creative solutions.” When it’s successful, mediation “can turn chaos into order, anger into joy, despair into hope.” It can bring “peace into the room.”
His best ally, he adds, is God.
“The mediator structures and frames the discussion in a way that respects the dignity of each person in the room, protecting the image of God that each person carries into the world. Ad hominem attacks are immediately neutralized by the mediator based on the principle that an affront to a human being is an affront to God.”
“When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail,” he says.
Netter’s an interesting man. His wise words and his sweet face belie the nerve-wracking, heart-wrenching business he’s in. How does he stay so calm? How does he avoid getting contaminated by the toxic fumes of marital disputes? Apparently, his serenity is his weapon of choice.
Maybe that’s why divorcing couples go to him. They’re tired of the fighting. They’re looking for new weapons, not of war, but of peace.
I have a mental picture of Netter working a mediation session. His pleasant poker face bespeaks no bias or prejudice. He moves slowly. He edges closely. He listens to all sides. He throws out gentle thoughts, lobs a few innocent questions.
Mostly, he circles.
He circles, and circles, until both sides begin to trust him. As the trust builds, he moves in with creative ideas that start to narrow the gap. He might stumble once or twice, but he’ll quickly get up.
After all the circling and the stumbling, he’s probably a little bruised, but that’s more than OK, as long as the fighting energy is gone, no one gets hurt and everybody goes home.
And if, by some miracle of miracles, a marital spark gets rekindled through this holy process of breaking up, well, now you’re getting into a whole other level of mitzvah. l