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Jewish Journal

Ex-JDL member urges faith without fanaticism

by Amy Klein

February 28, 2008 | 5:00 pm

Brad Hirschfield was a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), the militant organization bent on fighting anti-Semitism. He spent time with JDL leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Israeli political party was banned for racism and who was assassinated in 1990. By the time Hirschfield was 18 and studying at yeshiva in Israel, he was entrenched with the Gush Emunim in Hebron -- Israelis intent on establishing settlements in the midst of the Palestinian population. There, Hirschfield found the passion and Zionist commitment he'd craved during his childhood in Chicago, where he became Orthodox on his own, despite his Conservative Jewish family.

But after a few years, when some settlers killed Palestinian children in retaliation for violence, it all fell apart.

"I was stunned by their deaths," he wrote more than two decades later in his memoir, "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism" (Harmony Books, Random House, 2007). "When I sought the advice of one of their settlement leaders, he said, 'Yes, this is a problem, but it is not a fundamental problem.' That was when I knew something horrible had happened.

Staying in Hebron was destroying the very things that brought us there: the desire to take back power and walk the land our ancestors had. These are good things. But even the best things have limits. A lesson that I learned in Hebron was that the best things can become the most seductive -- and deadly."

The book is not called "Confessions of a Former Fanatic," although that is what one publisher wanted -- a memoir about leaving the extremist life. But that notion did not appeal to Hirschfield, who is now a rabbi and president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The book is not a confessional tell-all -- his life as an extremist and the fallout from that is discussed in snippets, as asides. In fact, it was a different extreme event that made him decide to write the book: Sept. 11.

"After 9/11 I felt that I wanted to explain the religious impulse at its most extreme, to dig into the anatomy of fanaticism, really to probe the destructive tendencies that are part of all religions," he wrote. "After years of simply avoiding any real examination of that part of my life, it was time to come clean and share my journey into and out of fierce faith precisely because, unlike most people who make that journey, it had left me still in love with what I left behind."

Which is why Hirschfield's not looking to fan the flames of extremism, hate and finger-pointing. He's looking to bring the heat down a notch, with a prescription for how people on all sides of every argument can learn to hear each other out: "That is finally what I want this book to be: a guide to our common humanity and a source of strength and stamina and hope."

"Look, there is a way to be passionate and proud of who you are and still embrace who others may be, even when it disagrees with who they are: that's what this is about," Hirschfield said in an interview from The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, where he was about to give a lecture on the subject to different agency workers.

Federation members are also guilty of the them-and-us syndrome, he said, regarding people as insiders and outsiders.

"We spend money on studying 'Are they coming in' and not, 'What do they need?'" Outsiders, he said, "don't understand that without the institutions there is no community."

But his book is not about addressing problems in institutional Jewish life -- or Jewish life specifically. Belief.net has listed the book on its Christian site, and Hirschfield gives talks to Christian groups as well. It's not even just about religion.

"This is about liberals and Conservatives and Republicans and Democrats," he said, adding that tt's about relationships of all sorts, from marital relations to global politics.

"The real issue is not to get everyone to agree, but how do you treat people with whom you don't agree?" he said. "That is the test of a great society. You're not Jewish because Christians are stupid, you don't go to your shul because God doesn't hear everyone else's prayers. It's a terrible way to think. That is simply cover for not being happy where you are," he said. "Whatever person or ideology one really opposes -- I understand that they're not all equal -- but even if you give me the worst one, there's no way to teach someone what you most believe if you don't learn from what they most believe."

But aren't the very people who need to ascribe to this approach the very fanatics who are probably not going to?

No such thing, Hirschfield says; everyone can learn tolerance and respect. "People pick their lines," he said. "Traditionalists wrap it up in God's will but liberals wrap it up in decency."

For example, while Reform and Conservative Jews accept gay marriage, "Try and be a person who is opposed to gay ordination -- that's not so easy," he said. Or on the subject of God, "the assertion that God is nonexistent is about as absurd as someone who says, 'Of course God exists, and I can say what he wants.'"

Hirschfield is trying to do for religion what mediation has done for conflict resolution: instead of pitting the sides against each other with lawyers in a court of law, draining the resources of both sides until someone "wins" (where both parties really may lose), mediators find common ground between two sides and get them to come to agreement.

Easier said than done. How would one go about doing this?Seven chapter subheads outline the way: Marrying Openness and Commitment; Learning That We Can Be Both Victims and Victimizers; Recognizing the Sacredness of All Our Feelings; Making Judgments Without Becoming Judgmental; Finding Unity, Not Forcing Uniformity; When the Whole Is Greater Than the Parts; Learning That You Don't Have to Disconnect Because You Disagree; Talking About Things That Matter Most in the Way That Hurts the Least.

You can call Hirschfield naive, you can call him idealistic, but perhaps his vision is better than the alternative: the screeching diatribes that pass for discourse these days. And we may heed his warning, if it hasn't already come to pass: "Any 'ism,' however well intentioned, however beautiful, when it thinks it has 100 percent of the answers 100 percent of the time, never ends well.'"

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