Rabbi Brad Hirschfield urges the creation of “mosquechurchagogues” to encourage appreciation of others’ religions. Photo courtesy Brad Hirschfield
January 31, 2008
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield wishes everyone would stop wringing their hands about people leaving “the Jewish community” and instead start making Judaism so appealing that Jews will want to stay.
“Can you imagine running around telling people to eat ice cream? People eat ice cream because it tastes good. And it turns out there are ‘ice cream communities,’” he said. “We browbeat Jews about the community. If something in it were meaningful, you’d want to be part of it.”
And what should the number counters and worriers do? “They should stop and do two things: ask people, ‘Do you consider yourself part of the Jewish people?’ If they do, ask, ‘What do we need to do it better?’ That’s all.”
It’s an open, inviting approach that’s worlds away from the Judaism he practiced and preached as a gun-toting Jewish settler in Hebron in the 1980s, just as his time in Hebron contrasted sharply with his largely secular upbringing in suburban Chicago.
How his various Jewish identities come together — along with the identities of the varied Jewish communities he serves as president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership — is the subject of Hirschfield’s new book, You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.
Hirschfield’s book traces his journey from suburban teen to militant religious Zionist settler to his current role at an organization that has become synonymous with Jewish pluralism.
He writes about appreciating the Jewish expression in all those stages, often surprising readers and listeners when he describes the Jewish values he learned from his parents and grandparents over meals of shrimp and pork at a Chinese restaurant.
“To this day, when I walk by a Chinese restaurant and I smell the food I can’t eat and haven’t eaten for 30 years, I remember how my parents showed their respect to my grandparents. I don’t smell spareribs. I smell Honor your father and mother,” he writes.
Tolerance helps Hirschfield, who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale, NY, to reserve judgment over a young woman who gets a tattoo, something normally frowned upon by Jewish tradition. “There are a million legalisms to get out of this,” he said, referring to differing interpretations of Jewish texts. “But even if I still come down and say, ‘no tattoos,’ how I treat that woman will now be different. It’s understanding the context that allows people to reach this point.”
It was explaining his own understanding of tolerance that enabled him to help a cabbie in upstate New York understand that he could embrace Jesus without forcing his wife to do the same. In that case, Hirschfield writes, the man’s pastor had told him that if his wife didn’t embrace Jesus, he should divorce her. But Hirschfield didn’t see it that way. He told the man, “She can be the right woman for you, and you can be the right man for her. You shouldn’t do anything different except make room for her as she is…. She doesn’t have to be wrong for you to be right. And when it comes to Jesus, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
Hirschfield rejects the popular idea of kiruv, literally “to bring close,” or its close cousin “outreach.” Both terms are used by Jewish organizations as synonyms for luring Jews back to the synagogue.
“Words like kiruv and ‘outreach’ imply that people are far from our understanding of whatever it is we’re trying to teach them, and that they would be far better off if they simply lived or thought as we do,” he writes. “But that’s not spiritual growth; that’s narcissism.”
Hirschfield said he knows firsthand the limits of religious coercion. “Let’s just say the track record of even someone who thinks his fanaticism is self-contained is not so great.”
His openness to multiple Jewish expressions also makes him open to dialogue with other religions. He urges readers to create “mosquechurchagogues” — not literally, but a mindset that allows one to appreciate what can be learned from another’s religion. In his book, he recalls a visit to a mosque during an interfaith conference. He relates that he was inspired by the powerful spiritual energy of the worshipers around him, knelt beside his Muslim host, and recited the Sh’ma.
He also told a reporter about his admiration for a mosque in Cairo whose stained-glass windows incorporate symbols of Christianity and Judaism, something the architect did with the okay of the local Muslim religious authorities.
Hirschfield said he laments lost opportunities during his days among the small group of Jews who live in the heart of Hebron, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and a cordon of Israeli soldiers. Then there was no integration, only erasing of the other, he said. He described praying in the cave where tradition says Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, and Jacob are buried, a place sacred to Muslims and Christians as well. Instead of viewing the site as “Isaiah’s house of prayer for all nations,” what he now calls a “mosquechurchagogue,” he used to smuggle in wine for Kiddush despite a Muslim prohibition on alcohol.
“We had brought the wine in just to prove a point. You can say the same prayer over grape juice. In our way of thinking, however, our rules had to be the only rules. We couldn’t be fully present until the Palestinians were fully absent,” he writes.
And that, he said, is a philosophy he sees at play in the Islamic fundamentalist world.
His break with the Hebron settlers came after three settlers shot two Palestinian children in a school. That event and the lack of outrage on the part of the rabbis in his community shook him and sent him on a journey toward tolerance. He eventually received two master’s degrees from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and ordination from the Institute of Traditional Judaism — the Metivta. At CLAL, he has helped train rabbinical students of all denominations in the theory and practice of pluralism, has led Torah study seminars for Jewish lay leaders, and lectured widely on Judaism and interfaith affairs.
It was actually seeing his own fanatic past reflected in the actions of 9/11 that forced him to confront his attitudes.
“The price of not dealing with one’s own past or with people with whom we disagree is really high. It’s an opportunity for wisdom, an opportunity for growth when we do. In this case, 9/11 woke me up to reengage with my own story.”
The only way to get beyond the need to erase those with differing viewpoints, he said, “is to see them as necessary for the fulfillment of your own dreams.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and James Carroll, Boston Globe writer and author of Constantine’s Sword, will take part in a conversation on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 1 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. The Max Gruenewald Memorial Lecture will open with a talk by Carroll on “The Christian-Jewish Relationship through the Centuries.” The event is free and open to the public. For further information, call 973-379-3811.