Rabbi Teaches Hope In Trying Times

The Jewish community finds itself uniquely affected by two of the biggest stories currently making the news — the alleged Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the deadly conflict in Gaza. Author and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says even with violence overseas and the sting of the Madoff scandal, hope can be realized.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our conversation about gay marriage struck quite a nerve with many listeners. Hear what they had to say about whether gay marriage is the right fight for right now in just a few minutes.

But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation. This week, we wanted to talk about two stories reverberating in the Jewish community. Bernard Madoff is accused of masterminding one of the largest financial frauds in history, scamming billions of dollars from individual investors and a number of organizations. Now, as he awaits trial, many of his alleged victims are outraged and feel betrayed. And of course, we want to speak about the conflict in Gaza. After nearly two weeks of fighting, hundreds are dead and many are questioning whether peace will ever be possible.

Joining me now to talk about both of these stories is Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. He's the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He's the author of the book "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism." Rabbi, welcome. It's a pleasure to speak with you again.

Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD (President, National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership): Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: And of course, one of the reasons we called you is that you were once part of a core group of settlers in the West Bank in the early 1980s committed to reconstituting the Jewish state within its biblical borders. And now, you're an orthodox rabbi, but one of your core messages is diversity and inclusion. So, of course, the first thing I wanted to talk to you about is, how do you think your experience as a settler shapes the way you think now about the conflict that's going on there?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: I think what it does - and it's ironic because it addresses how it relates to the Madoff thing and what's going on in Gaza - I tend to, because of my own life experience - having been a fanatic, in understanding the seductions of any kind of fanaticism, getting caught up in any kind of scheme - tend to do two things at every juncture: both have more sympathy than people might expect for the offenders and also greater urgency about the need to not keep going down that path, because every time we go down a path in which we pretend we are completely right, I promise you, we end up being completely wrong.

MARTIN: How do you convey that message to people who are in the middle of something right now? Because, I mean, if you're on the Israeli side and you have rockets, you know, going into your, you know, child's classroom, you must be very, very angry. And if you're on the Palestinian side, and you see, you know, rockets killing children in front of you, you have to be very, very angry. Is it even possible, when you're in the middle of such a thing, to try to maintain the perspective you've talked about?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: I think it's possible, Michel, in different ways for different people. For the people most enmeshed in a conflict, the first thing, I think, they need to experience is some degree of affirmation, right? Because if no one is really 100-percent right or 100-percent wrong, there will always be something to affirm about the experience of even your most hated enemy. There is also - the desire to be heard is so amazing. You know, I know this is not the same topic, but in that previous segment speaking about all those rioters in San Francisco who marched with Mayor Dellums, and as long as he was listening to them, they weren't breaking shop windows. As soon as he disappeared, that rage comes back. There's a profound need that we as humans have in any conflict simply to be heard. So, I think the first thing to do is start listening, as much as we insist on talking in these conflicts, and the second is to realize there is always some part of even your most hated enemies' experience that you can affirm, and when those two things are in place, you can, step by step, begin to return from sanity to a tragic situation.

MARTIN: When you were on the West Bank, do you think you would have listened to you now? If you - if Rabbi now - Rabbi Brad now had gone to visit with the West Bank to Rabbi Brad back then - I don't think you were rabbi then...

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: No, I was 18 years old...

MARTIN: Oh, you were 18 years old.

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: And full of you-know-what and vinegar and, you know, all that...

MARTIN: Exactly. Would you have listened to you?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: And talked macho rage. I think I would have for one reason, because I would have sat down with 18-year-old Brad and said, before I talk to you, why don't you tell me about your experience? See, here's what I know, Michel, that we all want to fix situations, and with the best of intentions, we always expect to be the other person's teacher. I know this if I know nothing else: You can't be someone else's teacher until you're first willing to become their student. And so, my first move with 18-year-old Brad on the West Bank would have become, how do I become the student of that person? Because I know when you're willing to become someone else's student, eventually, in some small way at least, they're willing to become yours.

MARTIN: Would you mind addressing the issue of proportionality here? That it's - I think that most people know that these - the current airstrikes, the Israeli action, is in response to this rocket attacks from Hamas into Israeli territory that's been going on, you know, for months now, but there have been far fewer Israeli casualties than Palestinian casualties. It seems very clear that Palestinian civilians have been paying a very heavy price for this. Can you - how do you think people should think about this?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Well, I guess - it's funny - I don't know that proportionality, as much as that's the argument that's raised, is the thing that comes up the most, because, actually, even in the framing, it's not months; it's years and it's thousands. But it doesn't matter, because at the same time I think, however - and I admit I have my own (unintelligible) and I think we all do. and that would be the first thing to do. Anyone who thinks they're speaking out in the name of truth and imagine that it's all on their side is just wrong. There's no way.

So, the first thing to do, I would say, is perhaps the same way every day right now there's a three-hour pause that Israel and Hamas seemed to have agreed to; a three hour pause in order to let humanitarian aid flow in and let wounded civilians come out to begin to try and address some of the human sufferings especially on the Gaza side. What would happen if during those three hours, each of us, whatever position we take, decide to pull back from that position and allow some of the ideas from the other side to flow our way? That's what I think we can begin to do.

I don't think you can convert people to your view; I don't think it's ever helpful. I think what we could begin to imagine happening is slowly, minute by minute, hour by hour, conversation by conversation, asking how we can learn a little bit from the people with whom we disagree. Because the proportionality argument, in the end, doesn't help. If the missiles are landing outside your bedroom, even if they don't kill you, that feels like the biggest thing in the world. And if your child is dead in Gaza, it doesn't matter if Gaza broke the truce, because your child is dead. So, there are no facts that make up for that.

So, I guess what I'm suggesting is, rather than try and figure out how to cut the facts so we are exactly on the side of truth, justice and goodness, is everyone try and figure out how the people I think are most wrong, most unjust and most bad actually have some degree of truth and goodness and decency on their side. And if we worried less about what is justifiable and right and more about what is wise and humane, we could make some real progress.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas and what spiritual wisdom that he has to offer at a time like this. Rabbi, I also want to talk about another story that you've been writing a lot about on your blog, and it's of, let's say, particular concern to the Jewish community, but a lot of other - a lot of people, and that's this - the Bernard Madoff scandal.

Now, he's the investment manager, of course, who is accused of abusing a lot of people's money, and a lot of institutions have been hurt by this. And you've written about the fact that many people are just furious about this, just furious, and that they're making comparisons to, you know, Hitler and things of that sort, and you said, look, that's just - that's out of line. But if some people's entire lifesavings have been wiped out, how would you encourage them to deal with this religiously, spiritually?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Well, there are two different questions, Michel: One is how the culture is handling it, and one is how people really have lost everything are handling it. And I think there are two issues for everyone, you know, for people have lost everything; though it's interesting that most of the outrageous comparisons are not being made by those people. I think if you really have been wiped out, first of all, it's entirely appropriate to be angry and it's entirely appropriate to feel betrayed and it's entirely appropriate to go through a mourning process, because there has been real loss. On the other hand, it's an also an opportunity to remember that none of us is what we're worth, is how much money we made; our worth always is rooted in something larger than that. And it's really important to remember that you are worth more than what the balance sheet that comes from the banks says you are.

That having been said, Madoff needs to be punished, but I think the way the culture is handling it is, like, I want that everyone just calm down. This is crazy. I mean, I see three trends, none of which are going to help. I see endless sermons about greed by clergy of every faith; I see, you know, concerns about a rising tide of anti-Semitism, which really isn't happening; And I see - and this is the craziest - comparisons to Hitler. I mean, numerous, numerous people write me and say, how can you be so calm? This man Bernard Madoff is as bad as Hitler. And it's, first of all, it's completely crazy, and it's unbelievable for me that people are doing this, but even more importantly, none of those responses is really going to help. They're just not going to help.

MARTIN: What do you make of that anyway? I mean, the fact is, I don't know how you can compare slaughtering millions of people with losing however many apartments, I mean, how - you know, since it's not my...

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Right, since it's completely crazy.

MARTIN: Apartment, it may be easy for me to say, but it does seem kind of crazy that people would go there.

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: No, no. I don't think it's just us being callous because we haven't lost our homes to say that you can't compare Bernie Madoff to Adolf Hitler. Any person who doesn't appreciate that the loss of $50 billion, however horrific - and by the way, the fact those dollars never existed, the economy assumed they were there, which means all of us - from the people who lost their homes because of it to the people who deliver their groceries - all of us are affected by the loss of those $50 billion.

But to compare the loss of those $50 billion to the organized plan for the destruction of global Jewry and then moving on to gypsies, gay people and everyone else who got in the Nazis' way is completely nuts. And the truth is, deep down, most people know that. As I said to someone who kept using this analogy, and I advised him, you know what? Would you be willing to make that analogy if I was a survivor of Auschwitz? And they said, ah, well, no, no, that I wouldn't do. I said, good. Then, why don't we assume that's the sensitivity with which everyone should be treated and recognize that these analogies are completely nuts?

Now, that's not because, by the way, I think the Holocaust is completely unique and the uniqueness of the suffering of the show on the Jewish people; I think there's a lot of suffering in the world, but the loss of money and the systematic destruction of any people, whether in Central and Eastern Europe, when they're Jewish, or in Africa and Darfur, that's not about loss of money; that's much bigger.

MARTIN: But one of the things that you've written quite a lot about, which is that when you use words like that to describe just about any tragedy that comes along, then the words completely lose their meaning and their moral force. But what about the sense - and we only have about a minute left -but what about the sense of vulnerability that, you know, you hear many Jewish people express, a sense of being exposed, that this is playing into stereotypes of this - just a sense of embarrassment and shame - collective shame? I mean, you could argue with it, but clearly some people feel that way. What do you say to that, and if you just be as brief as you can?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Well, I think the collective-shame experience has to do with being part of a community, and while I don't think there should be collective guilt - and I don't even know if there's collective responsibility in this particular case - collective shame is just a way of saying when someone who I feel connected to does something wrong, it hurts me. And that's actually an affirmation of communal connection, so that isn't a terrible thing, but the idea that there'll be a backlash of people hating Jews more because this happened, I think, says more about a sense of Jewish victimhood, which is not appropriate, than it does about anything else. Look, are there people who hate Jews? Sure, there are, but real haters, real true racists, don't hate a group people because of what they do; they hate them because they exist. And to assume that anything, any person does - Jewish, black or gay - and that's the reason why a group of others want them all destroyed, actually plays into the claim that racists base their hate on anything rational. They don't.

MARTIN: All right. We have - thank you. So, we have to leave it there. Author, blogger, television host Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His latest book is "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism." Rabbi Brad, I hope you'll come back and see us again.

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: I would love and thanks, Michel. Happy New Year to you.

MARTIN: Happy New Year.

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