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Love at the End

10/07/2021 01:11:16 PM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

Not a single member of my immediate family would be alive today, if not for modern medicine.

Not me, not my wife and not my kids. 

The medical establishment has certainly made some terrible errors - thalidomide and Oxycontin come to mind, but it has done far, far more good than harm in this world. I am tremendously grateful for the blessings that have come to us by way of doctors and scientists.

These days, however, my gratitude for the miracles of modern medicine is tempered by my anger - anger at those who spurn those blessings. Those who refuse to get vaccinated against Covid, instead preferring horse de-wormers or blueberry antioxidant shakes. 

I’m furious at the feebleminded fools who seem content to drag us into a third year of this nightmare. 

I am absolutely apoplectic when I hear people I love - let alone those I don’t - spout nonsense rather than do something that would keep themselves - and all of us - safer.

And... as I often do when I feel myself being overtaken by fury, I return to a talmudic teaching about an obscure verse which refers to the Wars of the Lord which take place at "Waheb b’ Suphah.” 

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that Waheb b’ Suphah really means ahavah b’sofo - there is love at the end. 

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba says: Even a parent and child, or a rabbi and their student, who are passionately learning Torah together, can become enemies with each other. But they do not conclude their studies until they love each other; they do not get up until there is love at the end. 

A War of the Lord, a Holy War, the rabbis teach, is one in which there is Love at the End.

A traditional beit midrash or yeshiva is not an environment of peace and harmony - it's a place of disagreement and friction. The entire Talmudic tradition is an anthology of tension: "Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that." There is no attempt to gloss over the differences or pretend that everyone is really just saying the same thing. 

Yet in the Talmud, that massive compilation of disagreement that creates Judaism as we know it, there is no record of Rabbi X protesting outside the home of Rabbi Y, no record of Rabbi Y physically attacking Rabbi X. How does an argument become something in which there is Love at the End?


A few weeks ago at our Friday afternoon Torah study, I was learning together with Julie Meslin, who is often here with her daughters Wilhelmina and Olette. Julie has a beautiful, gentle soul, and she shared an insight into this very question that has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but in essence, she said it all comes down to compassionate curiosity. You just have to keep asking yourself, “Why might my opponent feel this way?” until you come to an answer for which you can have compassion. 

We were having this conversation just a few days after Georgia had passed an “election security law” which the New York Times called “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections.”

A number of us there that night were angry and pained by the wickedness of the Republican legislators who seemed quite content to gut American democracy in pursuit of their power. 

“Why might they do that,” Julie asked?

“Because they are racists,” someone answered. 

“Is that an answer you can have compassion for?” she asked. “If not, keep going.”

And so we kept going - they are racists, they are power hungry, they are insecure. And after every answer, Julie asked “Is that an answer you can have compassion for? If not, keep going.”

Finally, someone said, “They are afraid. They wrongfully think that black people are a threat to them, and they think they need to do this to keep their families safe.”

Julie asked again, but with a caveat - “I”m not asking if you agree with them or endorse their position, but can you have compassion for someone wanting to keep their family safe, even if the way they do that is completely wrong and even evil?”

To my surprise, I found I could. 

The compassion that Julie was teaching doesn't mean agreeing with the position the person holds; it means finding compassion for the person who holds that position. 

So let's go back to my frustration and anger at those who refuse to get vaccinated. How can I have compassion for, how can I be curious about, people who are so obviously wrong and are foolishly extending this pandemic nightmare?

I’m reading an incredible history of genetics by Siddartha Mukerjee and in it, he cites the nearly unanimous 1927 Supreme Court decision authorizing medical authorities to forcibly sterilize the feeble-minded - a legal category which included depressives, feminists, dyslexics and rebellious adolescents. In the decision, the court wrote “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is more than broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Let me repeat the last line of this near unanimous Supreme Court decision: “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is more than broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Now, I really want everyone to be vaccinated, but the government’s authority to compel vaccination was used as the basis for forced, involuntary sterilizations? That doesn't sound good. 

And knowing that American eugenics helped fuel Nazi Germany’s efforts at ethic cleansing makes it sound a lot worse. 

I want to be very clear, because there is a subtle, but essential point here. This is not a sermon about vaccines - this is a sermon about how we understand those with whom we disagree. 

I - and everyone in my family who is old enough - has gotten the vaccine, and for that, I am profoundly glad and grateful. More than that, I absolutely and unambivalently support the efforts of institutions of all sizes, from BHA to the Beacon City School District to the Federal Government to mandate vaccines. 

And... those opposing vaccines and masks, those who have caused so much suffering with their foolishness, might be less deserving of my hatred and scorn than I might have thought. 

Learning about that supreme court decision didn’t change my position, but it did change my sense of judgement. 

You might be wrong, but that doesn't mean you are crazy; you might be foolish - even willfully so - but that doesn't mean you are evil. I have to disagree with you, and perhaps even draw clear boundaries to protect myself from you, but that doesn't mean I have to hate you. 

The trick, as Julie taught us that night, is remaining connected to a point of compassionate curiosity. 

Part of why it's so hard to have compassion for people with whom we disagree is because we often have positions that are incommensurate. 

This one thinks that two consenting adults should be able to marry each other regardless of sex or gender, and this one thinks that only a man and a woman should be able to marry. And indeed, sometimes there are real, substantive conflicts between values - as Isaiah Berlin famously put it, “total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs” and so sometimes, we are doomed to choose between foundational values.

Sometimes, but not always. 

A few years ago, during a swelteringly hot August, my son, who was 7 or 8 at the time, and I were visiting a friend of mine in Western Massachusetts. My friend and I sat on the pier discussing the joys and challenges of middle aged life, and our boys were splashing around in the water. They had been playing wonderfully together all weekend, but now they were squabbling on the shore of the lake. 

This one wants to get out of the water and play baseball

This one wants to stay in the water and keep splashing around. 

They were fighting because their positions were incompatible - they obviously can't be simultaneously in the water and out of the water - and so we have a crisis! 

But on the recommendation of my friend and BHA board member Karen Mayer, I had been reading a wonderful book called Getting to Yes, which highlights the difference between interests and positions. Positions are what we have decided upon - in the case of the boys, one’s position was that they should get out of the water, and the other’s position was that they should stay in the water. Interests, however, are what cause us to decide on this position or that. 

Neither boy was saying what motivated one to want to stay in the water and the other to get out. So I asked them. 

One wanted to stay in the water because it was hot; the other wanted to get out because he was bored. So I asked, “What if we played some football in the water?” The hot one gets to stay in the water, and the bored one gets to play a game. Cheers all around! My friend went back to the house to get a football, while I awaited my call from the Nobel Peace Prize committee. 

These boys had irreconcilable positions, but not irreconcilable interests

Now, these boys were 7 or 8 years old - it's not surprising or inappropriate that they couldn't come to a place of compassionate curiosity about their friends' interests. But what about us adults? Why is it so easy for us to despise our opponents?

After all, sometimes, our opponents are not merely deplorable. Sometimes, they are really despicable people. What sort of compassionate curiosity am I supposed to have for people who hate me, who want to kill me and you and our children?

I aspire to have compassionate curiosity about people with whom I am in conflict; it is not, to put it mildly, my natural inclination. 

Thank God though, there are people out there from whom I can learn. 

Matthew Stevenson was a Jewish student at New College in Sarasota, Florida. On Fridays, Stevenson would regularly have people over for shabbat dinner - he would light candles and make kiddush but very few of his guests were Jewish - there just weren't that many Jews at New College. Instead they were Christian, atheist, Hindu — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. 

In fall of 2011, Stevenson invited Derek Black, another kid from his dorm, to join them. This was notable because Black was one of the leading lights of the White Nationalist movement - his father, Don Black had created Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, and his godfather, David Duke, is a former Grand Wizard of the KKK and one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots. Although he was still just a college student, Derek was a white nationalist leader in his own right - he had started the Stormfront Youth web page and and hosted a daily AM radio show which gave him a chance to tell his listeners that “massive, nonwhite immigration” was leading to a “a white genocide in our own country.” 

Derek tried to keep his white nationalism quiet while at college, but his identity was revealed and the campus was in an uproar. He moved off campus and was essentially isolated from other students, and that’s when Stevenson invited him to Shabbas dinner. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Stevenson said at the time.

Just a few years afterward, in 2013, Derek wrote a statement to the Southern Poverty Law Center, publicly renouncing his former views. He is now a committed anti-racist activist, currently pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, focused on the intelecatual history of race as an idea. 

Matt Stevenson was faced with an opponent who was worthy of hatred; an adversary who wanted him dead. Confronted with someone dedicated to eradicating his humanity, Stevenson - incredibly - remained committed to and connected to the humanity of Derek Black. 

I am inspired by Matthew Stevenson, even as I am ashamed to admit how much I struggle to remain connected to the humanity of those with whom I disagree on matters far, far more trivial than what he wrestled with. It is only small comfort to know that I am not the only one in this community - or in our lineage - who struggles with that very issue. 

The rabbis tell the story of wicked King Manasha, who lived an evil and cruel life - conscripting thousands of slaves to build temples to idolatry, after which he had the slaves sacrificed to his wicked spirits. On his deathbed, however, he was about to make a full and sincere confession. The angels of heaven knew that if Manasha’s confession was heard by The Holy One, the Manasha would experience Divine forgiveness. The angels were outraged at the injustice, so they locked the gates of heaven so Manasha’s confession couldn't enter. But the Holy One dug a hole under the Throne of Glory, heard Manasha’s words and forgave Manasha. The Angels were furious at God, and so the Holy One turned to the angels, shrugged and said, “Look - It’s my business to forgive. This is who I am - this is what I do. If I didn’t forgive, humans would never be able to confess.”

The Quaker tradition calls moments like this, “Listening words into speech.” The Holy One knew the necessity of Divine softness, compassionate curiosity even about one as wicked as Manahse. Without it, the words - and the connection they build - simply would not flow. The Holy One showed compassion for Manashe, and drew his words out, which was the only way - Menashe was not going to be bullied into confession. Mathew Stevenson showed compassion for Derek Black and turned his heart more fully than force ever could. 

When we come to conflict with force, our only options are kill or be killed; when we come with compassionate curiosity, we can transform friction into connection. 


We stand here on this night of Kol Nidrei, asking for atonement and release from all the ways we have fallen short - all the ways in which we have been feebleminded, obstinate or just plain mean. We ask that the Holy One of Blessing have compassionate curiosity about us and show mercy to us, just as mercy was shown even to evil king Menashe, even to Derek Black. In this coming year, may others, human and Divine, have compassionate curiosity about us and may we, in turn, have compassionate curiosity about those we encounter. 

Gmar Hatimah Tova.

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782