When Jews Fear 'The Other'

Could not an authentic and deep faith in God's hand in the world provide us with a more confident sense of balance in regard to other Jews?

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I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

(Bene Gesserit Litany against fear. From "Dune" by Frank Herbert)

King David and the Ark of the CovenantCredit: Anonymous

I realize that only my fellow science fiction aficionado’s will be familiar with this classic passage, but fear as the mind-killer is very much a part of all of our lives.

I have no problem balancing on my feet, but place me near a ledge and, logic aside, I will instinctively withdraw - controlled by my fear. This fear may seem to serve me well - I have not fallen off of any cliffs to date - but I honestly wonder where this side of me reflects a larger withdrawal, and may keep me from living life to its fullest. Emerson said, "When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers."

I find it fascinating that we have a significant population in our Land that defines itself as "The Fearful Ones" – haredim. They have embraced withdrawal as a primary social modality, in what they must see as a healthy instinct for self-preservation. If we are to be fair, it is clear that the assault of Western values and culture on the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle is formidable; it is only natural that they should be afraid. But to me it is clear that while they think of themselves as the ones who fear God, it is fear of the world that most defines the haredi path. Could not an authentic and deep faith in God's hand in the world provide them with a more confident sense of balance, and allow them to draw closer to the “Ledge”?

They are not the only ones who are afraid. Any sensitive reader of the popular Israeli press will sense the undertone of fear in any conversation regarding the haredi community. Given, there have been awful expressions of violence of late, but sometimes it seems that the black garb has taken on symbolic meaning, as if we are fighting the "Dark Side of the Force." When we are confronted with a “black and white” attitude on life, perhaps our own insecurities come to haunt us, the places where we ourselves doubt that we are firmly balanced.

I know this in myself, an ordained and practicing Orthodox rabbi, when I become slightly less confident around the vehement adherents to the old ways. It is not hard for me to see how that could easily be translated into anger and fear. Ghandi is quoted as saying “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate but it is fear”. To me this rings true, and in our society it cuts both ways.

My personal inspiration in coping with fear is King David. “God is my shepherd I shall not fear” he writes regarding this most powerful of emotions. King David’s psalms have served to inspire faith in multitudes, but his prolific poetry on the subject is testimony to his personal struggles. “I said in my haste, all men are traitors”, he says, the loyal servant betrayed by the king he served (Saul), and by his own son (Avshalom), and by oh so many others. And yet the Bible tells of a man who refused to lash out at his Comrades who would harm him. His is portrayed with an uncanny ability to channel his fear spiritually; maintaining an open heart for those who feared and hated him. This is the posture of someone whose primary commitment is not to emotional safety and security, rather to a passionate and engaged life. King David was one who took the world “boldly by the beard”.

It is no wonder to me that David is also the one who’s spiritual “cup is overflowing”. The Psalms document his rich and flowing emotional and spiritual wellspring, and this is the broad inner foundation that gives him a powerful and secure inner core. Whatever side of the divide we find ourselves on, the more we feed and nurture our own inner world, the less empty spaces we contain, and the less fear will come creeping into those cracks. Fear of the other is at its root a fear of ourselves; the scary sense we all sometimes have of teetering on the edge of an existential abyss. If I were able to set aside my fear, I would be capable of truly hearing and seeing the other. If I were able to set aside my fear would I turn my back on my fellow, would I lash out at him? I fear not.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish educational entrepreneurship.



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