“I love your writing!” he said.
It was in a cafe in Crown Heights. I had met him back in Israel, when I was reporting on the war in Gaza. He was delivering letters to men on the edge of a war, sent through Chabad.org, from people all over the world.
Now we were both living here in Brooklyn. He was still as Chabad as ever, I had been moving on, living a different life, and running this site where artsy, creative people got together to share their lives, their dreams, their pains with the world.
“I read the site every day!” he told me. So beautiful, I thought, when people so traditional can be inspired by such a diverse group of people; the sign of a healthy community.
We spoke a bit, and he told me what he had been up to for all these years, working to spread a deep, thoughtful Judaism to the masses of the already-religious. He ran a site with a prominent rabbi, one that put out videos and divrei Torah, and so much more. And although I had a severe problem with the rabbi in question, I thought it was beautiful to see us both doing parallel work, both trying to inspire people through the internet all these years later. Like a virtual form of going to the front lines of a war, bringing the soldiers of Judaism with scraps of writing that tells them, “We care about you.”
He wanted to do a video together, he told me, where I would have a chat with him about some of the issues we discuss on the site, the stuff that I am passionate about. What it means to be a creative person, what it means to be “out of the box,” and how a Jew can use these aspects of themselves to rise higher in their connection with Hashem.
For a moment, I hesitated. I did have a big issue with the rabbi associated with the site, who had said what I considered to be callous, dangerous words towards victims of abuse. Who had also called for the Israeli government to kill Palestinian families, including children. Someone who I had felt nervous about from the day I even became interested in Chabad, when I wrote for Chabad.org and I saw one of his articles arguing for women to stay in marriages no matter what, with not even a footnote to clarify that different rules apply to women (and men) in abusive marriages.
But in front of me was a man I respected a lot, and who I felt was deeply invested in the good of the Jewish people. He wasn’t the rabbi, he was his own person, and I knew many people who I love and deeply respect, who hold that rabbi in high regard.
I agree to the video, smiling. I am looking forward to this, I feel sad sometimes that the work I do often doesn’t get the more traditional sites and organizations clamoring to work with me. How fun, how exciting.
We talk a bit about it, and as we’re wrapping up, he says the rabbi will be really excited to work with me.
“Yes, he loves working with creative Jews, and bringing out creativity in the Jewish world. I think you’re going to really connect with him.”
I feel the words come out of me before I’ve even really thought them through. But as I say them, I know that there really is no other option.
“Oh… I thought I’d be doing the video with you. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it with him,” I say.
For a moment, he looks taken aback, but then he makes a face that seems to say, “Well, yeah.”
He composes himself and thinks for a moment.
“Why not?” he asks.
I explain everything about the stuff he’s written, he’s said, the things that deeply disturb me deep in my bones when I think of him offering advice to others. I acknowledge that I may be wrong, which is why I have never taken a very public stance on the rabbi, but I feel it enough that I know it would be sacrificing a lot I believe in to appear in a video with him.
“Is it possible you’re misinterpreting him?” my friend asks. The one who went to the front lines of battle with me, running with me into bomb shelters every now and then as rockets came crashing down into us.
I look at him sympathetically. I know he deeply believes I’m wrong, I know I deeply believe I’m right. I shake my head.
“No, I don’t think so.”
He tries a few different tactics, asking if maybe the media has distorted his colleague’s views. I explain that I felt this way years ago, before I even knew of any media coverage around him, back when I wrote for the same site as him and I wrote an email to the editors begging them to remove the piece I had seen.
It was his turn to shake his head. I could tell something wasn’t computing for him, as if he hadn’t expected this much resistance.
Finally, he looked at me and sighed. As if almost an afterthought, he said, “I thought you were open-minded.”
The words struck me hard. Words like that always do. For years, as I was developing this new site, this site that was begun with the declaration that we would focus on creating instead of destroying, focus on building instead of breaking down… as before that I had my own site where I implored people to think outside of their own worlds, to respect the worlds of others… as I wrote for Chabad.org, begging the world to look at Israel in a way that wasn’t only filtered through headlines… I had been trying to make the world more open-minded. And so when people accuse me of not being open-minded, or that they “miss when you were inspirational,” or that they feel “let down” by how “divisive you’ve become,” my heart breaks. Part of me is incredibly fearful of these sorts of comments, because I am in general quite fearful that these are, in fact, things that are happening to me. I want to be open-minded. I want to bring people together. I want to be inspirational.
So, I look at him. For a moment, my resolve breaking, I try to do an honest inner evaluation of my mindset. Am I being divisive? Am I being close-minded? After all, there is a point to what he’s saying: how is refusing to even discuss something with someone I disagree with open-minded? Am I just creating an echo chamber for those that agree with me?
I try to imagine myself doing the video with this man, sitting down with him. I try to be open-minded.
And immediately, I know why I can’t. And I tell it to my friend.
“Imagine if I did this video. Our site has given voice to victims of abuse, and to people going through painful divorces. To the people he’s hurt, and who still feel extremely hurt by his tone, his language, his conduct. Imagine if the creator of this site then goes on and gives him a voice, validates his viewpoint on these things. Imagine how silenced they would feel, how hurt. I can’t do it because of them, not because of the rabbi,” I explain, and in that moment, I know I’ve tapped into something very deep inside of me.
For a moment, before he responds, I think of many times people accuse myself and others of being hypocrites, claiming to create communities that are open-minded, but that also seem to often contradict their own mission. And I realize that, as much as I’m sure I fail as they claim, often these accusations happen when I’m speaking up for a marginalized group.
I start to realize that, often, the people making these statements may not be taking the concerns I voice seriously, as is happening with me right now with my friend. It’s not that he thinks I’m right but that I should still agree to meet with this rabbi, but that he thinks I am, perhaps, being overly judgmental.
He says, “You could talk about this with him! Make it about these statements, and have an honest discussion about what he meant. Maybe you could change his mind.”
It sounds tempting, actually. It would be a way to talk directly to the rabbi in a serious way about concerns I have with his conduct.
But I’m still nervous about how this will affect victims of abuse.
I say, “Can I meet with him privately instead? I’d be glad to do that first, and perhaps we’ll go from there.”
I’m actually not sure what he said in reply, but I do know that to this day, I have not spoken with the rabbi.
But, I’m proud of my response. I’m proud that I tapped into this truth, a truth I’ve ironically internalized from years in the Chabad world: being open-minded does not mean accepting everything, letting everything we come into contact in, or giving it a voice. So often, this is how more sensitive people give voice to the dangerous people of the world. This is how BDS has become a legitimate form of political activity. It’s how abusers are so often sympathized with more than victims.
These things happen because of the good in people, not the bad: the desire to do good. To be open-minded. To be fair.
But something coming from a good place does not mean it results in good. And so, folks like us that want to make a creative, an accepting, a positive, world need to be “hypocrites.” We need to think deeply about how our actions will affect others. We need to be willing to be less attached to our constructs of our identities that say we must act a certain way if we want to be something: we have to accept all to be openminded. We have to always talk about the good in the world to be positive people.
I’d rather create positivity than be positive. I’d rather protect the voiceless and innocent than be open to those whose whose voices hurt others. I’d rather open my mind than be open-minded.
So, as my friend leaves the cafe, and I reflect on what just occurred, I think to myself: maybe I’m not open-minded.
And maybe that’s a good thing.