My Russian-born maternal grandmother, Chana Rivka Skomorofski, hated Cossacks. Not hard to grasp, really. After all, she’d survived a 1905 pogrom by hiding in a bin of potatoes after witnessing her brother’s beheading.
Like many Jews marked by collective Jewish catastrophe — from those escaping pogroms, to those escaping the Nazi murder machine, and on to contemporary victims of terror (and even to their children) — she was hyper-aware of the Jewish dimension of any calamity. Reports of air disasters, political coups, and even sinkings of ferry boats in the Upper Nile, would send her to the “Jewish paper” (in her case, the Morgen-zhurnal), for the list of Jewish victims.
This behavior became a stock theme in the comedy of the likes of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, all of whom seem to have shared with me the same Jewish bubbe. Whether they read the Forvertz, the Arbitter Shtimme, or any of the other half dozen Yiddish dailies of the day, these survivors sought the same thing: Information about the particular Jewish dimension of public tragedy. It was as if they could connect to a human tragedy only through Jewish characters.
For them, as for the shapers of Talmudic logic, the k’lal (the universal) was always known only through the prat (the particular). The road to universal human fellow-feeling first wound its circuitous route through the tangled pathways of intense Jewish communal solidarity.
Which may have something to do with my dad’s response when, years ago, I came home from college touting the prophecies of Rosa Luxemburg, about whom I’d learned in a political science course. Jews, I proclaimed (over a plate of borscht with sour cream), should lead humanity out of the darkness of its particularistic atavisms into the clear light of “world citizenship.”
This time, Dad knew better than to argue. He just looked up to the Heavens, spread out his hands in the classic Zero Mostel-Tevye pose and mocked: “I love humanity; it’s the people I can’t stand!”
It took me years to understand the depth of his insight and satire. How easy it is to love a concept, and how difficult to love reality in all its particular messiness! How easy to forget that, if humanity is a family, it begins with a real mother, a real father, real brothers and real sisters — those who speak your language, know the smells of your kitchen, share your nightmares, and, it must be said, hate your enemies and love your friends, because, after all is said and done, “you are our flesh and blood.”
Just this, I suppose, is what irritates so many “universalists” (Jewish and otherwise) about the centrality of the concept of ahavas Yisroel (“Jewish love for Jews”) in Jewish ethical thought. Why shouldn’t Jews love all humanity equally? Why focus on the insular, bounded “tribe” at the expense of the whole? Isn’t “tribalism” the root of all social evil?
The simple answer is: You can’t love “humanity” unless you see in it some familiar faces. It’s through the love called forth by those faces that we learn to see in them something larger — “humanity” as a potential community — something that never really exists, although we strive to reach it. While love of the “tribe” can certainly descend to “tribalism,” it is also true that “humanity” is revealed most richly through the “tribe.” When we lose our “tribe,” we lose the very thing that enables us to find a wider place in the universally “human.”
I was reminded of the dialectic of tribalism and universalism at a recent memorial service for the victims of the terrorist atrocities in Mumbai. The sanctuary of Congregation Sha’arei Tefilah-Lubavitch was jam-packed. The main speakers, Rabbi Yehezkel Kornfeld, Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin and Rabbi Berry Farkash spoke with depth and eloquence, offering words that embodied just the perfect balance between ahavas Yisroel and its necessary complementary attitude of kavod habrios (“respect for humanity”).
Their thoughts, like stones thrown into a placid lake, created a series of concentric circles of mourning. At the center, Lubavitchers mourned for their own — shining neshomos (souls), filled with ahavas Yisroel, nourishing yiddishkeit at great worldly self-sacrifice in, of all places, the historical heartland of humanity’s most ancient and exuberant polytheism.
But the ripples of mourning spread out to encompass communities beyond the Lubavitch family. It included, of course, the Jewish people, all of whom are reminded of the mindless hatred that can affect Jewish life anywhere. From there, the ripples spread in concentric waves to include ever-greater classes of all humanity — first the other victims of the Mumbai terrorists, then all victims of terrorism everywhere, and finally to all humanity suffering in a world deeply needful of redemption.
In memory of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg, and the other Jewish victims — and in gratitude to the world-wide Lubavitch community, especially to the shluchim of the Pacific Northwest, whose self-sacrifice has enriched Jewish lives around the world — I offer a story which, I believe, captures the inner spirit of hassidus as a path of Jewish moral formation.
It is transmitted in the name of Rebbe Moishe Leib Sasover (1745-1807), and recorded in Rabbi Yisroel Berger’s Sefer Zekhus Yisroel (Piotrkov, 1906). It teaches a profound lesson of the fine balance between ahavas Yisroel and kavod habrios that our tradition expects us to embody:
The holy Rebbe Moishe Leib of Sasov said:
I learned ahavas Yisroel from a peasant who was drinking with other peasants.
When he was good and drunk, he said to his friend, “Do you love me or not?”
He replied, “I love you very much!”
Afterwards, the peasant asked him, “Do you know what hurts me?”
He said, “How should I know what hurts you?”
He replied, “How could you say you love me if you do not already feel what I feel?”
From this the holy Rebbe learned that ahavas Yisroel means that you feel a Jew’s pain, as it is written, “in all their sufferings, He suffered” (Isaiah 63:9).