When René Levy agreed to give a talk at his synagogue about “sinat chinam,” or baseless hatred, he never expected that it would turn into a book, which would take him away from his career and around the world.
“Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It” was published last August, and in the space of a year Levy and his wife, Beloria, have traveled to Israel, France, Canada and around the U.S., in what is turning out to be not just a book tour, but a movement.
In traditional thought, sinat chinam is the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent two centuries of diaspora. Today, many fear that animosity between Jewish movements and individuals across the political and religious spectrum is reaching dangerous levels.
Levy, a 69-year-old Casablanca, Morocco native who taught pharmaceutics at the University of Washington for four decades, lives in Seward Park and attends Sephardic Bikkur Holim Congregation. In 2009, after giving a talk about tachanun (prayers of supplication), a young rabbi approached him and asked him to address sinat chinam.
“So I did,” said Levy. “It was very well received.” And that was that.
Except it wasn’t. Levy’s initial talk led to more talks.
“Something weird happened. Each time, at each talk, people were very moved,” he said. “Somebody said, ‘I have no questions, but I have a statement to make. I’ve had a problem in my family for 17 years. And now I know exactly what I have to do to solve it, and I’m leaving right now, and I’m going to do it. Thank you very much.’
“Every place we go, people say, ‘you were talking to me,’” he said.
While Levy was encouraged to turn the lecture into a book by his wife, Beloria, he resisted. “You’re going to have to stop and retire,” she said, “and the first thing you’re going to do is write this book.”
Levy recalled, “That night, I thought about it, and I knew it was one of those situations where something comes to you. So the next day I went [to the university]. I wrote my letter of resignation.”
He came home and told his wife. “She said, ‘What, you did?’ I said, ‘I hope you were not joking.’ Because I took it seriously.”
“Baseless Hatred” has already been translated into Hebrew and French, the latter prefaced by the chief rabbi of France. A movement called Mutual Responsibility has emerged, which uses the book’s principles to help families work through conflicts. Levy is also planning a training seminar in Jerusalem and a foundation.
Through his research, Levy came to interpret sinat chinam as a hatred that is baseless because it is “excessive, avoidable, permanent, and spreading” that dissolves “the integrity of the Jewish people.”
Prevention and repair of intra-Jewish hatred comes down to “arevut,” mutual responsibility.
“Our whole peoplehood is based on arevut,” said Levy. “The proof of that is we’re the only nation that was built independent of land…. We’re like people, floating interconnected. You cut those wires, you don’t have a people any more.”
Levy links each historical exile to an episode of hatred, from Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brother, down to the fight, described in the Talmud, that caused the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. “The whole basis of sinat chinam is that we were exiled,” he said.
So, with the establishment of the State of Israel, what happened to baseless hatred? Levy spends a large portion of the book addressing this question. In short, he explains that existential threats to Israel have eroded Israeli and Jewish identity and allegiance, leading to infighting.
“I think it’s an essential book,” said Israel’s justice minister Yaakov Neeman at the book’s launch in Jerusalem in June 2011, “and if I could, I’d have the publisher send every member of the Knesset this book, so they’d understand what’s happening to us; how we ourselves are destroying the Jewish people after 2,000 years of exile.”
Levy says he did not want to write a book directed at religious Jews, although most of its reception has been from Orthodox communities. “My requirement is simply that they believe in Jewish history.” Levy’s response to inter-denominational differences — which often lead to disdain — also comes back to arevut.
“When we left Egypt, what was the reason we had 12 tribes?” he asks. “How can that be? How can God tell Moses, ‘put the Jews in 12 tribes?’ Who cares? Forget about it. We’re one people, under Jacob.” But rather, he explains, “It’s to tell us that each group of Jews has their window, they have their approach. We’re not one color.”
The Jew who identifies through tikkun olam projects, and the black-hatted Jew who focuses on the minutiae of ritual are just fulfilling different aspects of Judaism. Essentially, it’s a trade.
It’s “to say, you’re doing my job,” says Levy. “We’re absolutely doing the same thing.”
“Baseless Hatred” offers techniques for preventing and repairing the negative effects of sinat chinam. Levy, with his background in science, explains that hatred is a primitive neural response crucial to survival. It’s the human, and especially Jewish, responsibility to override this response with empathy.
“Don’t be trapped by your primitive neural system,” he warns. Empathy and peace are possible, but to get there we need to admit we’re all part of the problem. “Everyone of us has work to do, to transform ourselves.”
Ultimately, it’s about survival. “[Look] how much damage we’re causing just by the lack of acknowledgment of the other to be chosen by God,” says Levy. “That’s why we have this idea of chosen by God. Chosen by God is not so we lord it over the others. Chosen by God is, ‘Hashem, you chose this guy? I choose him too. And You know better than me. And you know, Hashem, I don’t like him. I’m threatened by him. Okay, so let’s work.’
“People say, this is no longer a book, it’s a manifesto for a revolution,” Levy says. “This is about our history, it’s about who we are, the way we have to behave with each other.”