A Failure of Imagination: Reflecting on Christchurch

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 15, 2019 / 8 Adar Sheni 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on the terrible massacre of two Muslim communities in New Zealand, explores the origins of hatred and how we can overcome it, and invites people to attend a gathering and vigil at the Muslim Educational Trust, today at 2 pm. Details at the bottom of this Oasis Songs.

Today I wanted to write about Fred Rothstein’s induction as the president of NAASE, the North American Association of Synagogue Executives. Another congregant and I travelled to Florida to celebrate with him and install him into this important role. We can take pride in his contributions on the national scene. It is just one of the ways that Neveh Shalom serves those far beyond our walls.

Today I was anxious to communicate what our community is doing to address the homeless crisis in Portland and to alert everyone to the Tiny House that will soon be on display at Neveh Shalom. We will finish building it here before it is transported to North Portland and becomes a new home for someone who currently lives on our city’s streets. It is another way that Neveh Shalom serves those far beyond our walls.

Today I wished to remind everyone that our auction is this Sunday and encourage last-minute folks to call the office, because it promises to be a lot of fun as well as an important way to support our annual programming and other necessities that make our kehilla, our sacred community so vibrant.

Today I considered sharing some of the responses to last week’s column on anti-semtism and the diverse and interesting replies people sent to me.

Instead, I woke to my newsfeed and the horrific images coming out of Christchurch, New Zealand. Instead of celebrating all that is positive here at home, images of 49 innocent Muslims being killed at their prayers interrupted those happier thoughts. Two mosques. One gunman apprehended so far. 20 wounded—which in terror attacks like this almost guarantees that the mortalities will increase. This news broke through my defenses and dispassion like a body blow.

Instead, I sent notes to my Muslim friends and community leaders letting them know that we are here for them, and that we stand by their sides during this painful time. I called my dear friend Shariar over at Bilal Mosque and could barely speak, choked up with emotion when I heard his voice. Mostafa and I exchanged some emails. And what is there to say, really? What can we say that hasn’t already been said?

Here’s what arose. Graham Greene was a well-regarded English novelist, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. In high school we were required to read several of his novels. They made enough of an impression that I chose a line from one of his novels for my high school year book quote: “hatred is just a failure of imagination.”

Hatred is a failure of imagination. It is so difficult to get out of our own heads. That difficulty biases us to credit our own thoughts and feelings over those of others. What we think has a tendency to become the only reality to which we are receptive.

In some broken families, every person carries such hurt that they can’t consider that another family member hurts just as much, feels just as aggrieved. In extreme cases of mental illness, such as those struggling with delusions, all that exists are their own thoughts. No corrective from the outside can even be entertained.

The mystery for the rest of us is whether hate is a similar form of delusion. Is it so strong, that once rooted, it becomes impervious to reason or common human decency? Can hate, once learned, become unlearned? Is the power of imagination sufficient to let us see the other? To relinquish the small, mean “isms” of the human soul? To release our racism, our antisemitism, our misogyny, our homophobia, our derision of the homeless? Our hatred of the right or left? Or today, our Islamophobia? Is hatred really just a failure of imagination?

In a 2009 Scientific American article, author Katherine Harmon noted the research being done to locate the “hate circuit” in the brain. A more recent Psychology Today article stated that “the antidote to hate is compassion — for others as well as ourselves. Self-compassion means that we accept the whole self. “If we find part of ourselves unacceptable, we tend to attack others in order to defend against the threat,” says Reedy. “If we are okay with ourselves, we see others’ behaviors as ‘about them’ and can respond with compassion. If I kept hate in my heart for [another], I would have to hate myself as well. It is only when we learn to hold ourselves with compassion that we may be able to demonstrate it toward others.”

What strikes us as equally true is that it takes a tremendous act of transformation to rewrite those circuits of hatred once they are well-established. The act of imagination needed to do so has to be sustained—it requires commitment and action. Rarely is a single moment of imagination sufficient. But when we build habits around such imaginative leaps of love, most of us are capable of overcoming our darker instincts.

That difficulty should be a warning to us. It is far easier to teach tolerance and understanding to a child than to an adult mind already poisoned by hatred. It is why the important Reggio work that occurs in our Foundation School is so essential. As the book of Proverbs (22:6) reminds us, “train children in the way they should go, and even when old, they will not depart from it.”

Yes, it is easier with children. They don’t have decades of ingrained negativity to overcome. But that doesn’t relinquish the adult responsibility to try. The spiritual path isn’t supposed to be easy. It is paramount that we all try to grow toward greater levels of compassion, whether we harbor small hatreds or large. Indeed, tomorrow is Shabbat Zakhor. On the one hand, we read of the Amalekites, and their efforts to destroy the Jewish people. On the other hand, this section of the Torah issues a rare and disturbing commandment to wipe them out in retaliation.

It would be easy enough to use those Torah verses as justification for hatred and even genocide against our enemies. But our Sages of old embarked on a tremendously creative act of sustained exegesis. That is to say, for hundreds of years, they engaged in an act of imagination which read those verses as being limited to a single moment in time and inapplicable ever again. In the Hassidic tradition, that act of imagination is taken even farther. Amalek becomes an internal enemy of the human psyche, and we are charged to eradicate that, not other people or groups. In this way, Hassidic thought anticipated the insights expressed in the Psychology Today article quoted earlier. Which reminds me of the lyrics from a famous song from 1955:

Let there be peace in my time, and let it begin with me.
Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

For those who are free or are able to rearrange their schedules, the Muslim Educational Trust quickly put together a gathering today in response to New Zealand. I am trying to rearrange my schedule, but am uncertain if I will be able to shake free of my Shabbat duties and preparations. Nonetheless, it is important to me that Neveh Shalom have a good showing of support. I hope you will be able to make it.

Please join them today at 2:00 pm at the Muslim Educational Trust-10330 SW Scholls Ferry Road, Tigard, Oregon 97223- after their Friday service for a day of prayers, mourning and reflections*. We call on faith, civic, law enforcement leaders, and people of good will and allies to join in countering Islamophobia, racism and bigotry in all its forms and embark a new path on building an inclusive, welcoming and tolerant future.

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What is the first moment you remember being overcome by hatred of a person? How old were you? What happened?
  2. What is the last occasion when you found yourself hating a person or a group? Be honest, as most people harbor such thoughts at least occasionally.
  3. Can you recall a time when you overcame such feelings? What led to that change in outlook? Can that be repeated elsewhere in your life?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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