Brad Hirschfield is a rabbi, author, and President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). He was ranked three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America's "50 Most Influential Rabbis" and recognized as a leading “Preacher & Teacher” by Beliefnet.com.
In 2008 he published You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. In this book, he talks about his own first-hand experience of falling into fanaticism and what it took for him to climb out of it. I was fascinated by this perspective then, and given what’s happening in our world today, I’m even more fascinated by it now.
I thought it would be helpful to learn more about Rabbi Hirschfield’s journey to gain some insight into how we can protect ourselves from the allure of fanaticism. Or, to put in a more positive way, how one might remain committed to their own beliefs while also honoring the beliefs of others.
You can listen to the full interview on my new podcast, Spirited. Listen on any of the major podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Simran Jeet Singh: So tell us who you are at your core. And what is it that drives you?
Brad Hirschfield : So those are two separate questions. I love them both. They're both really smart and I'm going to do something classically rabbinic, which is answer a question with a question. When you ask people what's at their core, who they are at their core, do they ever say: ‘I'm a mean venal hateful, selfish soul?’ No, right? I think that’s because all questions about our core beings are aspirational.
I don't know that I believe anyone knows who's at their core. I think they know who they aspire to be and I will answer that, but any time the answer always breaks in only one direction, something's missing in that answer; half the people tell me they're horrible, deep down their core, and half tell me their enlightened noble souls.
I believe that all human beings are equal and that all human beings are unique. I suppose what drives me is the desire to see people use whatever traditions they love, best spiritual traditions, political traditions, economic traditions, to try and make that claim. Not just a biblical story, not just a claim, but a reality for more and more people until it's finally realized for everyone. And that's harder than it sounds.
Singh: What does that equality look like in a world full of difference? Even in your own home, you embraced traditional Jewish practices in a way that people in your family hadn’t observed for generations. How do you balance having a particular understanding of how you practice Judaism while also respecting their versions?
Hirschfield : So I've held that together in different ways over the course of my life. The longer story is that I also spent years in a very hardcore fundamentalist place in terms of my relationship to Judaism. Though, interestingly, it didn't express itself in relationship to people who practiced Judaism differently. It had to do with politics in Israel and among Palestinians, and I stepped away from that because it didn't fit with the other stuff I believed in about the dignity of every person. The most profound way to balance it for me is that I really believe I am doing what the God in whom I believe calls me to do.
I also really appreciate that I'm one finite being listening to an infinite color, which means if the color is infinite and the texts are infinite, then there are infinite ways of doing them. See, to me, the more deeply you believe in that traditional commanding, compelling text or God or gods, however you put it together, the more pluralist you have to be because how could one finite container or one finite way of doing a tradition or even one tradition hold all the gifts of an infinite source? It’s not possible. So actually marrying really rigorous commitment to equally rigorous openness I think is the greatest testament we can offer to the infinite giver of the traditions we love.
Singh: What does it look like to be someone who is committed to a particular faith tradition, practice and, at the same time, not feel like you must impose that on other people? So many of the models around us offer a supremacist worldview that then translates into evangelism. But it sounds like you imagine it differently. What’s your model here?
Hirschfield : Replication is a really sacred impulse. It's literally built into our biological fabric. But if all you have is pure replication, you have no growth and no evolution. Of course, I want us to agree and support each other and be alike — and I also understand if that's all there is, nothing can change. So unless you're prepared to say, “I am good with how the world is exactly the way it is and nothing should ever change,” then you should always be open to difference and change.
The first question after you get over that is “What can I learn from you?” That was something I learned in the years following 9/11 when I began to work a lot with rather radical Muslim communities around the world. A lot of people were very angry at me for even engaging these folks. And I said, “well, here's the thing, you would like those people to change, right?”
“Yes. They must change.”
“OK, here's what I've learned. The only way you can be someone else's teacher is to first be their student.”
The fact is that the only way to grow is to always be a student, even of the things you really don't like. One of my teachers taught me a long time ago these two basic rules: God never created anyone so right and so smart as to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. And he didn’t create anyone so stupid is to be wrong 100 percent of the time.
The fanatic is the one who believes they’re 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. And the God or cause they believe in is always on their side. There is nothing, nor matter how well-motivated, that ends well when you do that.