Friday, August 5, 2011

the costs

"Look, have fun - but please," I asked her before she left for one of her teenage adventures, "don't do anything stupid.” She looked at me in awe. "Abba, you're right. If I find myself thinking, ‘Should I do something stupid?’ I promise to answer ‘No.’"

She was right of course. We don't generally do things once we know them to be stupid; it's precisely because we don't recognize just how stupid our ideas might be that the advice not to do something is stupid is virtually impossible to follow. The outsider can easily forget what the rabbis of the Talmud knew (Arakhin 16b): that it is not enough for a directive, or teaching, or reproof, or piece of advice to be true, it must be accessible: advice isn't any good if the person can't follow it, and if you know the person won’t be able to follow it it’s better to be silent. No small thing when the Torah itself commands that you reprove your fellow who has done wrong, lest you come to “hate him in your heart.” (Lev. 19:17)

And the sages of the Talmud took hatred very seriously. They taught that while the first Temple was destroyed as a result of the Israelites' idolatry, the second Temple fell because of sinat hinam, generally translated as “gratuitous hatred”, among the Jews of that time (Yoma 9b). This was surely a radical teaching: that God would not live among people who could not live with each other. And it is a teaching that has enormous currency these days. Not a year goes by without some anguished reference to sinat hinam within Israel or the broader Jewish community. These anguished references are not usually confessions; the baseless hatred that causes so much concern is usually what someone else is up to. This is not really surprising. Hatred is such a powerful emotion that we rarely experience it as being anything but well-founded. Don't get caught up in gratuitous hatred? Ok, I won't. My hatred is only directed against those who really deserve it.

More: Even if one were able to recognize when his or her own passions were gratuitous, what about those those that aren't? If you believe that I pose a threat to the State of Israel, or that I am willfully leading others to sin, or that I am destroying the foundations of a just society - well, that hatred is certainly not gratuitous. I find this "earned" hatred even scarier than the baseless kind. Because hatred tends to be so powerful, so pure an emotion, the "justification" tends to become absolute and any kind of compromise, is itself a failing, and to look at the costs of maintaining or acting on that hatred is a kind of accommodation with evil.

But if this is so, where does that leave the ancient rabbis and their warning against sinat hinam? Perhaps more pertinent than ever. There is another meaning of the word hinam, found as early as the Bible. After nearly forty years in the desert the Israelites romanticize their old slavery and complain about the diet of manna. "We remember," they say, "the fish we ate in Egypt hinam." (Numbers 11:5) Hinam, you see, can also mean free. Without cost.

not to be “hatred without cause” but “without cost,” a hatred that is thought to be without risks or losses or consequences. That is indeed dangerous, because hatred – even when it is justified – is never without cost, and certainly never without risks. The expression of hatred, whether in word or in action, releases a destructive force into the world, and one can never be certain of keeping it fully under control. And whether expressed or not, hatred takes a psychic toll on the individual, again: even when it is justified, even when it is the wisest and healthiest reaction it still has a cost.

Those costs are easiest to forget precisely when we are most sure of the righteousness of our feelings, and thus the danger: at the very moment when our feelings are at their most powerful and most likely to be destructive we are least likely to put a check on them. Sinat hinam, the belief that our hatred has no cost is like the belief that surgery has no risks; and a doctor with that attitude quickly becomes a killer. It is not hard to imagine how that kind of hatred could have brought down the Temple.

Don’t tell us not to hate, because that much self-control we don’t have. And don’t tell us not to hate gratuitously, because none of our rage feels anything but righteous. But if you remind us that even the most righteous hatred has a cost, well, we may stop and think And if we think hard enough and clearly enough, perhaps we’ll decided more and more frequently that those are costs we don’t need to pay.