I had not intended to devote an entire post to this topic. Most regular readers of my blog already know how I feel about the Orthodox stream of Judaism, between the Elad Debacle a few months ago, the Haredim who are constantly trying to stop the Women of the Wall from worshiping at the Kotel, and of course the ongoing violence from Israeli Jewish extremists against women and children, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My position’s been pretty clear, and I guess you could say I’m with Wil Wheaton on this: Don’t be a dick.
But after Rafi Mollot‘s impassioned response to a comment thread on my blog, which asked me if I was just using stereotypes to judge an entire group, I felt that it was necessary to make this a full post.
Rafi and I got into it the other day in my post “A Wasted Yom Kippur”. You can see our conversation in the comments. I felt at first complimented, and then condescended to, by what he initially said. Part of that may have been that Rafi had not read the rest of my blog, and so did not know my position on Orthodoxy. My reasons for not converting Orthodox – now, or ever – are pretty well-known to my regular readers. Some posts which probably stand out in that area are:
Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew
They’re Not Your Shabbos Goyim, and Other Hard Truths
Hey, Pop Chassid, It’s Not a Paradox
Style or Substance? A Follow-Up Post
There have also been posts about Orthodox converts on the conversion boards that I’ve read and been part of, which boil down to: They claim that Orthodox Judaism is the only “real” Judaism, and I disagree. They usually end up being banned for trolling the boards and refusing to get along with other Jews because they refuse to recognize anyone who isn’t Orthodox as a Jew.
Most of my readers know this already. But Rafi was not a regular reader. I’m pretty sure he found me from Rabbi Adar’s reblog of that post.
At the time I responded, I was also tired and I had had a bad day, which probably colored my response. When I read his initial comment, what I got out of it was “If you’re not Orthodox, you’re not really a Jew, you know.” It rubbed me the wrong way.
So first of all, I should explain why I’m not converting Orthodox. I will refer people back to this post from now on, if I get comments like Rafi’s again, so that the explanations are clear.
- I’m queer. That’s not going to change. Since the Orthodox are well-known for being homophobic, I have zero interest in being Orthodox. The stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade did not help this perception.
- The Orthodox are, by and large, very sexist and misogynist in their practices. I find the existence of the mechitza despicable, and the reasons given for it appalling. The ongoing struggle between the Women of the Wall and the haredim at the Kotel is a big deal to me, and I’m on the side of the women, not the haredim.
- By and large, the problems I’ve seen in Israel (and Jewish enclaves outside of Israel) when Jews are involved are caused by Orthodox Jews (many times, ultra-Orthodox) Jews. See my intro paragraph for a few examples. Frankly, I don’t want to be part of that.
The upshot is, I have been personally told by Orthodox people, such as Pop Chassid and the various Orthodox on the convert boards, that I’m not a “real Jew” because I’m not Orthodox. It doesn’t take too many times of that happening to decide that Orthodox Jews generally have a stick up their behinds and their hands clamped firmly over their ears, singing La La La to avoid any new information. And it doesn’t take much for me to believe that when an Orthodox tries to push me towards Orthodox practices that the underlying message is “you’re not a real Jew unless you’re an Orthodox Jew.”
That said, I jumped to conclusions when I got Rafi’s original comment (I am quoting the second half here, because it’s the part that made me jump to conclusions).
On that note, and I know I’m about to open up a can of worms here, but I do so out of genuine concern for you, not to stir up controversy. Here goes… I know of quite a number of cases in which people who converted to Judaism through Reform were chagrined to learn later that their conversion was not recognized by some other streams of Judaism (particularly Orthodox). See this article on the subject: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Conversion.html
Importantly: “The Reform movement recommends that the potential convert be made aware of mikvah and mila, and that their conversion would be unacceptable to Orthodox Jews, but such notification is not required.” (And, by the way, I do believe the Orthodox have the right to preserve Judaism according to their tradition by upholding strict standards for conversion. There’s nothing wrong with that.)
So, I’m telling you because I care about you. From your description, you and I share a fair amount in common, and you certainly seem like someone worth caring about. And this important information may influence how you go about conversion or your overall decision to convert.
Since my beit din and mikveh is in eleven days, I have zero interest in changing my focus. I’m also having a conversion process that will be acceptable to just about every other stream of Judaism, including the Conservative/Masorti stream – a beit din, the mikveh, and hatafat dam brit. I had already settled that issue long before Rafi commented. But he didn’t know that, and I should have been less sharp in my response. As I said, I was having a bad day and I was tired, and that probably colored my response, which I will quote here:
I am well aware of the Orthodox position on my conversion, but this may surprise you: I don’t care what Orthodox Jews think of me. They don’t own Judaism, even though they think they do. Yes, they have the right to hold to their tradition. They do not, however, have the right to claim sole ownership of Judaism, any more than the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to claim sole ownership of Christianity.
I’ve written on this issue extensively in this blog already. I have a strong dislike of fundamentalists, and the Orthodox fit into that category. Yes, they’re Jews. But so am I. They can pretend I’m not a Jew, but they will be wrong. If the anti-Semitic pogroms came again, I’d be targeted right along with them.
This article may help you understand my position: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.670717
I am finishing my initial conversion process with my beit din on the 27th. It will include mikveh and hatafat dam brit. I say initial because conversion is a life-long process. A b’nei mitzvah doesn’t stop learning and growing after their 13th birthday; a Jew by choice doesn’t stop learning after their beit din. If I had doubts about the stream of Judaism I was joining, I wouldn’t be going through with this.
And as a matter of fact, knowing the Orthodox position has influenced how I went about conversion – I deliberately chose the Reform movement because the Orthodox make me ill with their continued fundamentalism. They can hold to their strict standards for conversion to their variety of Judaism. They cannot impose those standards on me. And when they try to impose their standards on others, we get stabbings at the Jerusalem pride parade (http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/02/middleeast/jerusalem-gay-pride-parade-stabbings/), and infants set on fire (http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/1.668871), and closer to home in the US, we get young women who commit suicide because their Orthodox communities hounded them into it (http://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-hasidic-woman-jumps-off-ny-rooftop-bar-to-her-death/). You can probably see that I’m not interested in their views after events like this. I hold all Orthodox responsible for those deaths (and by extension, all Jews including myself, for not putting the kibosh on the Orthodox and their hateful views).
I don’t like your implication that the Reform somehow hide this information from conversion candidates – that the Orthodox only accept Orthodox converts. It was never hidden from me. It annoyed me when I discovered it (on my own, before I even contacted a rabbi), and angered me when my rabbi and I discussed it, but I am not chagrined that the Orthodox wouldn’t accept me. I am chagrined that they’re too closed-minded to accept me, because that’s their loss. Their acceptance has zero bearing on my decision to become a Jew – apart from my sense of justice showing me that they have none.
I am a Jew who practices my Judaism in the Reform manner. If you wish to follow my blog, I’m fine with that. However, I’m not fine with commentary that says that only the Orthodox are real Jews, so if that’s your stance, I would appreciate it if you’d keep it out of my blog. Having looked at your blog, I doubt that you would be comfortable here, especially after seeing your recent attack on scientists.
Framing it as “caring about me,” when you’ve read one or two of my posts, sounds too much like Christians who have tried to convince me that Judaism is wrong and Jesus is the only right way. Don’t be one of those folks, okay?
Also, don’t take my quoting of an Orthodox rabbi as any indication that I think Orthodoxy is the only way, or the only right way. Rabbi Hartman said something smart and important, and something that more Jews need to think about. That’s why I quoted him – not because he was an Orthodox rabbi. I’ve found worthy information to think about in all kinds of books and from all kinds of sources.
Rafi responded back the next day, and I had to think about it for a while before responding. I will be interleaving his most recent response with my responses to it. Hopefully we can come to some kind of understanding here.
Adam, thank you for your honest and heartfelt reply. If only most Jews had as acute an understanding of Judaism as you do, in your expression that a Jew’s journey does not end with Bar Mitzvah (or conversion, in this case), but only begins. I have a friend, a rabbi, who says, “There’s no such thing as Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew, Reform Jew, etc. There are only two kinds of Jews. Growing Jews, and non-growing Jews. Where you are on the spectrum of observance is irrelevant. The question is, are you moving in the right direction?” I have heard this from a number of rabbis (who would be labelled Orthodox, incidentally). In fact, I had had plans with another rabbi friend of mine, a former colleague, to start a “movement” called “Under-Constructionist Judaism” (UCJ) based on this philosophy. We both left the organization we had been working for at the end of that year and went our separate ways, so nothing ever came of that.
Rafi, I shared something similar not so long ago in this blog, in Moving Up The Ladder, or, The Foundation of My Yiddishkeit. “You have not told me which of the men is moving upward,” said the rabbi in this lesson, and I agree with that. UCJ sounds interesting, but I wonder if it was more of a thought experiment than a thing that was actually needed by the community.
However, on the topic of your anti-Orthodox diatribe, I would like to ask you a question. Have you ever met Orthodox Jews? Interacted with them? Spent time with them? Or are all your conceptions of what Orthodox Jews are based on their portrayal in the media, or otherwise secondhand sources? I ask because your statements about Orthodox Jews in this reply are broad, sweeping statements that lump everyone into one basket.
I have met Orthodox Jews. I have several friends who are Modern Orthodox. They live on the opposite coast, so I don’t get to see them much, but we correspond on Facebook and in other venues. There is a Chabad community two blocks from where I live in the Los Angeles area, but I have received multiple cold shoulders from them when I run into them on the street or at the market, even though I wear a kippah and a Mogen David and don’t hide my Jewishness.
I also have friends who are ex-Jewish and have left Judaism altogether because of having been raised in ultra-Orthodox households, like the one that Faigy Mayer was trying to escape from when she died. I have a friend who was told by an Orthodox rabbi that she wasn’t Jewish, after having lived as a Jew all her life, because her mother’s conversion was not Orthodox and therefore invalid. (It wasn’t invalid. It was just unacceptable to a hard-starch Orthodox fundamentalist, which is not the same thing.) I have another friend whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor (not to mention an Orthodox Jew) whose father was told by an Orthodox rabbi that she wasn’t Jewish, because her mother was not a Jew – which is reprehensible in the extreme. She is one of the most amazing Jews I know.
Not only is it impossible to characterize all people within a group with one label, for certainly there must be exceptions, often “stereotypes,” and particularly negative ones, are built around the extreme behaviors of a very visible minority, but don’t represent the views of the majority, even the vast majority. Often, the characterization of a group by a small number of representatives COMPLETELY misidentifies the rest of the group. Antisemites have done this for millennia, as have other groups toward one another, and this has only yielded tragedy and destruction. I’m surprised that someone like you is not more sensitive to this. And as an Orthodox Jew myself, I KNOW you’ve mischaracterized me and my community, and I am personally hurt by your remarks. Sadly, this happens all too often. People are quick to judge one another, and I too, it seems I was too quick in my judgment of you as tolerant of other streams of thought, including “the hateful Orthodox,” which, apparently, includes myself.
For your hurt, I am sorry. To me, you came across as someone pushing me to be Orthodox as if that was the only acceptable way to be Jewish. I wonder if you can see why you did.
However, I must address “the hateful Orthodox” comment. So far I’ve seen you get offended by my perception of Orthodoxy because you think it comes solely from “the media,” but it doesn’t. As described above, I have friends who have been personally harmed by the Orthodox movement, just as I have friends who have been personally harmed by the fundamentalist Christian movement.
There are certain beliefs that I cannot tolerate or find acceptable, such as the misogyny and the homophobia that seem to be inherent in Orthodox Judaism. How do you respond to that?
- Do you have examples of Orthodox Jews who are willing to speak out on the side of justice and equality?
- Do you speak out on the side of justice and equality? Or do you just say “Well, if it’s not halacha, they’re the problem, not us”?
- Do you recognize that Torah is a living document, not a dead and fixed-in-stone document?
- Do you recognize that liberal rabbis have interpreted its words to find that I, a gay man, am an acceptable Jew? Or do you just reject that and say “That’s not halacha”?
These are not rhetorical questions. I’m honestly curious to know.
If you just reject social justice in favor of “that’s not halacha,” then yes, in my opinion you are part of the “hateful Orthodox,” just as the fundamentalist Christian who says that sex education should be abstinence-only and who wants their gospels preached in the schoolhouse is part of the “hateful Christians.” If you are open-minded and say “those things are shameful, they are a shame to all Jews, and we should not promote misogyny and homophobia against God’s children,” then you’re not part of the problem. But your initial reaction here leads me to believe that you’re on the side of the misogyny and the homophobia, because you’re defending it.
I once heard someone say, “When non-Orthodox Jews talk about ‘Ahavat Yisrael,’ they mean toward everyone but the Orthodox.” I would like to believe that was hyperbole, but it seems to reflect a real sentiment. I must admit that I have heard over and over from people who have interacted with Reform communities (including those who came out of Reform and became Orthodox) about the enmity toward the Orthodox, sometimes unspoken, sometimes overt, that exists among the Reform, though I have personally never encountered it… until now. From what I know, it is the people who have had the least contact with the Orthodox that have the strongest prejudices.
My experience with the Orthodox has been that when they say “Ahavat Yisrael,” they mean only the Orthodox. As I’ve already said, the Chabadniks give me the cold shoulder – perhaps because I’m not wearing black and a white button-down shirt with my kippah and my Mogen David. Who knows? They’re not welcoming; they’re shunning.
I don’t deny that they are Jews. I do feel that their behavior is embarrassing. But they wouldn’t recognize me as a Jew even if I was crammed in next to them in the cattle car. And yes, I use that phrase quite deliberately.
I know you are a good person, with a strong sense of justice, as you highlight in your article. Does anything I’m saying resonate right now that perhaps you have prejudged, and wrongly so at that? You see, I REALLY KNOW what Orthodox Jews are, and the reality on the ground does not comport with the image of the Orthodox you have presented here (which I’m certain is only a reflection of the twisted image that has been fed to you — you would never on your own paint such a character; it just surprised me that a forward thinking person like you did not see through it). Don’t you see that your condemnation of “the Orthodox” is the same crime that you accuse “them” of perpetrating? I’m not claiming every Orthodox Jew to be an angel, but they can’t be worse than any other demographic, none of which you would vilify for the actions of any of their individuals. And even if you fall back on the “hateful views” of the Orthodox as justification for your characterization of the people, I once again must assert that your impression of Orthodox views must be greatly misinformed.
You say it is. Where is your proof? I have actual, real-life examples, both from the media and from my own experiences and the experiences of my friends, that the Orthodox are, by and large, hateful to any Jew who isn’t Orthodox. Do you have counter-examples for me? People who stood up and said “No, the Women of the Wall have the right to a Torah and to shofarim at the Kotel”? People who identified the haredi men who assaulted Charlie Kalech and Alden Solovy back on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar for doing that very thing, so that they could be brought to justice? I’ll take your pointer of the OU rabbis condemning the Pride stabbings and the pricetag murders as two good examples – but that’s two examples against twelve or fourteen bad acts. Show me more. Give me some balance, here.
I humbly direct you to one of the best sources of information on the Internet for Orthodox ideology: aish.com. It is one of many mainstream Orthodox Jewish websites, none of which I think you could accuse of touting “hateful views,” quite the contrary, in fact. Why don’t you go ahead and check out ou.org, of the — GASP! — Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), and find a condemnation of the stabbing attack as well as the “pricetag” murders.
I’ve read aish.com, and it’s interesting, but a lot of it is contradictory. For example, the author of http://www.aish.com/jl/jnj/nj/100712764.html assumes that everyone has to have a Jewish spouse in order to raise Jewish children. Well, okay, if you think “Jewish” means “being absolutely 100% tied to the mitzvot and doing everything exactly correctly”, then fine. But that’s not how I, or many other Jews of my acquaintance, approach Judaism. This author assumes that everyone wants to have Jewish children and the only way to have that is to have a Jewish partner, which is categorically not true.
But then the contradiction comes in in the “Ask the Rabbi” question today, in which the rabbi says “Any attempt is better than no attempt.” Well, which is it? If you want me to take that page as an authoritative description of Orthodox Judaism, some consistency would be helpful. I’ve had people from Aish tell me that I’m sinning for not eating halachically acceptable ha-motzi – which I can’t eat because I’m allergic to it.
I hope you will reconsider your evaluation of Orthodox Jewry. No, I am not trying to influence you to become one of us (you may well know the Orthodox do not seek converts, though we LOVE the convert, as the Torah teaches us to — you read that right, “love,” not “hate”), but I’m allowed to be genuinely caring toward others, even non-Jews, even though — GASP! — I’m Orthodox! (“No, it cannot be!”)
I hope you can see that your approach came across as “I am trying to influence you to become one of us.” Because it totally did. By devaluing the approach I have taken to my conversion, you are doing exactly that, whether or not you realize it.
And you must understand, Rafi, that the claim of “love” grates on anyone who’s been religiously abused in the name of religious love – which I have been, multiple times, by multiple faiths. It smacks of “We love the sinner even though we hate their sin,” which is a platitude I find disgusting from anyone’s mouth.
This point is clear to me as an insider, but I emphasize the point here out of necessity for someone who may be an outsider, and yet, no matter how much I try to convey this, something tells me I won’t convince you.
If you want me to believe you with no evidence, on your assertion alone, then yes, you’re going to have trouble. If you want me to believe you, provide me some evidence that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews were not cheering on the Jerusalem stabber or the men who set fire to that baby’s house and killed him and his father. If you want me to believe you, show me that Orthodoxy is working on fixing these problems instead of trying to brush them under the rug or give a “No True Scotsman” argument. Show me that most Orthodox were horrified and said “We have to fix this, we have to make them understand that they can’t do this,” instead of just shrugging their shoulders or actively cheering on this violence against people who were no threat to them. Show me that this sermon by Rabbi Benny Lau (who is, yes, Orthodox) and the crowd reaction are not anomalies in the Orthodox movement.
Let me suggest another great “Orthodox” website (that is, created and run by an Orthodox Rabbi): Shabbat.com. It’s a free service that allows you (among other things) to contact a potential Shabbat host ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD to arrange to stay or eat for Shabbat. Why don’t you find yourself a nice Orthodox family near you to host you for Shabbat, and then tell me after your experience about your FIRSTHAND impression of the Orthodox? I think that’s the fairest way to judge, don’t you?
I have had firsthand experiences of Orthodox Jews. With only one or two exceptions, those experiences have been uniformly negative. The friends I have who are Modern Orthodox are not local, so I can’t just go to their house for Shabbat dinners. And I can’t go to just anyone’s Shabbat dinner, because I am allergic to about a third of what would be on the table, including the challah and anything else that had flour in it. It wouldn’t be respectful to say to a stranger through that website, “I can’t eat most of what you cook; I eat a special diet; cater to me.” Instead, I hold my own Shabbat dinners and have friends over to them so I can control what I’m eating and not end up in the hospital.
I’m willing to have a discussion. I’m not willing to be the target of someone yelling at me. So if you wish to continue this discussion, Rafi, feel free to comment here – after you’ve read and understood the rules of my blog.
12 responses to “My Issues With Orthodoxy: A Response to Rafi Mollot”
I want to share this quotation from George Steiner with you. It appears in Steiner’s essay, “A Kind of Survivor.” He began by saying he was not there when the Nazis rounded everyone up, because his family had already left Europe.
Though Steiner did not say so in as many words, I feel he has survivor’s guilt.
But the quotation:
“That fear [that the Holocaust may happen again] lies near the heart of the way in which I think of myself as a Jew. To have been a European Jew in the first half of the twentieth century was to pass sentence on one’s children, to force upon them a condition almost beyond rational understanding. And which may recur … This is my self-definition. Mine because I cannot speak for any other Jew. … [But] to the Orthodox my definition must seem desperate and shallow … The Orthodox Jew would not only deny me the right to speak for hi, pointing to my lack of knowlege and communion; he would say: ‘You are not like us, you are a Jew outwardly, in name only.’ Exactly. But the Nazis made of the mere name necessary and sufficent cause. They did not ask whether one had ever been to synagogue, whether one’s children knew any Hebrew. The anti-Semite is no theologian; but his definition is inclusive. So we would have all gone together, the Orthodox and I…”
Steiner had much more to say; but that is the relevant part.
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That’s an excellent point, and now I need to read that essay. Thank you for commenting.
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It appears in Steiner’s book, Language and Silence.
Wow, Adam, thank you for dedicating so much time and thought to our discussion. I would like to respond in kind. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to sit down and compose anything at length, though of course before I do, I must “read and understand the rules” of your blog, as you put it at the end of your post. Can you direct me as to where/how to do so?
That can be found here: https://shocheradam.com/2015/08/19/the-rules-of-this-blog/
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Adam, I’ve given a lot of thought to what you’ve written, but as a teacher preparing for the school year as summer rolled to a close, and now having started teaching, I’ve been too overwhelmed with work responsibilities to adequately put my thoughts into the form of a written reply. For now, let the following thought suffice between us (and all Jews): https://rafimollot.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/wise-words-from-a-wise-man/
Shanah Tovah, and congratulations on your continued growth along your spiritual journey.
I’m a teacher with a full load, too, Rafi. I would like to ask you something, and I would appreciate an answer:
Why, if this is your position, did you feel it was necessary to tell me that Orthodox won’t accept my conversion? If, as the post you made says, “splitting Judaism into ‘orthodox, conservative, and reform’ is a purely artificial division,” then why was it so important to you to point out that I wouldn’t be accepted by one of those artificial divisions? That’s what bothered me about your original response, and I still haven’t seen an answer from you on this.
My hesitation to respond comes also from a reluctance to offend your sensibilities. As you yourself mentioned, you are sensitive, particularly in this area, so one must “tread softly.” Perhaps I am on safer ground on my own blog where I need not feel confined by your “rules,” but that matters not to me; I try as a rule not to offend people. I will often avoid dialogue rather than voice an opinion that will be uncomfortable to the listener. I find that you confuse disagreement with hatred or hostility. If a person or group of people does not hold the same views as you, this is a form of villainy. But that is not the case. Human beings are allowed to disagree, and if they do so respectfully, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, respectful dialogue should be embraced. That is the foundation of classical Jewish learning. The chavruta system is based on the premise that if you must voice your understanding to another person, it must pass review by his/her intellect to determine its veracity. The ensuing (respectful) debate will yield a more truthful product than if one were allowed to profess one’s opinions without recourse to peer review. But because I see that you conflate disagreement with belligerence, I have avoided responding because I do not foresee a fruitful debate, just fuel for bombastic hyperbole. If the discussion is to continue, it must be with an understanding that I am allowed to disagree with you without becoming persona non grata.
I don’t care if you disagree with me, but on my blog, if your disagreement insults people, that’s not acceptable and it’s not allowed. If you see that as me forbidding disagreement, well, then that’s the way it is. I’m tired of Orthodox people trying to bombast me with their belief that they are the only real Jews. So sorry. Not interested.
Frankly, you still haven’t answered my question: if you believe what you posted in your own blog, then why bring up the issue of “well, the Orthodox won’t accept you” in mine? You haven’t answered that question even yet, Rafi.
The fact that some Jews’ adherence to the Torah as they understand it precludes them from accepted as valid a conversion process that they do not view as conforming to the Torah’s criteria for conversion, and the fact that the division of Jews according to “Orthodox, Conservative and Reform” is an artificial one, are not in conflict. If that is not self-evident, I repeat that my feeling is that a discussion on why this is so is not welcome on your blog. And even if these two items were in conflict, and I expressed one view, while noting that others express a different view than my own, why is the expression of two views a problem?
Also, tell your buddy Russell that I’d be in the cattle car right next to him if the pogroms came again, and that he’s a perfect example of what I’ve been trying to get you to see here.
I think it’s time to look in the mirror. There are haters in every camp. We need not be proud of them, but let’s not pretend the few who like to make a lot of noise represent the whole. We see what we want to see. My point is that the overwhelming voice coming from the Orthodox camp (if one wishes to bend one’s ear to hear it, and I again refer you to ANY mainstream Orthodox website out there) is that of love and tolerance. We don’t have to agree with others on everything, but disagreement is different than hostility or hate. My point has been that (a) I don’t think you make that distinction, and (b) you focus on the few loudmouthed losers rather than the truly representative whole. I’m sorry that you’ve had your negative personal experiences. So have I. But we need to have the broadness of mind to see past ourselves.