So Compassionate it Hurts | Tzemah Yoreh

So Compassionate it Hurts

The following is an excerpt from So Compassionate it Hurts by Tzemah Yoreh. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

I am a congregational rabbi on the autism spectrum.

How is that possible? How can I thrive in a profession that is pastoral, that rewards extroversion, that seems mostly for those who intuitively grasp social dynamics? I can’t understand my closest family members most of the time, let alone a room full of people whom I know only peripherally.

And yet I have thrived.

That is because along with the deficits of being on the spectrum, there are precious gifts that being neuroatypical bequeath me.

But, to be honest, it took me a while to find them.

I am a child of the ’80s. Back then, there was simply no language around high-functioning autism. I knew I was different, but I couldn’t describe how.

Something was always more than a little bit wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. There were times I was happy, but I wouldn’t say I had a happy childhood. I could never look others in the eye, and my body language was fairly wild. I shied away from most touch. I was so literal, and I was so lonely.

From a young age, I always sought to understand, but too often I was frustrated. As a child, I would reach for books on the higher shelf. I was a precocious reader, and my parents were academics. One of the volumes that changed my life was a book decoding body language for those who don’t intuitively grasp it. I was finally able to pry open a window to understand other people, and more importantly to understand how others saw me.

As I grew older, there were other windows, the most important of which was poetry. The book on body language gave me some insight into people’s minds, but poetry allowed me to go deeper.

I began to write poetry, and I began to write prayers. It was my poetry and prayers, their cadences of secular transcendence rooted in ancient texts, that led me to the rabbinate. My poetry drew the attention of others, and through them I found my community.

But it is one thing to find a community and it is altogether different to lead one. You can’t lead through poetry, can you? My favorite poem in the world, by Avraham Ben Yitzhak, begins with these words (translated from the Hebrew):

Happy are those who sow but do not reap
For they have wandered far
Happy are those who are generous
And in their glorious youth have made the days lighter,
Throwing their jewels
as they traverse the story of their lives.

It is a poem about the greatest human beings, those who have enriched the world and touch everyone in passing; it is a poem about unfettered generosity. It is a poem about philosopher kings, who have achieved the second naïveté and live out their ideals at peace with the world.

This poem is one of my literary models for how to live life. I constantly ask myself if I am holding myself up to its ideals. The answer is no.

One of the central tenets of Humanist Judaism is the verse from Leviticus 19 that commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This tenet has been expressed in many different ways throughout history. Hillel the Elder said it encapsulated the entire Torah. James, the brother of Jesus, said that it was the royal law. Kant said it was the prime imperative, and there were and are countless thinkers all over the world who echo this, including the author of my favorite poem. Those of a more skeptical bent may argue that the meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” in the Hebrew Bible is hardly reflective of a humanist philosophy. In the context of Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” meant: Love him and not her, since women are unequal to men. Love your neighbor the Israelite, but not the Canaanite whom you are commanded to destroy. Do not love your neighbor if he happens to be the idolater you are commanded to expunge from your midst, or the homosexual you are commanded to kill.

It is such a beautiful articulation, so profound and universal, but I doubt that many in the biblical period actually believed it in its entirety or lived up to it.

Humanity has progressed; today, more than at any other time in human history, many of us attempt to love our neighbors as ourselves. But I personally still do not think that I have lived up to this categorical imperative.

Have I truly treated my neighbor as I myself would wish to be treated?

Am I truly a “neighbor” to an African American woman? Have I considered the systemic racism that she endures constantly, her blocks as she seeks to educate her children and provide for her family, or even walk down the street in peace? I ask myself, if I truly loved and sought to understand transgender human beings who experience the world so differently, would I unthinkingly misgender people?

I am Jewish, and my family bears the scars of the Holocaust, yet how do I address the other anti-Semitism I am culpable of—anti-Muslim bias? Can I understand the harassment endured by a woman who wears a hijab?

Can I truly comprehend the other, whoever the other may be? Can I really put myself in someone else’s shoes when I live in my world of privilege? I don’t know if I can, but I am resolved that I shall continue in my attempt to do so, for that is the nature of a universal principle—we cannot entirely live up to it, only strive toward it.

That is what the gift of autism has taught me. I am so very different, and so I have striven so hard to understand others. Knowing that the world was not built for people like me, I have learned to recognize the obstacles others face as well.

I will always feel uncomfortable in social situations. Social interactions will continue to drain me, but now I work with that discomfort, which I recognize stems from trying and failing to understand the other, trying and failing to grasp their world. Trying to articulate my poetry and theirs. This is what autism has bequeathed me. This attempt is entirely genuine, without guile or pretense, and because people see this and appreciate it, I am able to connect to my community. It is why I am an effective rabbi.

But can I reach for something beyond effectiveness?

One of the gifts pastoral professions bestow upon those who practice them is the time to think deeply about ethics, and sometimes even to come up with some answers. A subject have thought about deeply, in the last year in particular, is my responsibility as a community leader on the autism spectrum.

For many years I have kept the knowledge of my autism to myself. I always thought, this is who I am, and it is really no one’s affair except my own, and no one will care anyway. But that is not actually true.

I’m writing this now, and sharing my experience, for my son Elisha.

At seven, Elisha inhabits a deeper band of the autism spectrum than I ever did. Will he ever have the words? Will he ever be able to advocate for himself and his needs? I do not know.

And if that is the case, I owe the beautiful human being who is my son to speak on his behalf. I want to understand him and what he needs to lead a fulfilling life, and I want to find a way to give it to him.

Because it is both my fault and my privilege that Elisha is autistic. Autism runs strong in the genes of my family. I went ahead and procreated with the full knowledge that I might have children like me, and Elisha is such a precious blessing, a sphinx whose puzzle I have not solved.

And so I will force myself to become even more eloquent, to turn over every rock, so that I can facilitate a meaningful and fulfilling life for my beautiful boy.

But there is more than my personal obligation to my son:There is my moral obligation to all my fellow journeyers on the spectrum. As a relatively articulate member of those who inhabit the various bands of the autism spectrum, I have the duty to speak up, to become an advocate because I can, while so many of us cannot.

I only realized this in the last few years. I only realized this when I became a rabbi of a community and the weight of responsibility began to rest upon my shoulders. And so it is time now. It is time to share my story with you and begin to advocate as best as I can.

Praise for So Compassionate it Hurts

“Motivationally inspiring, So Compassionate It Hurts: My Life as a Rabbi on the Spectrum is an inherently interesting memoir that will be of special value to readers with an interest in the subject of dealing with autism while creating a life or a career unexpected for anyone with their medical/psychological condition. Exceptionally well written, organized and presented.”
Midwest Book Review

“I recommend this book to all humans who can read! Tzemah Yoreh generously offers us the story of his struggles and development, ultimately leading to his role as a husband, father, scholar, rabbi, and all-round compassionate human being. We can all learn to be more open and honest and, most importantly, kind”
Susan Averbach

“This book is interesting and quite unique. It’s written by a Rabbi who happens to be on the autism disorder spectrum. I enjoyed the author’s account of what life has been like for him as a high-functioning autistic man. He lays bare both the struggles and the gifts … It’s different. It’s fresh. And if you or a loved one is a high functioning autistic, it’s entirely relatable. Kudos to the author and the publisher!”

“I am extremely fortunate to be a student of Tzemah Yoreh. I have rarely met anyone as erudite, intelligent, kind and passionate. He truly makes learning Bible an incredible experience. While I have enjoyed all the books he has written about Biblical criticism, this one is very different. Tzemah is extremely self aware and honest about being neuoratypical, the challenges and benefits. It is truly amazing that he has thrived as a pulpit rabbi and he inspires completely without self-pity. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to gain appreciation for what it means to be neurordivergent and why that doesn’t come along with limitations.”
Adam Sheer

“As a neurodivergent individual, the author skillfully sets cadence in his stories in easily digestible phrases, sharing his experiences, insights, struggle, joy, and love. And the next thing the readers find, in connecting with his tales, we quickly came to the end, with understand and compassion.”
Charles L.

About the Author

Tzemah Yoreh

Tzemah Yoreh is one of the intellectual leaders of Jewish humanism and the head of the City Congregation in New York city. He attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biblical criticism in 2004. He earned a second Ph.D. in Ancient Wisdom Literature from the University of Toronto for the joy of studying ancient text. As a community leader on the spectrum, he is a passionate advocate for the inclusion of the neuro-atypical in the Jewish community and beyond.

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