For rabbi/author, two rights dont make a wrong

To Brad Hirschfield, religion is like fire. “It can either warm your house and cook your dinner,” says the New York rabbi, “or it can burn your house down.”

He should know. As a youth in the 1980s, Hirschfield was a gun-toting zealot living in a Hebron settlement, espousing what some would call incendiary views.

In those days, Hirschfield’s settlers knew the truth. Everyone else, especially the neighboring Arabs, was wrong. Dead wrong.

It took the accidental shooting deaths of two Palestinian children at the hands of settlers to spark his epiphany. In time Hirschfield came to see that others could hold equally valid, if contradictory, points of view.

That’s the premise of his new book, “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.” Hirschfield will discuss the book at the JCC of San Francisco and the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

These days, Hirschfield serves as president of the New York-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. There he seeks to bridge diverse Jewish voices and reach out to the interfaith community.

“In such a polarized culture, wouldn’t it be amazing if people could commit to what they most believe without denigrating others of different beliefs?” he wonders.

Hirschfield says his prescription applies not only to mass movements and religions, but to personal relationships.

“The issue is to figure out how to be a little more open. To some that means waking up in a better mood next to your partner. How do you greet the kids at the end of the day? Those are practices about learning to be more open.”

A native of Chicago, Hirschfield grew up in a middle-class Jewish home. As a teen, he become devout. Later he moved to Israel, throwing in his lot with settlers who believed God intended Jews to dominate all of biblical Israel.

He was ordained in the Orthodox movement and devoted his career to outreach. The events of 9/11 deeply affected him, causing him to redouble efforts to reach out to Muslims.

“I knew religion had driven those planes into the buildings,” he recalls. “That’s a complicated admission for someone in love with God.”

He went on to create programs for a Muslim TV network, and traveled to Arab countries to represent a voice of Jewish moderation, even when such trips meant for some awkward moments.

“I have more acquaintances in the Muslim Brotherhood than I ever thought I would,” Hirschfield jokes. “I had moments that were genuinely scary and painful, but also the most conducive to growth.”

Hirschfield remains in touch with former colleagues from the settler movement, even though he no longer shares their vision of a Greater Israel. He notes that some of them have even begun to soften their positions, if only a little.

He stresses that his book makes no political pronouncements. However, he cautions “whatever policy you advocate, you had better understand its deficiencies, and the wisdom of the one you’re passing by.”

While he spends much of his time promoting dialogue between Jews and non-Jews, Hirschfield believes the Jewish community itself could use a healthy dose of intra-family tolerance as well.

“There needs to be a place at the Jewish table for everyone who wants one, regardless of dogma, doctrine or belief,” he says. “It doesn’t mean everyone wants to sit at the same end of the table. But it better be big enough.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield will appear 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Admission is free. Information: (415) 444-8000 or online at He will also speak

8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $8-$10. Information: (415) 292-1233 or online at

“You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right” by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (288 pages, Harmony Books, $24.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.