The term “safe space” on university campuses generally refers to an autonomous place created for students who feel marginalized by society. Students who feel alienated gather together to communicate regarding their experiences and feelings of being excluded. While a safe space asylum may be equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, videos of frolicking pets, and staff members trained to deal with trauma, the ultimate purpose of safe spaces is to protect students from being “bombarded” by discomforting or distressing viewpoints. Critics of this concept claim that it stifles freedom of speech, cultivates intolerance towards dissenting opinions to one’s own, and encourages self-isolation. While all these points may be true, there is also a deeper spiritual danger that belies a person who avoids discomforting and distressing viewpoints. As a matter of fact there is no less “spiritually safe” place to be.
Cain’s Safe Space
After Cain murdered his brother Abel, G-d asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:8-9) G-d, Who is omniscient, knew exactly where Abel was and what Cain had done to him. G-d was giving Cain an opportunity to confess and face his sin squarely. Had Cain verbalized his sin, it may have led him to the root of his hostility towards his brother. It may have led him to understand what his anger “triggers” were. It may have led him to understand why G-d turned to his brother’s offering (ibid 4:4), making Cain feel a bit “marginalized.” Instead, Cain chose to go to his inner “safe space.” He chose to defer G-d’s uncomfortable question, directly thrusting himself into a state of vulnerability, distant from the safest of spaces: G-d’s protective embrace (ibid 4:13.)
Spiritual Safe Space
G-d breathed a living soul into each individual on earth (Genesis 2:7). That means there is a part of G-d within each one of us. If you had a spiritual GPS that was to offer the shortest route to G-d, it would display “0.0 miles away. You’ve arrived at your destination.” The more we understand our souls, the more we understand G-d. The more we understand G-d, the closer we become to Him. The closer we become to Him, the more protection He offers to envelop us. The more G-dly protection, the safer the space. In other words, our “spiritual safe space” is only accessible when we go through the discomfort required to attain clarity of self.
Asylum of Return: Our Spiritual Safe Space of Teshuva
Rabbenu Yonah from Geronda z”l, the renowned 13th century scholar and author wrote in The Gates of Return (1:2): The penalty of the sinner who defers returning to G-d greatly intensifies each day, for he knows that anger has gone forth upon him and that there is an asylum to which he can flee; the Asylum of Return (Teshuva.)
The Asylum of Return, or Teshuva, is our spiritual safe space. The spiritual safe space of teshuva is antithetical to the safe space found on university campuses. While the safe space found on universities promote evading one’s self, the spiritual safe space provided by teshuva advocates confronting one’s self.
The Bomb Shelter
There is a well known story that took place on the the first day of the Six Day War in 1967. Jerusalem came under constant shelling from the area of the Old City, which at that time was under Jordanian control. The basement dining room in the Mirrer Yeshiva had become a very crowded bomb-shelter. Men, women, and children filled the large room. Frightened by the warning sirens and the sounds of explosions, they stood still and recited Tehillim – Psalms. The mood was grim.
Then suddenly it happened. The worst they had expected, occurred. A direct hit! The entire building shook from the force of the explosion. Everyone began to say ShemaYisroel- they knew this was their end.
Among the assembled was a woman, an Agunah, whose scoundrel husband deserted her 20 years earlier without giving her a Get (bill of divorce), permitting her to be free to marry another man. Since the day of his desertion, she had supported herself and her children by washing other people’s clothing. Her life was one of poverty and misery.
As the people cried out their final words, the voice of this woman was the loudest of all. “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the world, my husband abandoned me twenty years ago. Since then I have raised my children by myself while working to support them. I have suffered intensely. I wish on no other even an iota of what I have been through, but…. I forgive my husband for everything. Just as I have forgiven him, please, Hashem, forgive all of us, your children, for we have all done wrong.” The shelling stopped.
During the ensuing years, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the illustrious head of the Mirrer Yeshiva, would often relate what had happened in that bomb shelter. He would shed tears about that woman’s plight and state that it was without a doubt because of her sincere, heart-felt words that everyone survived.
Turn to Your Inner G-dliness
That woman had no obligation to find any merit to forgive her husband. It would have been perfectly justifiable if she had decided to lock up a “safe space” within herself and carry her inner pain and resentment forever. Yet, in that small, crowded bomb-shelter she recognized that the only safe place in the world is under G-d’s loving embrace; that the only way to access that asylum is by turning towards her inner G-dliness.
Returning to G-d (Teshuva) is the process of turning inwards, to realign our actions and behaviors with our soul’s ideals. It is a return to that breath of life that G-d directly breathed into each one of us. When we embrace our inner G-dliness, G-d embraces us. Rabbenu Yonah calls it the Asylum of Return and there is no “safer space” in the world to be.