Lately we have spoken about role models and rabbinic succession. Now, in the season of academic degrees and graduations and our own new-format Confirmation, let us ponder matters of the mind. More specifically, how does the Jewish mind work, and why is it never satisfied with simple answers? My thanks to Los Angeles colleagues Ed Feinstein and Harold Schulweis for the kernel of this column.
According to a popular Talmudic tale that almost everyone knows, a stranger once approached Hillel and Shammai, the two great sages of the first century, with a request: “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.” First he brought the request to Shammai. Shammai picked up a builders rule and smacked him alongside his head and dismissed him. So he came to Hillel with the same question. Hillel taught him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Zil ugemar – now, go and learn.” We all acknowledge Hillel’s answer. It is loving, accepting and kind. But Shammai was right.
What is the stranger asking for? He wants wisdom without the work. He wants spiritual enlightenment without spiritual discipline. He seeks inner peace without the arduous process of facing his own darkness.. He is looking for a simple truth to live by, void of complexity, detail and nuance – and quickly. Who has time to master all those dusty books?
Rabbis hear this kind of question every day. But we are bound to disappoint, because Judaism never comes that way. That is not how Jews think. In our tradition, there is a distinct pattern, a texture of thinking. You find it everywhere – in Bible, Talmud, philosophy. It is never on one foot. Perhaps in God’s mind, truth is unified. But when it reaches us, it is always in the form of argument, attention, polarity. Truth is too big to fit into simple maxims, too important to set down in simple rules, too unwieldy to learn on one foot. Judaism teaches us to acquire a taste for complexity and contradiction.
Rav Naftali, the Ropshizer Rebbe, told his Hasidim that before he was born an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns. On the right side it offered Talmud tractate Taanit: “The learned man should be a fiery furnace.” On the left side it quoted Talmud Ta’anit: “The meek and lowly shall inherit the world to come.” On the right side from Talmud Brachot: “Man should be wise in his fear of God.” On the left side from the Yalkut: “You should be simple hearted in your love of the Lord.” And there were more contradictions, and the Rebbe pondered them. Until he heard the voice of the angels announcing, “You are now to be born.” Whereupon he resolved in his heart to follow both columns no matter the contradictions. For all of us, to be Jewish is to live both columns. It is to live with tension, ambivalence, and paradox. “Polarity,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is at the heart of Judaism.”
Consider this image: a pendulum, swinging back and forth. The arc described by the pendulum is truth. If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc and you say, “This point, here at the zenith, this is the truth” … or if you stop it down at the midpoint and say, “This is truth” – you are wrong. You will always be wrong because truth is the pendulum in motion.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught, in a similar vein, that every difficult, complex problem in politics, life or thought always has a simple answer, which is always wrong. Not just wrong – deadly. For throughout human history, we Jews have always been the exception to somebody’s rule. We’ve always been the anomaly to someone’s absolute. And we have suffered for it. This is why extremism of any kind makes us so anxious. It is what scares us about fundamentalism. Whatever reduces truth to a simple absolute reduces us.
Every morning we recite, “Blessed is God who creates light and darkness, peace and all else.” Judaism is not a monism, which is the view that all reality is one unitary organic whole with no independent parts, that all experience can be reduced to one principle, one idea, one path, without contrasts and tensions. But neither are we dualists who break everything into sharp disjunctions between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, us and them. We are monotheists. We can acknowledge the contrasts in experience because we affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity. That is the meaning of the first of the 10 Commandments, “I am the Lord your God.” In worshiping one God, we embrace life’s rich complexity. We insist upon it.
So now we know why we are the way we are? Ponder all this and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Next Wednesday is the important congregational meeting and vote. Join me the next morning as our bus leaves for my ancestral homeland and the National Museum of American Jewish History and its special Jews in baseball exhibit; contact Geryl Baer if interested at email@example.com.