November 16, 2018

On Living with Tension

Once, a stranger approached Hillel and Shammai, the 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. According to the Talmud, Shammai picked up a builder’s rule, smacked him along side his head and dismissed him.

So he came to Hillel. “Teach me the Torah on one foot.” 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 u’gemar — now, go and learn.”

Hillel’s answer is loving, accepting and kind. But Shammai was right.

“Teach me the Torah on one foot.” Rabbis hear this daily. Some people want spiritual enlightenment but without spiritual discipline. They seek inner peace without facing their own dark side. They demand Torah in monaural — monolithic, doctrinal, authoritative. A simple truth to live by — void of complexity, detail and nuance. And quickly. Who has time to master all those dusty books?

We are bound to disappoint them because Judaism never comes that way. That’s not how Jews think. In our tradition, there is a distinct pattern, a texture of thinking. You find it in Bible, Mishna, Talmud. It is never on one foot. It is always dialectical: In argument, in tension, in polarity. Truth is too big to put into simple maxims. It is too important to set down in simple discursive rules. It always comes in contradiction.

Rav Naftali the Ropshizer Rebbe, told his Chassidim that before he was born, an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns. On the right side, it offered Talmud Taaneet: “The learned man should be a fiery furnace.” On the left side, it quoted Talmud Sanhedrin: “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.” And on the left side, from the Yalkut: “You should be simple-hearted in your love of the Lord.” On the right side, from the Talmud: “God wants the heart.” And on the left side, from the Prophet Jeremiah: “The heart of His people is corrupt and wayward.” And the Rebbe pondered the contradictions 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.

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 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 always will be wrong. Because truth is the pendulum in motion.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught that every difficult, complex problem — in politics, life or thought — has a simple answer. Which is always wrong. Not just wrong, but deadly. For throughout human history, we Jews have always been the exception to somebody’s rule. We have 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 and simplistic moralism. We respond viscerally because 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.” Ours is not a monism, reducing all experience to one principle, one idea, one path — denying the contrasts and the reality of 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. This is the meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments read this week all over the world: Ani Adonai Eloheychem. I am the Lord your God. In worshipping one God, we embrace life’s rich complexity.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.