Thursday, September 24, 2015

One Heart: Kol Nidre 5776

“The Place Where We Are Right”

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.[i]

I confess that I have been carrying these words, from renowned Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, in my heart for some time now. I share with you that as we move into this new year, I worry about the divisiveness of our world, the chasm’s expanding breadth. I worry about our fixation on being right and just how dangerous such a habit can be, the toll it takes on each of us, the damage it does to our hearts.

Just a few moments ago, we recited the Vidui – the public confession in which we name aloud the litany of sins we’ve committed in the hopes of finding forgiveness. The second one in the list reads:

“al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev.
For the sin we have sinned against you through hardness of heart.”
Listen to that translation once again: “For the sin we have sinned against you through hardness of heart.”

This Yom Kippur, this Kol Nidre – the most soul-stirring night of our Jewish year - I invite us to listen and consider not through the everyday lens of our mind and predilection for the rational and quantifiable, but rather to listen and consider through a more soulful filter – from our heart.

Think back to the last time you had a sustained, civil disagreement with someone on any matter about which you and that person cared deeply but viewed differently. Perhaps you cannot even remember it at all. So certain we are of our place of rightness that we often cannot even countenance exposure to the view of the other side and what, from our side, appears to be their self-righteousness against our authentic understanding of what is actually True.

The role of social media as a so-called vehicle for connectivity and dialogue among those who disagree is particularly problematic because for so many, this has become our preferred mode of communication. A comment box presents us with just the right amount of perceived immunity as well as permission to “justify our own views” so as to tear any relationship apart. We can practically write a treatise on how right we are and how wrong, ignorant, or inept another is, all without a second thought.

From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.

Nothing in recent memory has set the Jewish community against itself like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action– better known as the JCPOA or the “Iran Deal.” I, personally, have never experienced anything as hurtful or antithetical to what it means to be a part of our people than this, and the saddest part is that we have done it to ourselves. When the U.S. ambassador to Israel is subjected to death threats and called a “kapo” for supporting the Iran Deal[ii]; when Representatives who oppose the Iran Deal are accused of “dual loyalty,”[iii] a borderline anti-Semitic euphemism; when otherwise well-intentioned Jews go on nothing less than witch hunts to determine if their clergy signed whatever petition represented the opposite of their views —well, we do not need much more proof that we have hardened our hearts to one another.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.

We live in a world where we thrive on confirmation bias – the intrinsic desire to seek out evidence that will be compatible with beliefs and assumptions we already hold. This kind of thinking makes it extremely difficult for us to integrate information that challenges our definitions and assumptions.[iv]

Renowned family therapists Richard Chasin and Margaret Herzig, themselves Jews and founders of the incredible resource on civil discourse called Public Conversations, write that ideological opponents often resemble families stuck in chronic conflict. In such battles, supporters of each side “believe they hold the high moral ground and are prey to unprovoked attacks from the other side, which they see as power hungry, self-centered, destructive, and perhaps even deranged…[E]ach find[s] ‘proof’ of their own innocent victimhood and of the other’s unwarranted attacks and wrongdoing.”[v]

Theologian Martin Buber’s words from half a century ago ring so true today: “The human world is… split into two camps, each of which understands the other as the embodiment of falsehood and itself as the embodiment of truth...Each side has assumed monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into night, and each side demands that you decide between day and night…”[vi]

At a time when technological advancement enables us to be more connected than ever before, how is it that we are so deeply fractured, that the chasm of ideological, political[vii], economic, racial[viii], even spiritual division grows wider with each and every sunset? How is it that we find ourselves siloed into filter bubbles of the confirmation blind, the like-minded, anesthetized by the dull hum of agreement, that is, until opposition forces us to harden our hearts with even greater urgency?

“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals, we are meant to search as much as to find,” observes one of my teachers. He continues: “After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite…? The fact is that there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.”[ix] [x]

The only real Truth we know about anything is that there is some truth in everything.
Consider physicist Neils Bohr’s paradoxical teaching: “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Take, for example, something called wave–particle duality, a fancy physics idea that explains how light works. The concept teaches that the elemental particles, the “stuff” that makes up light, are defined, at once, as opposite states of being - they are both particle and wave. This means that light in its most rudimentary form cannot be fully one thing or fully its opposite, but in fact, functions as both. On this understanding, Einstein – physicist and also a pretty famous Jew, wrote: "We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do."[xi]

It sounds like a relatively modern idea, but over 2,000 years ago, our rabbis taught that the world cannot function if we only see it in black and white, right and wrong, with rigid boundaries rather than a more subtle shading. They taught: "If you desire the world to endure, there can be no absolute justice, while if you desire absolute justice the world cannot endure.... Unless you forget a little, the world cannot endure."[xii]

Listen again to that sentence:
"Unless you forget a little - the world cannot endure."

Our ancestors were fearful of absolutes because they understood that anytime we attach ourselves so firmly to an idea that we place our rightness over our relationships, we set ourselves up for a fall.

Can we possibly emerge from our constricted caves of rightness to release, to forget just enough of what we are so sure is right in order to see the vastness of the universe, its diversity in all its forms? Can we remember that it is not our rightness, but our demystified assumptions that birth the greatest learning and much greater truths?

This is, actually, one of the key truths that Kol Nidre comes to tell us each and every year. Have you ever read its translation? It says: “Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.”

It means: for all those things we assume to be true and operational, and around which we base our lives and our promises, should it turn out that what we thought to be real, true, and undeniable actually is not, we don’t have to be left holding the bag. We don’t need to let our pride get in the way. We can admit we saw it wrong. We can change our minds. We can evolve, expand our field of view, and grow as a result. It is not about being right or wrong – the truth is we are always both. Kol Nidre comes as the first thing we say each Yom Kippur because Jewish tradition has always understood that any hope we have of becoming better people, of evolving, demands the hard work of teshuvah - the repentance and returning that starts with the operational assumption that we were wrong about something.

But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.
We do not have to agree with each other’s opinions; nor do we have to shy away from discourse and disagreement. But, on this Day of Atonement, which if you pull it apart is really a day of At-One-Ment, the truth is: we must strive to have one heart.

There is an early Rabbinic teaching that depicts the rival academies of Hillel and Shammai sharply disagreeing on matters of Jewish law. “If the Torah is given by a single God, then how can there exist such differing interpretations?” The Rabbis answer: “Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the words of the house of Hillel, both the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit.”[xiii]

On this, the renowned pluralistic Rabbi David Hartman explained: a Jew must become a “person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul.... a... person who can feel... conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty.”[xiv]

We must make a room in our heart for the other view, and place it right next to the room that holds the view we hold most dear. We must make a room for the Iran deal, and a room against it, and place them right next to each other. We must make a room for #alllivesmatter and a room for #blacklivesmatter. We must make a room for each perspective, each right and wrong, each truth. We must make a room for each other’s hearts within our own heart.

On Yehuda Amichai’s poem, author and educator Parker Palmer says the following: “Many of us who differ…love the same things — our children and grandchildren, our country, the natural world. Many of us who differ … harbor the same doubts — that what's being done (or not done) to care for the things we love is the best or the right thing to do….But what if instead of starting by arguing over solutions — over "the place where we are right" — we began by sharing our loves and doubts? I suspect that our ...conversations would be much more productive because they would proceed from common ground.”[xv]

This is one of the incredible lessons taught by Rabbi Hannan Schlessinger, an orthodox Israeli settler and Ali Abu Awwad, a West Bank Palestinian peace activist, through their work together to foster co-existence and peace between Israeli’s and Palestinians. You will have the opportunity to learn from both of them when they speak at NSCI on October 20th. Through their work, they bring together people from both sides to listen to each other’s narratives and to absorb one another’s truths. Through getting to know and understand each other, to see each other not as enemies but as human beings, Awwad and Schlessinger write: “Then maybe we can build a system that will enable our politicians to sit together and arrive at some sort of a solution.”[xvi]

People can learn to speak with genuineness, listen with respect and curiosity, and see both self and others as whole, complex human beings, even across chasms of disagreement.

It is exactly our diversity of opinion, our uniqueness, according to Martin Buber, that is the key to our enlightenment. “We are created along with one another and directed to a life with one another. Creatures are placed in my way so that I, their fellow creature, by means of them and with them, find the way to God. A God reached by their exclusion would not be the God of all that lives, in whom all is fulfilled.”[xvii]

When we allow ourselves to encounter each other, when we allow our Truths to be impacted, softened by others’ truths, our hearts soften too.

When explaining why the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, the physical dwelling place of God, was destroyed, instead of citing reasons such as the enemy army's strength, Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed on account of our own moral failures, the most well-known narrative rooting the cause of the destruction to something called sinat chinam -- most often translated as baseless hatred among each other. The hearts of our ancestors were so hardened against one another, so closed off, that they could not even recognize that they were the ones destroying one another.[xviii]

From the place where we are right,

Flowers will never grow in the spring.

The place where we are right,

Is hard and trampled like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world,

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place,

Where the ruined House once stood.

I often wonder if we could go through our days entirely open-hearted? I wonder if our hearts could sense the echoes of isolation, fear and despair that our ears cannot perceive? I wonder if we could find a way to hold each other with increased sensitivity and compassion? I wonder if we could heal the brokenness in each other's hearts with our own? And if we did so, I wonder what sort of Dwelling Place for the Divine might we build, together, again?

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May we be inscribed for goodness in the Book of Life.

[i] Amichai, Yehuda. “The Place Where We Are Right.”
[iv] See Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking Fast and Slow for more
[v] “Creating Systemic Interventions for the Sociopolitical Arena.” Richard Chasin and Margaret Herzig, in The Global Family Therapist: Integrating the Personal, Professional, and Political. Edited by B. Berger Gould and D. Demuth.
[vi] Buber, Martin. “Hope for this Hour,” The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communication, edited by F.W. Matson and A. Montagu. pp. 221.
[vii] Pew Survey about Liberal versus Conservative - each moving farther to their respective sides:
[viii] Pew Survey about Liberal versus Conservative - each moving farther to their respective sides:
[ix] Kula, Rabbi Irwin. Yearning. pp. 4,5.
[x] In her well known TED talk, sociologist Kathryn Shulz, shares her findings on our human tendency to fixate so much on being right, she notes the behaviors we employ to assure ourselves of our rightness. “If we believe we are right, we believe our beliefs perfectly reflect reality. But then we have the challenge of how to address all of those who see the world differently than we do. She notes the three-leveled rationale we humans employ around the assumptions we make about the others who disagree with us with whom we have to deal: Our first assumption is that they must be ignorant not to see what we do. But when we find out they are in fact not ignorant, but quite aware, our second assumption is that they not capable of fully understanding our so-called Truth because of what must be their lack of intelligence. And then if and when we find that in fact they are neither ignorant nor stupid, we move to the third and most dangerous conclusion: they must be evil.”
[xi] Einstein, Albert. Infeld, Leopold. The Evolution of Physics. P. 263
[xii] Genesis Rabbah 39:6
[xiii] Tosefta Sota, 7:12
[xiv] Hartman, Rabbi David. A Heart of Many Rooms. p. 21.
[xvii] Buber, Martin. Between Man and Man. p. 60
[xviii] Yoma 9b

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