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Embracing Nuance and Complexity on the River of Life

This summer, Michelle and I donned our blue wetsuits, pulled up our oversized boots, and climbed aboard our raft for a guided ride down Alaska’s Chulitna River, from Denali to Talkeetna. Initially, the River looks uniform, winding this way and that, carrying greyish water from the glacier out to the sea. Up close, we discovered that the river was anything but uniform as its branches split multiple passages carved through deposits of glacial silt.

From our guide we learned that reading a river is an adventure in complexity and nuance. When rivers run quickly, it is not because the water was flowing deeply. It’s more nuanced than that. The quickly flowing parts signify that the bottom is closer to the surface and that hidden below the water might be sharp rocks and fallen trees, which might impede our travel or worse, might tear a hole in the raft.

Now I was blissed out during my sabbatical, not a temple related thought in my head, when it occurred to me. There’s a sermon in this: Life is sometimes like that. When rafting along the river of life, we too easily are misled by first impressions. We become overconfident about what we think we know, and miss the complexity of what’s around us. If we are not careful, we just might end up ripping holes in our life rafts. I whipped out my iPhone, opened Evernote, and typed: “Embracing complexity and nuance is not easy.”

We live in an age when many yearn for simplicity. Social media rewards short attention spans with 30-second videos and clever Instagram memes, which claim to offer everything we need to know. Everything is binary: Good or bad. Left or right. Right or wrong. No room for a middle ground. But when we practice this reductionism, we overlook treacherous circumstances, ignoring the dangers as we try to float on by.

It was not always like this. In the early days of the Talmud, that epic compendium of Jewish law and lore, the ancient rabbis lived among shades of gray. Even on points of law, when we needed a decision, the rabbis exhibited incredible complexity and nuance. On each page of the Talmud alongside the anonymous, accepted legal opinion, we find the words d’var acher – another interpretation – preserving for all time insightful alternative arguments.

The rabbis understood that eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – that these AND those were the words of the living God, in spite of the fact that the law followed one opinion. From this, we learn that clarity does not reside in black-and-white but rather amidst the grey muck that hides the nuances of life.

The rabbis of old had it right. More often than not, our challenge while floating along the river of life is not about discerning right from wrong. We must choose from a bunch of interwoven options, left to navigate between two or more equally hopeful alternatives. Sometimes we are even choosing not between good and bad, but something more arduous: between good and good, or between more acceptable and less acceptable. Each option boasts its benefits; each has hidden dangers.

Unfortunately, the evaluation of ideas requires patience and proceeds only slowly, like a Sunday afternoon float down the river. That’s why we tend to prefer the easier route: reducing our options to simplistic catchphrases. Thus we get: “all Mexicans are murderers and rapists.” That “all police are racist and evil.” Or that “Jews are conniving and control world finance.”

Now don’t worry. I’m not going to talk about politics this morning. Though perhaps we should. Politics is just the art of bringing our values to bear on the public negotiation for a better world. It’s supposed to be an attempt to attain the best for the public by bringing disparate interests together, negotiating a solution that works for the betterment of all. It’s about listening to insights different than our own, debating openly, and figuring out – together – how best to move our city or country forward.

Politics allows us to apply our Jewish values to the public sphere. In fact, our 1400-year-old Talmud provides crucial insights about almost every major issue we face today, from public policy and economics, to government and the dangers of dictatorship, to insights about different gender identities – the Talmud lists seven! – to compassion for the poor, to how we must prioritize healthcare for all, to explanations of why there ought to be one law for the citizen and non-citizen alike.

But today we won’t talk about any of that. Instead, on this Rosh Hashana, perhaps we might focus on confession. Should we be confessing to ourselves and to the Holy One that many of us are guilty of the sin of avoidance? (I know I am.) That we harbor great anxiety about talking openly with people we are closest to? That we fear being judged by others, having people cut us off, or ruining relationships by offering an opinion.

How many of us sat uncomfortably around the Thanksgiving table, a few weeks after the election, purposefully avoiding what everyone was thinking about: who did you vote for and why? Who worried that across from them sat this Republican, that Democrat, or that other person who didn’t even vote? Who sat quietly, unsure how to respond, When someone was attacked for an opinion? Or elsewhere, who has sat among groups of Jews wondering: do these people really support Israel in its totality, or do they criticize her or, chas v’shalom (God forbid), do they care too much about Palestinians, or too little?

Don’t worry. Your rabbi is not gonna talk about all that, because we don’t know how to listen. We don’t know how to hear opinions we disagree with. We have lost, or abdicated, our ability to sit with complexity and nuance.

So instead, like some of you, I am sick to my stomach thinking about all those families and friends who cannot sit and talk about the troubling issues we face. Why? It is because buzzwords and slogans are easy – we get them, complexity and nuance, not so much. Well, Judaism has plenty to say – from the Torah and Talmud, to the Prophets and Midrash – about today’s challenges. If you want to hear how I think Jewish values speak to the great issues of the day, please come by Congregation Or Ami and sit with me, and I will teach you. We shouldn’t allow our bifurcated community to keep us from hearing opinions, even the ones that make us uncomfortable, but will make us think.

Of course some of you might be uncomfortable that your spiritual leader is sliding there, right on the edge of the sword, getting ready to speak about what Judaism has to say about the real issues facing the country and the world. I know because I have received so many calls, texts and emails from people about the content of my sermons, about the services in general. Silly me, at first I was tickled that so many of you were thinking ahead about your High Holy Day spiritual preparation. Until I realized that some of you calling to urge me not to talk about anything related to current realities. Not about what Judaism has to say about political behavior, or values underpinning our tax policy, or about racism or Nazis, or what it means that a Hurricane could devastate a major American city… again. And of course I received an equal number of contacts urging me to do just that, to say what Judaism has to say from our Jewish texts and tradition about this issue. And everybody was really uptight about it.

If we want this country to prosper, and this congregation to flourish, and our families to blossom, we need to take a collective communal breath. Back in the beginning, Bereisheet, God warned us about times like this. According to the Midrash, when God created Adam, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Behold my works. See how beautiful they are. All that I have created, I created for your sake. Now it is up to you. Make sure that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” We must examine what’s happening to our world before we burn it down. Before our country is consumed.

If we don’t learn how to talk about our mutual concerns for our communities and country, and our shared worry about the people in them, then we allow others to control the tenor of the conversation. We give space – and allow others to give space – to hate-filled ranting and hate-filled Nazis marching through our American cities, carrying banners emblazoned with swastikas, chanting the German Nazi slogan blut und borden – blood and soil, and shouting “You won’t replace us here. Jews won’t replace us here.” And all the counter claims, What about the Antifa? – problematic as it might be – will not change the horrific fact that Nazis were again marching openly in America, denouncing Jews and other minority groups with heinous words, shouting anti-Semitic tropes, and that it became … acceptable.

It’s not only because of this President, or the one before, or the presidents who preceded them. It is because of us. We the people are the guardians of our values, the foundation of our republic.

Imagine if we learned to embody complexity and embrace nuance. Im tirzu ein zo aggadah- if you will it, it is no dream, said Zionist thinker Theodore Herzl, the late 19th century dreamer who dreamt that Jews would once again be a free people in our homeland of Israel. He dreamt, he worked at it, and, though he never lived to see it, 50 years later, Israel came to be. Herzl was safe in his own life, nonetheless labored diligently on his dream, making it his mission to create something for the good of our people and all of humanity.

Well, if I may be so bold, like Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream… that any two of you, passionate people both, will sit down and talk about the most difficult issues facing our country and you will converse with kavod (respect) and chesed (kindness), patiently listening to each other to uncover the nuance and complexity of your opinions. Without destroying each other. Without resorting to the “shock and awe” which characterizes the “ridicule and destroy” sloganeering that tries to pass as debate today on both sides of the aisle, and in the middle too. Im tirtzuIf we will it, it is no dream.

I have a dream that the content of one’s argument – intellectual, logical, even passion if measured – will be more important than the slogans some chant or the vicious names some hurl at those with whom they disagree. Im tirtzu – Does it need to remain a dream?

I have a dream that next week we will look across the Erev Yom Kippur table at people with whom we intensely disagree, but we will still perceive tzelem Elohim (the image of God) within them, and we will affirm that within them too exists that combination of intrinsic worth, blessed uniqueness, and undeniable equality. And we will disagree thoughtfully while engaging in difficult conversations.

And I have a dream, as said the ancient prophet Micah and as sang the modern poet Lin-Manuel Miranda, that “every man and woman will sit under his or her vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid.” Let’s aspire at home and at the synagogue to talk openly, for example, about Israel, in all her beauty and complexity, her grave mistakes and incredible successes, exploring the challenges of living as Jews in a dangerous neighborhood, facing the horrid plight of the Palestinians, considering the future of the settlements, and the challenges to Jewish pluralism… and during that whole discussion, never once will we be calling the other a “self hating Jew” or “right-wing Jewish extremist.”

Similarly let’s aim to sit together during the 2018 elections as Republicans and Democrats and independents, sharing our diverse understandings about the challenges we face.

Or be like my father-in-law Murray who heads over to McDonalds or go to some coffee shop not near where you live, and week after week sit with people who are unlike you and just to talk. Try to grasp their opposing opinions and why they think that. It shouldn’t be that difficult. We used to talk to each other.

I wish I had some grand 5 point plan to tell you how to do this. But I have to be honest, it is hard for me too. Of course, Talking with my brother Chuck, we came up with these five steps:

  1. Find a person you disagree with and buy him or her a cup of coffee or a beer.
  2. Ask them hard questions. If they voted for President Trump, ask them why and what values underpinned their decision. If they voted for Senator Clinton, ask them why and what underpinned their decision. Don’t let them – kindly – get away with, “I didn’t like her.” Don’t let them – respectfully – get away with, “I didn’t like him.” Get to the values that underpin their ideas.
  3. Shut up and listen to what they have to say. Ask questions, respectfully, but then listen.
  4. Don’t think that you have the right answer, or that you know it all. Because my study of history is that we don’t. Even me.
  5. When you have these conversations, don’t be a jerk. Don’t be the one trying to “search and destroy,” be someone who listens and builds relationships.

Im tirtzu… it doesn’t need to be a dream! In fact, it is tied up with what it means to be a Jew.

To be a Jew begins with the recognition that even God is magnificent Presence, a complex idea, a Force and the sum of all Forces, the internet for the souls, and so much more. God cannot be reduced to simplistic sound bytes so we can wrap our little heads around God, for even as God is immanent, right here around us and within, God is also transcendent, way beyond us.

To be a Jew is to comprehend that when we sing Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, the words Adonai echad – God is one, affirm that oneness actually means that the one God welcomes multitudes of people with a multiple perspectives about every issue under the sun. If God can wrap Godself around that reality, can’t we? To be a Jew is to work hard to live fully within mind-blowing nuance and the mind-numbing complexity of Existence.

I believe it’s possible. Last month, Michelle and I were up in Alaska, we watched not seven feet away from us, two Alaskan brown bear cubs – they were brothers – wrestling playfully together. They were endowed with sharp claws and knife-like teeth. They were swatting and biting, pushing and pawing, never once harming the other. Just because they could maul and mutilate each other doesn’t mean they would. Just because we can maul and mutilate each other, doesn’t mean we should. We Americans should wrestle through our most intense debates and even our most vulnerable moments, and strive that everyone comes away unscathed.

Look, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and that earthquake down in Mexico City, those rescuers and we donors didn’t ask if the people in need were liberals or conservatives, gay, trans, or straight, Hispanic, black or white, poor or rich. If you needed help after the tragedy, we reached out and helped.

That’s because to be human, and to be Jews and be part of a Jewish family and Jewish community, is to work to transform our dinner table back into a mikdash ma’at, a holy altar of mutual respect, and to rebuild our cities into an ir shalom, a city of peace, so that our world can become a makom kadosh, a holy place.

Yes, I your rabbi have a dream that we can get to this place. And I really think that a lot of you share that dream too. Im tirzu ain zo aggadah – If we will it, it won’t just be a dream. So let’s go make it happen… together.

One comment

  1. Joyce W Suter says:

    I loved the title- Embracing Nuance and Complexity in the River of Life. I found your site searching for a way to understand or express the tension caused when a church leader calls current issues as binary- as you said- black/white, good/evil. I am conflicted recognizing the need for a prophetic voice vs understanding other realities that are something to be considered as well

    Four years later. I don’t know the Hebrew for it , but we still the dream.

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