Don't Put Me in a Box: The Death of Nuance

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On the one hand, he sent his children to chareidi schools.  On the other, he has proudly taught in progressive women's institutions.  He was educated in the right-wing world, but he profoundly values the miracle of the modern state of Israel. 

When asked what world he belongs in, how does he see himself, one of my rebbeim in Israel answered, “You can put me in a box when I am dead; until then don’t try to make me fit neatly into one of your labels.”

More and more, we are forcing people into boxes, even as they are alive.  Everything from politics to religion is portrayed as simplified and binary.  Whether gun control, healthcare, the economy, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or women’s role in Judaism, the extremists have lined up and they want us to believe that we must view these issues and almost any other, as this or that; you are either with me or against me, you either “totally get it” or you are “totally insane.”  The camps have been set up and the default in our world is that you must fit neatly into one of them.

But what about the camp of those who don’t fit neatly or conform nicely to the binary options?  What about those who see merit in conflicting views, who live with the tension that creates, who approach complicated issues with nuance and who acknowledge complexity?  Is there room for us, do we get a voice, is our approach legitimate too? 

I want to share one example, not to comment on politics, but simply as an illustration of this dangerous phenomenon:

For some people, if you acknowledge that President Trump has done very positive things for Israel you are immediately labeled yourself as a racist, a misogynist, a supporter and purveyor of hate.  For others, if you raise issues with the president’s character, his way of speech and tactics, you are an ungrateful Jew and “how dare you say that about the best president in history for Israel”. 

In our polarized world, which yes, the president and his counterparts have contributed significantly to, you are either with him or against him.  Either he can do no wrong, or he can do no right.   You must love and adore him, or reject and hate him. 

But what about those who feel both extremely grateful for the good he has done and simultaneously concerned and disturbed by his rhetoric and pomposity that are negative and dangerous?  Can we not maintain a more nuanced view, neither support nor reject him wholesale but have different feelings towards various policies of his and even parts of his personality?

While the rest of the world may be dividing up into teams, Republicans vs Democrats, conservatives vs liberals, traditionalist vs progressives, forced to toe the party line, pressured to hold predictable views based on their membership, we the Jewish people have a tradition of nuance and diversity. 

The Gemara (Avoda Zara 19a) quotes Rav Chisda who teaches:

כל הלומד תורה מרב אחד אינו רואה סימן ברכה לעולם.

״One who learns how to think from only one Rebbe, one teacher, doesn’t ever see blessing.״ Just as with material investments we get a better return when we diversify, so too our spiritual investments; learning and exposure should be diversified with openness and access to the seventy faces of authentic Torah. (Who decides what is authentic and among the legitimate options is beyond the scope of this article.)

The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 9:9) tells us:

אָמַר רַבִּי יַנַּאי כָּתַב שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה תּוֹרוֹת, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שְׁבָטִים, וְאַחַת הִנִּיחַ בָּאָרוֹן, שֶׁאִם יְבַקֵּשׁ לְזַיֵּף דָּבָר, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ מוֹצְאִים אוֹתָהּ שֶׁבָּאָרוֹן.

Moshe wrote thirteen Torahs, one corresponding with each of the 12 tribes, and the 13th was to be put into the Aron so that if someone wants to distort any of the 12 Torahs, it would be checked against the 13th for authenticity.

The Beis HaMikdash had thirteen gates, one corresponding with each tribe and the thirteenth for those who didn’t know what tribe they descended from.  Once there was a thirteenth gate and a thirteenth Torah, why the need for the original twelve? 

Perhaps the message is that each tribe, each camp, each point of view deserves to exist and be heard in isolation.  But the diverse points of view also have to recognize and allow for the thirteenth gate, for those can’t easily fit into one of the existing tribes, who aren’t natural descendants of a particular point of view but who choose to walk through the Sha’ar Ha’Kollel, the entrance that allows for nuance, a multiplicity of views and a complex approach. 

People are entitled to not fit into a box, to not line up neatly or conform to the preconceived paradigms of others.   But more than that, it is wrong for anyone to be overly certain or convinced of their point of view. When asked what he would eliminate in the world if he had a magic wand, Nobel prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman answered with one word – overconfidence. 

There is a difference between having convictions, advocating for a particular point of view or towards specific policies, and being overly confident that they are the only way of seeing or doing things. 

When Yitzchak realizes he has been duped, fooled by his pure son, the pasuk says:

וַיֶּחֱרַ֨ד יִצְחָ֣ק חֲרָדָה֮ גְּדֹלָ֣ה עַד־מְאֹד֒

“Yitzchak was seized with very violent trembling.”  The Midrash tells us that his panic and fear were even greater than when he was being offered by his father on the altar. What shook him so profoundly?  Rav Chaim Shmulevitz explains that Yitzchak had held the opinion that Ya’akov was too pure, too innocent, too naive to be able to survive exile and withstand the hatred of enemies.  He had bet on Esav as the one who could operate, fight back and create a continuity of his father’s legacy.  Yitzchak had fiercely clung to that conviction and prediction. 

And then, when Ya’akov fooled him and he was proven wrong, Yitzchak was forced to confront the reality that the very thing he was so certain about, so confident to be true, was entirely wrong.  He had crafted a world view and made choices around a truth that turned out to be false.  That realization shook him even more than the prospect of being offered on the altar. 

We shouldn’t wait for the things we are overconfident about to be wrong.  We can feel less certain to begin with and avoid the panic, shame and regret altogether.  Be strong in what you believe in, pursue it, represent it, be persuasive in your arguments for it, and in the end, let others see it differently, nonetheless.  If we want to see beracha in our thinking, in our judgment, in our relationships and in our lives, we need to have more than one rebbe. 

The community of those who walk through the 13th gate need to speak up and speak out. We need to not be dragged to overconfident, superficial and binary positions and conclusions just because it makes it more comfortable or convenient for others to have us there with them.  Those who maintain a steadfast commitment to nuance and complexity, who can still see the merit in conflicting views, must not be silenced by those screaming over them, both online and offline. 

We will all one day be placed in a box; let's enrich our lives by not putting ourselves or others in one until then.