We all have a box around our thinking. For every one of us, there are certain ideas that feel beyond the pale, and we can’t even consider their possible truth.
If I am not for me, who will be for me?
And when I am for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
This quote comes from the first chapter of Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, and is attributed to the great Hillel of the First Century, the man who is seen as the primary founding father of rabbinic Judaism.
The Zeitgeist for us right now is with the last line of Hillel’s statement. If not now, when? The worldwide refugee crisis and the closing of doors in the US, ISIS and the violence of radical Islam, North Korea and the threat of nuclear war, foreign meddling in our election, the fake news fiasco, and the casual dismissal of genuine news outlets as “fake”, BDS and anti-Semitism again on the rise, Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, and their possible link to global warming – Oh my God.
For the vast majority of us in this room, our lives have not been directly impacted by any of this, yet. But the threats are existential, to America as a democracy, to Israel as a Jewish state, to the survival of the human species and the shape of life on this planet. Of course we must act. If not now, when?
But I want us to pause for a moment, and consider those words in the context of the two lines that precede them. “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It’s an ambivalent moral imperative, an imperative with arrows that point in opposite directions. Do for myself; Do for others. I’m not sure exactly what Hillel is charging us to do, but whatever it is he wants us to do it now.
Only recently did it strike me: the whole point is the ambiguity. Hillel’s primary message is not a simple charge to do good. He wants us to know that morality is rarely simple. We face conflicting imperatives all the time, and we can’t just dismiss one for the other. Hillel is telling us that we need to hold on to the ambiguity, and even so, act.
I worry that, in this historic moment of fear and anger, and an absolute moral imperative for action, we are losing our sense of ambiguity. Complex issues are looking black and white. We are not seeing the other side, and that may be the greatest existential threat of all, because we can’t actually fix our world if we can’t work together.
One of my closest friends is a professor of natural sciences at Stanford. She gave me permission to share a story with you, but she asked me to conceal her identity. So I will call her Jess, and I won’t tell you the department in which she works. But I will tell you that she is one of the smartest people I know, not just about science but also about people. She is well-spoken and even-keeled, and frequently tapped for leadership positions at a high level. I tell you this, not just because I want you to know how awesome my friend is, but because it shades the story.
At a reunion gathering for Jess’ husband’s family, the host asked Jess if she would sit next to one of the cousins whom she’d never met before. “He’s unbearably arrogant,” the host warned her. But the host figured Jess could handle someone who likes to talk about how smart he is.
As they sat down to dinner, Jess asked the cousin how he was doing. “I’m always uncomfortable when I come to California,” he admitted. “I feel like I’m one of only three Republicans in the entire state.” Jess was sympathetic. Though she herself is now registered as a Democrat, she resisted it for a long time, preferring to identify as independent.
“I really liked Mitt Romney,” she said to the cousin, looking to express some solidarity with him. “He has a lot of good policy ideas.”
“Then why didn’t you get behind him?” the cousin asked.
“I can’t get past the climate change issue,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “I just cannot understand how anyone intelligent can still be denying climate change.”
The cousin stiffened like a latch snapping shut. “I haven’t seen any evidence that climate change is a real problem,” the cousin said. Jess was shocked into silence. The cousin made some excuse, and got up to find a place at another table.
A little later, Jess sought him out again, trying to apologize. “You said you wanted me to be comfortable, but apparently not,” the cousin said, and refused to re-engage. Of course he refused. He had arrived at a family event expecting a punch in the gut. Jess had seemed safe, and he let his guard down. When the punch came anyway, he wasn’t likely to let the guard down again.
It’s no secret that the large majority of our congregation votes Democratic. It’s not because we are some sort of liberal bastion. In the 2016 election, 71% of Jews nationally, and 75% of all voters in San Mateo County, chose Clinton.
So, to the presumably greater than 70% or so of us in that Democratic majority, did you identify with Jess in that story? Are there not issues on which you simply do not understand the other side, and assume that anyone intelligent and moral must agree with you? I confess, I have felt that way, too.
Did you know that people in our community who voted for President Trump are unlikely to tell you for whom they voted, because they are afraid of what you will say? That conservatives in our community are feeling beleaguered and alienated? And I shouldn’t have to say this, but I fear I do. Our conservatives are every bit as intelligent, moral, and engaged as our liberals. Too many of them have been subjected to liberals assuming that everyone in the room must agree with them, and making dismissive comments, or worse, about conservatives.
Not that this is a one-sided offense; fear and anger are in the air. Defenses are up, and ungenerous opinions are flying from all directions. Both liberals and conservatives have expressed to me that the other side must be either duped or greedy.
And it’s coming from the top down. Every time I read of a government official hurling the “fake news” accusation at a reporter or a news agency, I feel my stomach clench. Delegitimizing those who disagree with you is a dangerous, dangerous game. It’s not okay when it happens here in our community, and it is certainly not okay when it happens at the highest levels of government.
In their book, A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet, Dorothy and Martin Hellman share their own story of repairing their marriage, and their belief that “working on interpersonal and international problems at the same time accelerates progress on both.” Curiosity, and asking good questions, is critical to bringing peace at home and out in the world. Listen to their words:
“One of the most important changes we had to make as we moved from our old maps to our new one was to ask questions instead of getting mad, to get curious, not furious.”
The emphasis on questioning resonates with me, because it is a strong value for my father. Not particularly in the context of peacemaking, but more broadly. The Aramaic word for a question is kashya, and as an adolescent it felt so good to be praised for a good kashya. My father also had a habit of making outrageous statements, statements that challenged the border of what was acceptable, in order to provoke questions. My father is a scientist, but also a lay-scholar of Talmud. Both are fields that give primacy to questions, and as he was my first Talmud teacher I suspect that’s where the value of questions was most strongly conveyed to me.
After high-school, I spent a year studying in a women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. I reveled in the Talmudic sport of questions. “But why does he say this?” “Doesn’t this contradict that?” “What is the basis for that?” Our questions were like little picks, chipping away at the casing of an ancient treasure.
Yet even as I enthusiastically questioned and learned, I was aware of a box defining the boundaries of permissible questions. I could not, for example, ask, “What if this verse contradicts that one because they were written by two different authors?”
Ultimately, that box became too constraining for me. I left Orthodoxy after college. For nearly two decades, I saw the Orthodoxy of my youth as a narrow-minded view. I believed that boxed-in thinking was a unique feature of “small c” conservative religious communities.
But in recent years, I’ve come to see it the other way around. I now believe that we all have a box around our thinking. That for every one of us, there are certain ideas that feel beyond the pale, and we can’t even consider their possible truth. In my Orthodox days, I actually had an advantage. Because I lived within two worlds, one brought the box of the other into relief. The question about possible multiple authorship, for example, tickled the edge of my thinking, only because it was an acceptable question in the secular world around me. It’s the questions we don’t think to ask that really define our box.
I am again becoming aware of the boundaries of my box today. But whereas as a young Orthodox student, my thinking chafed, today it mostly feels right. That means the box is strong.
I know a statement is treading on a boundary when I become nervous, defensive, and unable to openly listen to the source of the statement.
So that I’m not talking in the air, I’ll give you two examples:
“I don’t support Israel, because I don’t believe in nation states.”
“You can’t trust Muslims; Islamic tradition promotes lying.”
Alarms are going off. Boundary crossed. When I heard each of these statements, from two different people, clearly stated, I could not listen thoughtfully.
And yet, I passionately believe that we must listen beyond our box. As hard as it is, it is the only way to make real progress.
Think of my friend Jess. Her box is around climate change, and she knows it. But how can she release the walls of that one? The stakes are so high! It’s the future of our planet!
And yet, she has to be willing to loosen that box, precisely because the stakes are so high. As a prominent scientist, Jess spends a lot of time worrying about how to persuade people that climate change is real. She is chagrined about her failure with her husband’s cousin. A genuinely humble and self-reflective person, when sharing the story with me she said of herself, “I was a total jerk, to assume that if he’s smart he must agree with my perspective.”
It was obvious to her on reflection that she had no hope of persuading him, or anyone like him, to take climate change seriously, unless she was open to hearing his opinions. But the hard thing about being open to another opinion, is that you have to be willing to allow for the possibility that they might persuade you.
I began my remarks with a statement by Hillel, from the first chapter of Pirke Avot. The Talmud is filled with debates between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Ultimately, Hillel’s opinions carried the day. Why? Because, the Talmud explains, the school of Hillel always taught the opinions of Shammai before their own.
Hillel has two other statements recorded in that first chapter of Pirke Avot. Do you know what the first one is?
הלל אומר, הוי מתלמידיו של אהרון. אהב שלום, ורודף שלום, אוהב את בריות ומקרבן לתורה.
“Hillel said: Be of the students of Aaron. Love peace and pursue peace. Love all creatures, and bring them closer to Torah.”
He is the famous Hillel on one foot, who refused to be judgmental of anyone. He wasn’t a pushover. He was known as Hillel HaZaken, Hillel the Elder, and he had tremendous status. But he would meet even the most crass students where they were at, and patiently explain to them the way to be better.
Why did Hillel choose Aaron as his role model for peace? Because when the people’s need for a concrete symbol of leadership became desperate, Aaron enabled them to make the golden calf. He chose the needs of the people over his most fundamental ideology.
Ideology has a way of drowning out all conflicting voices. Even as we push for action – which we must – Hillel would want us to remain tolerant and curious about opposing perspectives.
I am so proud to be a member of the CBJ community. This room is filled with people who believe in their own power to change our world, and who use it. Don’t stop lobbying our politicians. Don’t stop attending rallies, writing opinion pieces, supporting and even creating political advocacy groups.
We can do all this, and still hold on to the awareness of a moral ambiguity. A genuine willingness to hear opinions that push our boundaries is what is needed. Such openness does not have to inhibit our actions.
אם אין אני לי, מי לי If I am not for me, who will be for me?
וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני And when I am for myself, what am I?
ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי And if not now, when?
On the contrary, that openness only makes our actions stronger.