Our national community is hurting. This campaign season has revealed depths of missing the mark and missing the boat, beyond what we had collectively appreciated before. It has revealed, by gut-wrenching coincidence, chasms between white and black/Hispanic/Muslim/ Sikh/Jewish America, between liberals and conservatives, between men and women.
Not only chasms of understanding and relationship, but explicitly and implicitly violent lenses that distort our views of one another, and that lead to detrimental policies, unequal treatment under the law, the loss of lives and human potential, harassment, discrimination, and suffering. Indeed, identity politics imply that more is tied up in the results of this election; self-worth, sense of safety, survival feel at stake.
But in truth, there are no hashtags on our souls, no identifiers—no claims of any party on us. We are not red or blue; we are the color of light, the bright white light of a supernova. After all, in the Garden of Eden, when we ate from the tree and were embarrassed by our nakedness, the Torah says that God made us garments of skin, which the kabbalah understands to be our skin—not Fred and Wilma garb. We—WE—are beings made of heavenly light. Imagine a map of the country that showed that, that reminded us of that. It would be like a chess set by Yoko Ono, where all of the pieces are clear.
What might the value of this lens be to humanity? What is the value of a blurry view that spirituality encourages, in contrast to the hyperclarity that science offers?
Even though they are often treated as incompatible, the respective lenses of science and religion are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. After all, we know the value of exacting, rule-based scientific lens; we also know its dangers and limitations, its moral blindness, the technology of a Tower of Babel, a Final Solution; its proclamations of truth are temporary. And we know the comforts of spirituality; the relief of its reassurance and wisdom; and we also know its dangers and limitations; its demands are imposing and suspect.
We need both the exacting and the compassionate lens, both science and religion, even if both are flawed, and perhaps because both are inadequate. For both are necessary to preserve us and the world—especially from each other’s absolute power.
What, though, is the significance of our spiritual tradition in a rationalist, post-mystical, post-mythical world?
Ishon, the Hebrew word for the pupil of the eye, literally means, “tiny person.” This part of the human body reflects in miniature, an optical phenomenon that recalls an existential one; namely, that we reflect one another, and we see and understand ourselves through the eyes of the other; our sense of self depends to an extent on how we are seen by others. This name for this body part reminds us that we all know what it’s like to feel small in another’s eyes.
Shame is the natural result of parental redirection (“stop!”) meant to help us internalize limits to keep us safe (it works this way in wolf packs, too, when a cub gets out of line). Yet we know the painful experience of being made to feel “less than” and it is a prevalent phenomenon. Cultural lenses refract and reduce us; media tends to turn people and groups into caricatures and like-minded masses—and this past year has seen shame churned out as a veritable commodity. Surely, some shame is healthy and invaluable to keeping people within lines. But shame is on fire, and any limited reflection of humanity carries a risk of diminishing our view of ourselves or others in ways so severe and deeply hurtful that they can erupt.
What would it be like to actively reflect people in the world—even people with whom we disagree in fundamental ways, with big eyes? With a loving gaze?
During my rabbinical studies, when I was studying in Israel, Lisa and Mitch (names concealed for the protection of privacy) were one of the few married couples. Lisa is a redhead, and she told us that for the first few months after they married, she made sure to wake up before Mitch did, so that she could put on blush… so that he wouldn’t know how pale she is! At the time, I made a mental note about the benefit of marrying someone who wears glasses. Of course, I found someone who doesn’t, who sees my flaws just as clearly in the morning—and I learned that love softens the gaze, makes the visually obvious less important than matters of the heart.
God sees everything clearly. Before God, the nistarot, the hidden things, the sources of our shame, the what we get away with, are all exposed. God knows how pale we are and all our blemishes. And all of the nishkachot, even the things we’ve managed to forget ourselves, God remembers. If science means knowledge (which it does), then according to our tradition, God has all of it. But God can see us in our deep human vulnerability and love, and that blurs the edge, softens the lines, helps God form a container of acceptance that we are meant to feel with the deepest of gratitude and carry into the world, with a “pay it forward” mentality. The supplement to knowledge is caring. How can we not forgive each other, when we are approach God for forgiveness? And then. how can we not see each other in this forgiving, after we have experienced that forgiveness?
All of us carry brokenness within us, the way our people carried the broken tablets in the ark, through the Wilderness. There are invisible hurts, beyond the telling. Hurts of past relationships, developmental journeys, words that wounded, and self-doubt… there are health anxieties and social anxieties, and sometimes we are so fragile, that we hang by a gossamer thread that no one sees. But we are mindful of that web that connects all of us, and we will, God-willing, emerge to tread more softly, honoring one another in our shared human vulnerability.
May we be blessed by the balancing wisdom of this tradition, by unyielding and unlimited light, and may we bring this blessing to the world around us, for healing.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series “When Religion Heals, When Science Heals.” It is adapted from a sermon delivered on Yom Kippur 5777, October 12, 2016).