Truth from multiplicity: Rabbis Without Borders text study
April 25, 2013
For the building is constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends which appeared to be in conflict. -- Rav Kook, Olat Raya, Vol. 1, p. 330
This quote appears at the top of a study sheet called Religion and Politics: Some Orienting Texts, which we worked with on the second day of our third Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting. We began with the simple question: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is "the building"?
We brainstormed some answers. It could be the third Temple, yet to be built; it could be Olam ha-Ba, the World to Come; it could be our own community; it could be the world at large. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield noted that Rav Kook can be read as focusing on the body politic of the Jewish people / the classical notion of the ingathering of the exiles, and also on individual human experience, and also on universal human experience -- all at once. (He also noted that we need to read Rav Kook's words both as theology and as poetry, which is, as y'all know, one of my favorite points of intersection.)
Rav Kook moves from "the building" to "the truth of the light of the world." It's arguable that he's talking here about truth itself. He could mean truth inside a single person; truth inside a people or community; truth inside all people -- and in all of these understandings, he's saying that truth will be built "from various dimensions and approaches." Truth is multivariant. Truth is in the future tense. It will be built, which means it isn't built yet. For Rav Kook, absolute truth does exist -- but it's emergent. It's not present, not fully -- and any claims about it must bear in mind that truth is a work in progress.
Imagine, said Rabbi Hirschfield, that at moments of our greatest political passion we understood simultaneously that there is real truth -- and, that truth is a work in progress. There may be an inclination to say "There's a truth but we're not there yet" -- but the idea of "we're not there yet" means there's a fixed "there" which we know we're heading toward. And for Rav Kook, by definition, when we get there, wherever there is, it will be different from whatever we can possibly imagine now. This took on a lot of resonance in the context of our two-day conversations about religion and politics. How might my relationship to politics change if I approached politics via the lens Rav Kook offers here? Brad continued:
Imagine that you're at a bus stop and it's starting to rain. So you get on a bus, not certain that it's going where you want to go... If you board the bus with questions for the driver, and interest in your fellow riders, and a keen interest in what's going on outside the windows, you'll be taking a very different ride from the other guy on the bus who thinks he knows exactly where he's going.
(This sparked several tweets which connected this bus metaphor with Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.)
What I find so beautiful about this Rav Kook passage is the idea that truth is always emergent, always becoming, and always being-built out of multiple approaches and ideas and souls. In order for truth to be built, we need all of our "variegated souls and backgrounds."
Rav Kook is clear that "the building" requires all of us. And in the end, peace cannot be built (between any "us and them," whoever that is for you) without the existence of difference and conflict; otherwise there's nothing to bridge between. Peace can't be built without all of us, without the multiplicity of opinions, without the "variegated souls and backgrounds which enrich wisdom and bring about its enlargement." And ultimately, even the existence of difference and conflict -- for Rav Kook -- is only an "appearance." On a broader or deeper level we're part of something much bigger in which our differences are contained.
From this text, we went on to a text from Exodus Rabbah in which some sectarians challenge R' Simlai, "Are there not many deities in the world?" After all, they point out, the word Elohim -- one of our names for God -- is clearly a plural word, so that must imply that there are plural gods! R' Simlai offers a grammatical answer: the Torah text may use a plural-sounding word for God, but the verb which goes with it is singular, so obviously God is One. His disciples are dissatisfied with this. So another rabbi, R' Levi, offers the teaching that the voice of God was heard by each individual according to their own capabilities. At the moment of revelation, each person heard what they were able to hear. (In Reb Zalman's frequent framing: God broadcasts on all channels, and each of us receives on the channel to which we are attuned.)
The point is: for the Rabbis, the claim of a singular God is not disproven, but is in fact proved, by the multiplicity of revelation -- and the multiplicity of revelations are geared toward the capabilities of those who receive. If we believe in a singular God, then the more manifestations of God there are in the world, then the closer we come to the truth of the claim of the existence of that infinite One.
Or, as Rav Kook has it, "the building" of ultimate truth can only be built through our variegated souls and backgrounds. It is not despite but through our most passionate political and spiritual differences that truth can be built. (It is not despite but through the multiplicity of revelations that Oneness can be accessed.) It is in and through our differences that we access the One.