Dr. King, z"l (may his memory be a blessing)
How Shabbat is like a snowstorm

How to love while acknowledging flaws

Torah+scrollsI've been thinking lately about how to love something while acknowledging its flaws. A few years ago I read a thought-provoking speech by Wendy Doniger which touches on this. Here's an excerpt. (She's talking here about hermeneutics, which means "a way of reading" or "a way of interpreting.")

We need to balance what literary critics call a hermeneutics of suspicion -- a method of reading that ferrets out submerged agendas -- with a hermeneutics of retrieval or even of reconciliation (to borrow a term from the literature on the aftermath of genocidal wars in Africa and elsewhere). And this must include some sort of reconciliation to our own shameful American agendas, our own relationship with slavery and with the destruction of the native Americans, not to mention our present imperialism. And then we can begin to read our own classics differently, with what the philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur called a second naiveté: where, in our first naiveté, we did not notice the racism, and in our subsequent hypercritical reading we couldn’t see anything else, in our second naiveté we can see how good some writers are despite the inhumanity of their underlying worldviews. If their works really are great literature, they will survive this new reading.

-- Wendy Doniger, "Thinking More Critically About Thinking Too Critically"

I first read Doniger's address in a rabbinic school class called Moadim l'Simcha ("Seasons of Rejoicing"), a two-semester cycle of deep immersion in Hasidic texts. We aimed to explore and unpack some of the tradition's many teachings about the festival cycle. It was an amazing course, not least because the Hasidic texts themselves were amazing and rich and I return to them often.

And I also return often to this idea of Doniger's. It's a useful lens for reading Hasidic material, because that material is inevitably a product of the times and culture which produced it. In its presumptions about gender roles and about the inherent spiritual superiority of our own people, that literature can be problematic to a modern, cosmopolitan, feminist sensibility. What do we do with that, we who strive to be modern, cosmopolitan, feminist and who also yearn for the spiritual sustenance which those texts often contain?

That's where Doniger's idea of a hermeneutics -- which is to say, a mode of interpretation, or a way of reading -- of reconciliation comes in. We do ourselves no favors, and we do our tradition a disservice, when we blind ourselves to what's problematic. But we also do ourselves and our tradition a disservice when we take only the step of recognizing what's problematic, and fail to take the next step of balancing and reconciling what's problematic with what's beautiful, meaningful, and useful in the text at hand.

Maybe I'm revealing myself here as the Hegelian thinker my undergraduate education taught me to be. I'm always less interested in thesis and antithesis than in synthesis, the third step which bridges and transcends the binary. This thing is beautiful -- no, it's problematic -- no, it's both at once, and having acknowledged that, now I can interact with it in a different way. Indeed, maybe it's interesting and rich and thought-provoking precisely because it is both beautiful and problematic. Maybe I can learn something about it, and about myself, through engaging both with its beauty and with its problematic aspects.

UrlAlmost anything worth engaging with is both beautiful and problematic. Most great literature, for instance. Doniger cites some fine examples, among them Rudyard Kipling, who was notably racist and imperialist and yet wrote some extraordinary work. Heidegger wrote tremendous philosophy and was also a Nazi. Ezra Pound wrote great poetry and was also an anti-Semite. And so on. I don't want to deny what's problematic -- in Kipling's work, in Heidegger's, in Pound's. But I think there's value in unearthing what we can still benefit from, what we can still love, even in a work that's flawed. It's a different kind of love, once you've gone through the process of realizing that the thing you loved isn't perfect but is still worth your time.

The same goes for the science fiction I read as an adolescent. I devoured those books, which opened up amazing new worlds for my imagination to explore! And then in college I came to realize that most of those books aren't perfect, and might even be actively problematic. (Much of that early SF is sexist in ways I didn't notice as a kid, but can't help noticing now; and some of the politics around sexuality and gender expression make me actively wince.) So do I junk those books? Or is there a way to approach those books now with that "hermeneutics of reconciliation," a way of reading which recognizes the flaws but presupposes that there's something there worth redeeming?

Or for that matter, the ur-text at the heart of my whole tradition. As a rabbi, and as a Jew, I claim Torah as the story at the heart of my life and practice. There's one way of reading Torah which focuses on Torah's beauty, its poetry and ethics and narrative encoding our attempt to express in words an encounter with divinity. There's another reading which says that Torah's problematic aspects -- patriarchy, xenophobia, condoning of violence against outsiders -- annul its good sides. But the third reading, the redemptive reading, the reading through that lens of reconciliation that Doniger talks about: that's the reading that interests me most.

This kind of reading takes work. Those of us who love Torah have to be willing to complicate our love of Torah by allowing ourselves to recognize the parts of Torah which are problematic. (For instance, how Torah has been used -- I would say mis-used -- to justify oppression and violence.) And those who mistrust Torah have to be willing to complicate that mistrust by allowing themselves to recognize the parts of Torah which are transcendent and beautiful. (In many ways that's the tougher sell. How would I go about convincing someone who feels wounded by Torah that it's worth engaging with the very text they feel has empowered people to hurt them?) But if we can find our way to this kind of reading, it comes with tremendous rewards.

The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim ("The Light of the Eyes") wrote the following:

You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in God's Torah. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called her Torah.

(Okay, he said "his Torah," not hers, but I'm permitting myself that liberty in translation to make the text feel more like it applies to me.) Sometimes we have to struggle to find the light -- but it's through the struggle that the Torah becomes truly our own. And we have a richer experience of reading, once we're willing and able to do that work. When we approach the Torah with an understanding that it's troubling in places, but also with an understanding that there's light hidden in it for those willing to seek, we open ourselves up to the possibility of experiencing that light more wholly than we would if we pretended that there was nothing about Torah which challenges us.

It's unfortunate when people fail to notice what's problematic -- or, worse, willfully blind themselves to what's problematic. (In the Torah, or in the literary canon, or in -- anything, really.) But it's also unfortunate when people fail to notice what's beautiful, or when people overfocus on what's broken and miss what is whole. Both of those lenses are always necessary. And even more necessary is the bridge between the two: not either/or, but both/and. Yes, it's wonderful; yes, it's flawed; so now that we're holding that tension, what new fruitfulness becomes possible? What new understandings can we glean now that we're balancing what's beautiful with what's broken, acknowledging both but allowing neither one alone to be the whole story?

The fact that I'm interested in going beyond what's problematic to find the more nuanced kind of interest on the other side is a sign of a certain kind of privilege. I have the luxury of wanting to find a redemptive reading of Torah, because no one's ever used Torah against me. I have the luxury of wanting to find a redemptive reading of Kipling, because I'm not directly impacted by the racism and the imperialism which suffuse his work. (And so on.) I understand that some people never move beyond the initial step of seeing the good in something -- and others never move beyond the second step of seeing the damage and brokenness in that same thing. But I always aspire toward step three.

The reason I aspire toward step three is that I think there's something really spiritually valuable in the act of pursuing this hermeneutics of reconciliation. There's something potentially life-changing about embracing the possibility of finding, or creating, a redemptive way of seeing whatever's at hand. Torah -- literature -- even the nation in which I live -- all contain the problematic alongside the beautiful. And I think all of these things grow infinitely more interesting and meaningful when we're willing to acknowledge both their values and their flaws, and to find that new way of reading which doesn't erase either what's positive or what's negative but builds on both.

What would it look like to take this on as an active and intentional spiritual practice -- the work of seeking a way of relating (to a person, a work of art, a piece of scripture, a nation) which moves beyond the first flush of unalloyed love, and beyond the second response of unalloyed rejection, to a new way of seeing, which both integrates and transcends the good and the bad?