Friday, January 12, 2018

Can we be zealous for truth and open to the truth of others, at the same time? Further reflections by Rabbi Hanan

“So much human tension and conflict are bound up with what I often call the hubris of exclusivity. Too many of us are ensconced in our own truth, unable to tolerate any other view of reality, or morality, or justice. To give a real hearing to the other side feels traitorous as if we are turning our backs on the most basic principles of truth and decency. This polarization is tearing American society apart at the seam, and on my side of the ocean in Israel, it is contributing to the perpetuation of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

In this reflection my Orthodox Rabbi friend Hanan, living and writing in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, asks whether there is a way of looking at truth that might allow peaceful coexistence and a positive pluralism, rather than causing polarization and conflict.

Rabbi Hanan suggests that there is a way to pursue and understand truth that can encompass different perspectives, and (at least) enable those with different perspectives on what is true live together peacefully rather than fighting and polarizing.

He draws on the teachings of Rabbi Kook, a religious mystic, who suggests that God “is the master of all the different truths; He contains them all and combines them all,” and is “the kaleidoscope of the myriad partial and contradictory truths that make up reality.” He suggests that there is a “divine spark of light” in everything, and that “We must study and listen, collect, and absorb more and more approaches and understandings, as strange and offensive as they sometimes appear.” Not that everything must be accepted as true (he measures truth against the Torah), but “We must struggle with ourselves to always endeavor not to refute but to find some spark in all that we encounter that can enrich our ever-expanding purview of truth.” With this view, Rabbi Hanan advocates that

“we must go forth and listen and then listen again, not because the other might be right and we might be wrong, but rather because the other might be right just as we are right. We must know that when only we are right, we are certainly wrong. We must strive to hold this truth and that truth instead of this truth or that truth.  We must be zealous for the whole and not for any one part of it. That according to Rabbi Kook is the meaning of being zealous for God.”

This reflection demonstrates again, I think, a movement from an ethnocentric perspective of others (and what they believe to be true), to one which is more global or ethnorelative (seeing my perspectives in the context of the existence of other perspectives).

One of the broader questions which this suggests to me is, does a move toward accepting and adapting to different others (a move into a global or ethnorelative perspective), necessitate a move away from the idea of “truth” (or the pursuit of or holding to “truth”)?

Rabbi Hanan, following Rabbi Kook, suggests not. He does not suggest giving up the pursuit or valuing of “truth,” but rather, finding a different (non-ethnocentric, non-exclusive) way of seeing what I think (or “know”) to be true, in relation to what others (differently) see to be true.

This idea, that people have partial truths (“sparks” of truth), and that no one (but God) has all truth, or a full perspective on truth, is one way of approaching the pursuit of truth in light of the fact that there are in this world many different perspectives on truth.

It fits, too, with a perspective that we should differentiate between “truth” / reality as it exists, and our human perception of / understanding of / perspectives on truth. For us, as human beings, truth is mediated – through our senses, through our language, through our thought categories, through our cultural ways of looking at and defining the world, through our minds. A “modernist” (and ethnocentric) perspective on reality (truth) is that we simply “know” the truth; a “postmodern” (and global / ethnorelative) perspective on reality is that our knowledge of truth is mediated.

People of faith may be a bit unnerved by this perspective on truth/reality. But I return to the saying in 1 Corinthians 13, “we see through a glass darkly.” That realization reflects the intercultural trait of humility, and enables us (as does Rabbi Hanan’s approach) to be open to others, to what we might learn from them, and to the greater complexity we might gain in our view of reality and of truth. In other words, holding our understanding of truth more lightly has the benefit, beyond enabling us to live in peace with others, of expanding our understanding of truth.

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