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BlogElul Day 16: Understand

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulThis post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

Recently, Seth Godin had this to say about “understanding”:

In part, he says:
“Sometimes, we’re so eager to have an opinion that we skip the step of working to understand. Why is it the way it is? Why do they believe what they believe?”

I have found this is a common reaction (in myself as much as anyone else) when it comes to Judaism and especially the chain of tradition. It is extremely easy, as well as tempting, to write off what is foreign or worse – what challenges our modern sensibilities. In those moments, leaping to the conclusion that our laws were written by a bunch of backward, patriarchal, ignorant cave-dwellers can feel extremely comforting.

The problem is that doing so creates huge challenges for how we understand ANY part of our tradition. In our haste to blithely jettison that which we could not come to terms with, we find ourself in a situation where we have difficulty finding satisfying explanations for anything.

One morning not very long ago, I expressed my frustration to a Rabbi about a midrash that I felt was patently foolish.

He stopped me and asked me to re-frame what I said. It wasn’t foolish, he said. Or more to the point, he cautioned me in believing that I – with my zero years of Yeshivah training, zero ability to understand Hebrew, and 3 years of occasionally reading a midrash here and there – would have the necessary depth of experience to identify, let alone label, something as foolish.

For a moment, he said, presume that Chazal – the Great Scholars of the Ages – understood *at least* as much as we did about the world. What we know from books and talk shows and magazines, they understood from observing the world. If they sometimes made their point using scientific terms we now know to be incorrect (spontaneous generation), never the less their insight into the human condition is at least as accurate as ours.

He assured me that we all come up against a text or piece of information that goes against what we understand. In those moments, he said, the best thing we can do is to put a bookmark at that spot, something that notes this passage and says “I wonder what this is really talking about”. That’s it. Not to pass judgement, not to instantly deem it worthy or not.

We need, he explained to me, to trust that in time understanding will come our way.

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