Imagine a meeting of a twelve-step program: the circle of folding chairs, the people milling around. Here’s someone nursing a cup of watery black coffee. Here’s someone else, three days sober, skittering with anxiety. Here’s someone else silently weeping; he almost slipped last night and he is scared.
The meeting begins. One by one, people introduce themselves.
I am Joey, and I’m the father of three beautiful daughters.
I am Prithi, and I sing cabaret.
I am Jake, and my house burned down two weeks ago.
I am Sarah, and I just launched a new tech start up.
I am Ella, and I am a full-time caregiver for my developmentally disabled sister.
I am Hakeem, and I am a published poet.
I am Geoff, and I can fix any car, anytime.
I am Lizzy, and I just lost my father.
Perhaps the setting lulled you into thinking that you know the people involved. How easy it is to assume that everyone at a twelve-step meeting has only one salient characteristic: their addiction. And yet…while everyone at the meeting has come there for support in coping with the effects of addiction, each one has his or her or their own path that’s led to this point. Each individual speaker is much more than the story of addiction that brought them to this moment. As beautifully expressed by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, we are all made up of multiple storylines and multiple threads.
It is tempting — nearly inevitable — to assume that we know somebody because we know one or two or even five things about them. Yet every single one of us contains multiple experiences, multiple cultures, multiple points of view.
What does Judaism do with this? How does our sacred wisdom prepare us to take this in, to navigate this space of riotous color and shimmering individuality?
Consider a page of Talmud. Laid out like a puzzle, or a paper with every inch of margin scrawled with notes and responses and questions, the Talmud is replete with conflicting ideas, interpretations, and viewpoints playing out on the page. Jewish learning is a boisterous conversation across time and space and involving multiple people, sources, and ideas.
Like a page of Talmud, each of us is a flavorful combination of many different ideas, themes, characteristics, and experiences.
The multiplicity of identity has been playing in my mind quite a bit these past few days, as the news of basketball great Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash spread. This sudden, tragic loss of a young man is complicated by the fact that in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a nineteen-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel. The charges were dropped when the woman declined to testify in court. She later brought a civil suit, which was settled out of court. Eventually Bryant acknowledged that he regarded their encounter as consensual sex while his accuser did not. He apologized.
Following this awful incident, Bryant went on to live his life in ways that suggest he learned and grew and changed. He became an outspoken supporter of women’s athletics. He eventually came to use his celebrity to support political causes that were meaningful to him. He became a father to four children, one of whom, sadly, died with him in the crash.
I do not condone rape or sexual assault, but I do absolutely condone teshuvah. My feelings are complicated as the story of Bryant’s life and death plays out in the media against the backdrop of the pluralism learning my cohort has recently engaged in. If our lives all comprise multiple threads, what if one of those threads is truly awful? Is an otherwise good life ruined by one horrific act? Can an array of generous, wholesome choices, including a genuine apology, atone for one crude and violent one? What is the sum of a life?
We learned in our pluralism seminar that one definition of idolatry is the isolation and worship of a single aspect of the Divine, to the exclusion of other characteristics. Our teacher, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, extended the definition, writing, “It is similarly idolatrous to take one aspect of a human being — created in the divine image — and mistake it for the whole.” We are — each and every one of us — created in Gd’s complicated image, our very ordinariness full of mystery.
One way to understand Gd’s many facets is as multiple pathways to access the Divine. The Sfat Emet’s read on Sh’mot 20:15, in Rabbi Arthur Green’s translation, says: “All the people saw the voices. The voice was that which said, ‘I am YHWH your Gd.’ Each one of Israel saw the root of his or her [or their] own life force.” In this interpretation we see the interplay between singular and plural (voice and voices), the ways in which Gd is One and yet can be understood in infinite ways. Individual senses are blurred, such that sound is both seen and heard. Yet the voice that comes to each person is exactly the right voice for him or her or them, a voice tuned exactly to their frequency.
Think also of the role of the new year in the liturgy and the calendar cycle: we celebrate the new year in four different ways and at four different times, focusing this time on redemption and this time on nature, this time on getting our economic accounts in order and this time in accounting for our souls and deeds. But day by day, we call for blessing on the year as part of the tefillah, asking Gd to make this year the best among the best. Each day is both a beginning and a continuation, each year a whole and a part.
One beauty of our tradition is that there both is and is not a single story of Gd. When addicts turn to a higher power, as in the vignette that opened this post, they are seeking the same thing — an anchor against the disorienting forces of addiction — but they each seek the aspect of it that will keep them, each in the fullness of their own individuality, centered. Just as the addicts resemble one another in one way but are thoroughly unique in other ways, so it is with Gd. The mechanic’s Gd and the caregiver’s Gd, the proud father’s Gd and the bereaved daughter’s Gd are One and not the same.