The Way is Always Outside

by prokofiev19

< First appeared in Sh’ma - March 2006 >



AMONG THE very short passages that seize

me to my deepest roots and highest reaches —

very short passages in music, visual arts, film,

dance, and literature — are these few lines in

Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah: one time Rabbi

Akiva was delayed in arriving at the houseof-

probing-interpretation. Upon arriving, he

sat himself down outside. When a halakhic

question arose, Akiva’s colleagues said: “The

halakhah, the way, is outside.” Again it happened

that a halakhic question arose. They

said: “Akiva is outside!” They cleared a place,

and so, entering, he sat himself down at the

feet of Rabbi Eliezer.

Now there’s no question that Rabbi Akiva’s

colleagues held him in great esteem. Many of

them certainly disagreed with him on one issue,

and most of them disagreed with him on

another. Critical, extremely repurcussive questions:

literal versus figurative understandings

of religious language and the Torah’s anthropomorphic

depictions of the Divine and the

imagery adopted to convey miraculous events.

Rabbi Yishmael and those sages who joined

his school of thought opposed Rabbi Akiva’s

literalist approach. The other issue that divided

Rabbi Akiva from most of his fellow

sages involved Shimon Bar Kosiba. Rabbi

Akiva supported his armed revolt against the

Roman occupation, playing off of his family

name in calling him Bar Kochba — Son of a

Star. The majority of his colleagues, though,

thought his revolt would only be defeated and

so forcefully that whatever semblances of Jewish

national life could still be conducted would

be lost. They called the rebel leader Bar Koziba

— Son of a Deceiving Lie. Diversity and debate

over a most fateful question.

The rabbis did look to Akiva for guidance

in matters of halakhah. This is the literal sense

of our short passage. But its figurative resonance

is what I find especially compelling. The

way is always “outside” our present thinking,

feeling, and acting. A place must be cleared

to invite the other to enter and have a say, a

voice. Though it may not be directly accepted,

its challenge will expand thought regarding

possibility through a process of re-cognition.

An even shorter teaching of the rabbis that

commands me is a play on the Hebrew word

of the Genesis Creation drama — that the human

being is very good, tov mi’od. The biblical

and rabbinic outlooks celebrate an ongoing

search that doesn’t arrive at a final answer; the

biblical Hebrew, actually, is more accurately

reflected by the translation, human being-in-becoming.

Here, there is a play on the characterization

of the human being-in-becoming

as very good — טוב מאד . The Hebrew letters for

very, מאד — mem, aleph, dalet — are the same

letters found in the word adam, אדם , human being.

The human being-in-becoming is multiple,

contains diverse modes of relating to her/himself

and all else that she/he meets.

Sigmund Freud appears as a character in

the Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol’s play,

The Soul of the Jew. Freud has just one stage

appearance in order to deliver just one line

— that whenever, wherever we come upon

the truth, that’s when we need to move on in

search of it elsewhere. And in My Destination,

Kafka’s hero announces: “Away from here,

always away-from-here is my destination.”

Reality, the human condition, and human

possibility are too complex, too rich, for any

one life perspective — be it philosophic or religious,

rational or romantic, ethical or aesthetic,

individual-centered or collective-oriented. As

Paul Celan wrote, the “polarities that are in us”

are too complex, too rich, too vast…”

I see all traditions — also all religious

traditions, even those of Israel — all life orientations,

and all positions within traditions

as sections of an orchestra. No one part finds

its value in being superior to another. Indeed,

none can represent music in a genuinely

reaching way by itself. There would be no

Bible without, for instance, Gilgamesh, and

there would be no Jewish mysticism without

Sufism and Gnosticism. No Talmud without

Greek schools of intellectual discourse. No

medieval Jewish philosophy without Greek

and Islamic philosophy. No medieval Hebrew

poetry without Arabic modes of poetry and

poetic experience. We have a word so divine

that it repeats itself often in the rabbinic discourse:

ela, אלא . It means: I thought it was like

this, but I must push my thought, feeling, and

acting to consider that it might be something rather

than what I assumed. The other way of achieving

a sense of self value is to know ourselves — along

with each and every part of the orchestra — as unique,

as different. Creation requires us to be in relation with

multiple, diverse conversations — modes of knowing,

exploring, and expressing. The Jewish emphasis is

most often verbal and very often intellectual. But we

are challenged to make room for the compelling

forces and subtle nuances also of other means ~

music, dance, the visual arts, film, emotion, intuition

— silence beyond words.

And yet the Jewish section of the orchestra does not

simply give-in to the temptation of a harmonizing

aesthetics, does not simply become one with the

mesmerizing world as object so that we lose the world

as subject with its demanding calls of response-ability.

We celebrate being-in-relation-with that is all about

is all about enduring the realms of the between,

the heroic honoring of difference; even incommensurate,

irresolvable difference, not given to the synthesis of any

complete redemption.

The Jewish artist, pluralist, collagist who

seeks out diverse ways of knowing, expressing,

and exploring recognizes the tensions

between the Jewish love affair with mind

and law, and refusing cultures of redemption

in their various manifestations on the

one hand, and the aesthetics of feeling and

serendipity, on the other hand. Engaging

conversation with these potentially creative

tensions achieves great dialectic moments of

Jewish-human-creature departing to greet the

outside while also staying put in drawing the

outside in; into the clearings we make within

our interiors and back outward again. Both

facing in and out, like the cherubim hovering

their beating wings over the ark of the

covenant that is suspended over the faces of

the rushing endless formless many interrupting

waters of the darkly shining abyss. Testify

to all this via different modes of exploration,

leaving nothing – and ultimately – no one – out.