Don’t Put Me in a Box: The Death of Nuance

December 5, 2019

5 min read


One day we will all be placed in a box; let’s enrich our lives by not putting ourselves or others in one until then.

On the one hand, he sent his children to chareidi schools. On the other, he has proudly taught in progressive women’s institutions. He was educated in the right-wing world, but he profoundly values the miracle of the modern state of Israel.

When asked what world he belongs in, how does he see himself, one of my rabbis in Israel answered, “You can put me in a box when I am dead; until then don’t try to make me fit neatly into one of your labels.”

More and more, we are forcing people into boxes, even as they are alive. Everything from politics to religion is portrayed as simplified and binary. Whether gun control, healthcare, the economy, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or women’s role in Judaism, the extremists have lined up and they want us to believe that we must view these issues and almost any other, as this or that; you are either with me or against me, you either “totally get it” or you are “totally insane.” The camps have been set up and the default in our world is that you must fit neatly into one of them.

But what about the camp of those who don’t fit neatly or conform nicely to the binary options? What about those who see merit in conflicting views, who live with the tension that creates, who approach complicated issues with nuance and who acknowledge complexity? Is there room for us, do we get a voice, is our approach legitimate too?

I want to share one example, not to comment on politics, but simply as an illustration of this dangerous phenomenon:

For some people, if you acknowledge that President Trump has done very positive things for Israel you are immediately labeled yourself as a racist, a misogynist, a supporter and purveyor of hate. For others, if you raise issues with the president’s character, his way of speech and tactics, you are an ungrateful Jew and “how dare you say that about the best president in history for Israel”.

In our polarized world, you are either with him or against him. Either he can do no wrong, or he can do no right. You must love and adore him, or reject and hate him.

But what about those who feel both extremely grateful for the good he has done and simultaneously concerned and disturbed by his rhetoric and pomposity that are negative and dangerous? Can we not maintain a more nuanced view, neither support nor reject him wholesale but have different feelings towards various policies of his and even parts of his personality?

While the rest of the world may be dividing up into teams, Republicans vs Democrats, conservatives vs liberals, traditionalist vs progressives, forced to toe the party line, pressured to hold predictable views based on their membership, the Jewish people have a tradition of nuance and diversity.

The Talmud quotes Rav Chisda who teaches: ״One who learns how to think from only one Rebbe, one teacher, doesn’t ever see blessing״ (Avoda Zara 19a). Just as with material investments we get a better return when we diversify, so too our spiritual investments; learning and exposure should be diversified with openness and access to the seventy faces of authentic Torah.

The Midrash tells us: Moses wrote 13 Torahs, one corresponding with each of the 12 tribes, and the 13th was to be put into the Aron (Ark) so that if someone wants to distort any of the 12 Torahs, it would be checked against the 13th for authenticity. (Devarim Rabba 9:9)

The Holy Temple had 13 gates, one corresponding with each tribe and the 13th for those who didn’t know what tribe they descended from. Once there was a 13th gate and a 13th Torah, why the need for the original 12?

Be strong in what you believe in and persuasive in your arguments for it, but in the end, let others see it differently.

Perhaps the message is that each tribe, each camp, each point of view deserves to exist and be heard in isolation. But the diverse points of view also have to recognize and allow for the 13th gate, for those can’t easily fit into one of the existing tribes, who aren’t natural descendants of a particular point of view but who choose to walk through the entrance that allows for nuance, a multiplicity of views and a complex approach.

People are entitled to not fit into a box, to not line up neatly or conform to the preconceived paradigms of others. But more than that, one needs to be careful not to overly certain of their point of view. When asked what he would eliminate in the world if he had a magic wand, Nobel prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman answered with one word: overconfidence.

There is a difference between having convictions, advocating for a particular point of view or towards specific policies, and being overly confident that they are the only way of seeing or doing things.

Be strong in what you believe in, pursue it, represent it, be persuasive in your arguments for it, and in the end, let others see it differently, nonetheless. If we want to see blessing in our thinking, in our judgment, in our relationships and in our lives, we need to have more than one teacher. We need to be exposed to more than one perspective.

The community of those who walk through the 13th gate need to speak up and speak out. We need to not be dragged to overconfident, superficial and binary positions and conclusions just because it makes it more comfortable or convenient for others to have us there with them. Those who maintain a steadfast commitment to nuance and complexity, who can still see the merit in conflicting views, must not be silenced by those screaming over them, both online and offline.

One day we will all be placed in a box; let’s enrich our lives by not putting ourselves or others in one until then.

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