Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Leaving Out The Rest

On perhaps a somewhat related note to Stam's post below, SJ has a good post today about learning only one facet of what's out there. Excerpts:
Many will then continue, “And the answer is…” Whenever I hear this, it jars me. So I began to think: what about this simple phrase bothers me so much?

On the most basic level, the phrase implies that the answer given is the only answer to the question ... Saying “the answer” is a sort of conceit—and also, to me, comes off as uneducated.

When teaching a child Torah, it is common (and understandable) to pose a simple question, and then to give one answer as the answer. ... Children see things only in black and white—they cannot grasp the idea that there could be more than one correct answer.

Adults, however, understand the existence of multiple answers to Torah questions. The concept of shivim panim l’Torah is a fundamental component of our system. It is only those with some degree of intellectual sophistication who can understand that life is comprised mainly of shades of gray—and that Torah reflects this in the multiplicity of its perspectives. This idea is manifested throughout the entire system of Orthodoxy. It allows one to understand that there are many different valid derachim within halachic Judaism, and prevents belief in one’s own way to the exclusion of every other.

Religious fanaticism is the easy way out. It’s much easier to believe that there is only one right way, and that everyone else is wrong. It makes life simpler. It is also a childish and dangerous way of seeing the world.
While a couple of people have noted that this is a bit nitpicky, I think that was understood in the post itself, and that the point still stands. When people are only giving one answer but it is clear that other answers are possible, then it is perfectly fine to present the answer that way. But when the implication is that this is the only answer, we run into problems. I think that many of the problems we run into - particularly between the different segments of Orthodoxy - come from this very lack of understanding. We think that our way is the only way, or at best give the other views a secondary placement. How often have we heard lines like: "Well, it's allowed, but it's not the best way" or "Sure, that works, but you don't need to be like that."

Yes, there are times where one way is better or best. But most of the time, each way has its implied advantages and disadvantages. The question becomes how to weigh those against one another. In Stam's post, the question really comes down to whether most people would be best served by a series of classes earlier on in religious thought and history - and the answer, certainly for anyone who will be going into a liberal arts field, is yes. Yes, there are certainly objections to teaching these subjects, but realistically, there are a large number of people who will be studying these subjects at some point - and better that they have some clue what they're talking about than not.

SJ's post is focusing on the presentation of information. I've always felt this is very important, and never liked the line "the answer is" either in the context she's referring to. I always preferred (and from what I can recall, usually heard) lines like "a possible approach is..." or "I feel that we can understand it this way...". However, I will admit that while I didn't like the line "the answer is", I was never really bothered by it, knowing that there was more than one approach; on the other hand, the older I get, the more I've realized that most people really take those answers as the approach - again, not that it's the 'only' one, but that it's somehow 'better' than any other.

To some extent, it is a bit nitpicky - but maybe that's the point. It's those little differences early on that make the big differences later, much like when two lines head out from a single point. The larger the angle at the start, the difference as time passes increases exponentially. We need to see - at an early age - that a lot of our "differences" are not really different at all. That they're slight angles from slightly different - legitimate - approaches which just seem larger the further down the path we go.

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