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Friday, October 8, 2010

Beyond Good and Evil: Destroying the Binaries, Banishing Shame and Recreating Our World [aka: a lengthy commentary in honor of my 50th birthday]

In the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, one definition of dichotomy is “a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.”  The term often gets used interchangeable with “binaries” or “binary opposition.” Though there are differences, I will be using the terms somewhat interchangeably (my apologies to queer theorists, anthropologist, philosophers and many friend).  I especially want to focus on the concept of  “binary oppositions,” where the guiding the assumption is that there exists a pair of terms that are seen as opposites and that there is a clear distinction between the two.  Not only that, but that societal “norms” (especially race, gender, sexuality, etc.) tend to determine which one of the two opposites is viewed as the dominant (or preferable, in my opinion) pole.

Dividing the world into dichotomies or binaries leads to “black and white thinking.”  Something is bad or good, pleasant or painful, hot or cold. Someone is white or black, straight or gay, male or female, altruistic or misanthropic.  These binaries are often viewed bys society as truths.  Yet, they are actually subjective evaluations that we place as labels so we believe we can somehow understand someone or something better.

In mindfulness teachings, we are taught that labels are not real.  They don’t really exist. They are based on value judgments that we make and that we must release. Only then can experience the world with equanimity and compassion.  Yet, so many of us have a difficult time letting go.  We feel the need to label and classify our disorganized world in a pseudo-organized manner.  Yet, by labeling in order to understand we lose the ability to simply experience what is real.

This week’s parashah/portion is Noah, which is, among other things, the story of Noah and the flood.  The first verse of the parashah reads, “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous and perfect man in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)

The rabbis of old argued over the phrase, “Noah was righteous and perfect …in his generation.”  In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 30:9 Rabbi Yehudah claimed that “in his generation” meant that, given the sinfulness of the rest of humanity, Noah seemed righteous by comparison. However, had he lived in the time of Moses he would not have been viewed that way.

Rabbi Nehemiah disagreed. He believed that if Noah was considered righteous in his time, he would have been considered even more righteous had he lived in the time of Moses. 

The analogy he gives (and I absolutely love this) is that a flask of expensive perfume placed within a graveyard would still produce a pleasant smell.  However, if it were outside the graveyard, the smell would be even that much more pleasant!

Both of these commentaries point to the power of perception and labeling.  For in reality, the perfume emits the same fragrance in both places.  However, the surrounding and our individual perceptions and reactions change how we might experience the fragrance and how we judge its fragrance.   And Noah may have acted exactly the same way had he lived in the time of Moses, yet he may indeed have been perceived and judged differently.  As with so much of life, it’s all about context.

Context determines how we view and how we are viewed; how we judge and how we are judged.  And, lets face it, we all judge and compare, even if we believe we don’t.  The midrash seems to teach that can view Noah through the lens of binary thinking as the polar opposite of Moses, as does R. Nehemiah.  Or one can view him in context, as does R. Nehemiah.  Yet, regardless of how we or the rabbis might view Noah, the text tells us that in some way, he was righteous and so he was saved.

But wasn’t it just last week that we read from the Torah of the creation of the world and humanity?  At the moment of creation, all was perfect, beautiful and serene.  Then Adam and Eve decided to eat of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and everything changed. 

Now, this week we read that the world had become so evil that God is about to destroy it, save for Noah and his family, and start all over again.  What happened during the period of 10 generations that the rabbis tell us elapsed between the time of Adam and Eve and the time of Noah?

Good and Evil happened.  Correction.  For it was not that eating from the tree caused God to create Good and Evil.  Rather, as I see it, eating from the tree created the necessity to divide the world into Good and Evil.  It created a new and powerful dichotomy, seen as polar opposites without any acknowledgement of the gray area that exists in between.  The human proclivity to judge, label, classify and then to divide people neatly into groups, one being the dominant grew out of their action. 

Instead of viewing the world with equanimity and realizing that there are various gradations of every perceived dichotomy, people began to divide the world up all too neatly.  Of course, as I wrote above, in binary thinking one pole is viewed as dominant or preferable.  So, of course, “good” was the preferred pole. And so, what we labeled as “good” became the preferred option for God.  But what the people chose was labeled as “evil.”  If the binary concept of polar opposites had not been created then perhaps there would have been a way for God and human beings to view the world differently.  It may not have been viewed as “all evil” and perhaps the world could have simply been “fine tuned” rather than completely destroyed.

Today it seems that so many have inherited this binary worldview, but it has been further expanded and perverted.  For numerous people, those things that we have difficulty understanding, that do not fit neatly into a category or that are viewed as “different” or “other” are simply labeled as evil, rather than acknowledging them as simply different than what they be accustomed to experiencing.

And so, over time, what was as different, “foreign” strange, out of place, “queer” is now simply labeled as evil.  Or perhaps, between the time of Adam and Eve and the time of Noah, black and white thinking led to a situation where the command to be good became overwhelming.  Therefore, people decided over time that they could never reach that state of ultimate good, they could never measure up, so they chose the easier route and became evil instead. 

This binary system that led to the destruction of the world in our flood myth is still wreaking havoc on our world today.  It continues to create hatred, bigotry, evil and destruction in our world, for it calls upon humanity to still vies one option as being preferential, one group being better, one being right and the other being wrong. 

We have set up life as a situation where we need constantly need to choose.  And this is not just true in terms of trying to do what is seen as right and good rather than what is wrong or bad.  It has permeated every area of our lives.

And the existence of all these dichotomies forces us into a quandary.  For in order to fully grasp the preferred pole we are often forced to deny or ignore parts of who we are.   In some way, this system puts us in the situation much like the Greek heroes faced when sailing between Scylla and Charibdes.  These two sea monsters were close enough to each other that to avoid one would then position one’s ship too close to the other.  It seemed there was no way to make it through without a catastrophe.  When Odysseus sailed through the strait, he chose to sail closer to Scylla, as he knew he would only lose a few soldiers to the monster’s appetite.  Charibdes, however, spent its time creating whirlpools in the sea. Had he taken that route the whole ship and all of its crew may well have been sucked down into the depths.

What a horrible choice the Greek heroes were forced to make!  Yet, living in a world dominated by binary thinking, we too are forced to make the same choices.  We must choose how much we want to sacrifice in order to navigate the straits of our life.  Are we willing to give up some pieces rather than risk total destruction or would we rather simply meet our demise?

 How much do we reveal of who we really are?  How much effort do we put into fighting injustice? How much do we want to risk?  The forced choice continues. 

So many people follow the example of Odysseus as we travel through our own life odysseys.  For when we are not viewed as being at the preferred end of the dichotomy, then we must decide what pieces of the soul need to be lost in order to at least move closer to what is judged to be the ideal, “good” or “right” identity. 

For years, the ideal in America was being white, male, Christian, married and heterosexual.  We are lucky to live in a time when that is no longer seen as the norm.  Those who do not fit that description no longer need to hide or cut off a piece of themselves in order to bring them closer to that pole of the dichotomy.  Right?

I wish it were so.  But, though things have improved tremendously, the binaries still exist and there are still preferential groups within our society.  And those preferential groups are still rooted in the characteristics that I mention above.  And yet, the truth is that each of these binaries is really a spectrum or even a circle. 

Masters and Johnson showed in the mid-20th century that we all fit somewhere along the spectrum in terms of sexual orientation.  Few, if any, are “all straight” or “all gay.”  In today’s multi cultural world, and because of global history, few people are truly 100% part of any racial group, if indeed racial groups really exist.  Religious affiliation can fluctuate and marriage and family patterns have caused many new permutations to evolve.  So even within one religious group, there is a myriad of variations.  And finally, people are beginning to realize that gender is not a binary either.  One’s sex may be determined by birth (though that is more complicated for those born intersex – formerly referred to as hermaphrodites), but gender is a complex structure that we have created and that varies in so many ways for so many people.  One may be biologically male, but how one identifies in terms of ones gender identity and expression is far more complex than that.  And so, we find people who identify all over the continuum and not just at the imaginary poles.

I want to go from here back to the parashah by returning the perceived binary of Noah and Moses.  R. Yehudah believed that we could judge Noah, and I would say, by extension, all human beings, by whether or not they are ‘Moses’ or ‘not Moses.’  This is precisely this kind of judgmental, comparing, binary thinking that brings pain and suffering into our world.

As I sit here typing these words I am at the start of my 51st year.  Thinking back on many of the past 50 years (or at least many of them) I know that there were times when I felt that I could not live up to that kind of expectation.  I did not fit the mold. I was not on the ‘right’ end of the binary and I was unable to see the gray area.  And so, I did what I needed to do in order to appear to be “like Moses,” when in reality I often felt more like Noah as described by R. Yehudah.

For me, and for so many others, we are caught in this dilemma because of our sexual orientation or gender identity.  We have seen in the past month teens who have taken their own lives because of issues of sexual orientation (whether real or perceived).  They too could not see themselves at the “right” pole of the binary, but they eventually chose to end it all.  The high profile cases have shown to the world what we in the LGBTQ world have known since statistics first came out in the late 1980s: that teens that identify as gay or are questioning their sexuality are 3-4 times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than other teens.  And just today, I read the results of a survey just published by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, that HALF of all teens that have been bullied, harassed or assaulted because of their gender identity have attempted suicide!  This is truly shocking and something must be done!  For so many Queer youth (and I use queer as an umbrella term) this is because they see themselves as unable to attain the preferred status of the ‘right’ or ‘good’ end of society’s binaries of sexual orientation or gender identity.  

We can say that things have improved, and they have.  Yet, we still live in a world where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has yet to be repealed, where states are making same sex marriage illegal, where religious extremists (and some not so extreme) are barraging the airwaves with tirades about the depravity of homosexuality and where a church in Kansas even goes so far as to say that God is wreaking vengeance on our entire country through war and violence because of homosexuality! So, it is clear that our world and our country still have a way to go.  We have not truly moved beyond the ingrained belief in the ‘preferred’ status of being straight or of being seen clearly as male or female. Period.

Little by little, these messages, even the ones we know are insane, become deep-rooted in the brains, and in the souls, of teens who are either questioning their sexuality or gender identity or who know exactly who, and what, they are. 

When I was entering adolescence in the 1970s, the subtle and mostly not-so-subtle messages of society made it frightening, and even dangerous, to admit to being gay for many of us.  And so I, and countless others of my generation, tried to convince ourselves that we something other than who we were.  Yet, this was not about pretending.  Rather, this was about convincing oneself into believing that the charade was indeed the truth and that you were really on the ‘right’ end of the spectrum. 

Ultimately, this leads to lying and deception, and often to a deep self-loathing, anxiety and depression.  Then the choice becomes whether to sacrifice a piece of your soul in order to continue the charade, to end one’s life or to proudly admit one’s identity.

I would venture to say that there were few LGBTQ teens and young adults of my generation who did not at least contemplate suicide at one time or another.  Luckily, I only briefly considered this, and I don’t know how serious I ever was.  But if one listens to Tim Gunn of Project Runway speak on the It Gets Better Project channel on YouTube (which everyone should look at), one can see how this sense of self-loathing could, and often does, lead one to attempt suicide.  This reality continues to been borne out by recent events.  Now, there are those who have been making the claim that some of the recent suicides may not have even been LGBTQ.  And that may indeed be true.  Yet, even if they were not gay, the homophobic taunting and bullying contributed to their decision to commit suicide. 

So perhaps, in some of these cases, being teased, bullied and “accused” of being gay was enough to cause a teen to feel that suicide is the only option.  If this is true, how much more so for those who are actually LGBTQ or who are trying to figure out their sexual or gender identity?

Returning to the images of this week’s Torah portion, I believe the time has come again when a massive flood is needed.  But not a flood that will destroy the world or that is brought about by divine action.  Rather, we need to create a spiritual flood in order to combat the intolerance in our world.  We need to wipe out the evil in the world and leave only righteousness and purity.  But the evil of which I speak is not any specific behavior of any specific group or individual.  The evils we need to destroy are the false dichotomies and binary thinking that lead to preferential treatment and judgmental action and a perceived certainty of what – and WHO - is “good” or “evil.”  These dichotomies force people to make the unfair choices about which I have written above.  It is the acceptance of this binary thinking that has led to depression, deceit, ignorance, intolerance and suicide not only of LGBTQ teens, but of so many who feel that they just “don’t fit in.”

This spiritual flood we must create will then leave behind what is the source of true righteousness and purity.  That source is the acknowledgement that we are each part of the One of the universe. This source, that connects us all to each other, is also the source of the compassion and equanimity with which we must view life. 

Life is filled with ambiguity, contradictions and uncertainty.  There is no certainty. There are no real dichotomies or binaries.   There is no absolute right or wrong, good or evil as portrayed by so many religious extremists today.  There is only the ultimate Truth of the Oneness of the universe.  And it is this Truth that can guide all of humanity to love our fellow human beings as ourselves and not do to others that which we would not want done to us. 

A story is told that Chassidic rabbi Zusya once said that when he comes before God in the world-to-come he will not be asked: “why were you not Moses?” Rather he will be asked: “Why were you not Zusya?” 

None of us is Moses. None of us is Noah.  We are each unique individuals with a unique confluence and intersection of identities that cannot be simply placed at one end of a binary system.  Let us all remember that.

Ending on a personal note, I don’t believe that I have spent my first 50 years always being the best Steve that I can be.  For too many years, trying to be Moses led me to deny my true self.  A piece of me will always regret those years where shame, fear, self-hatred and the quest for the unattainable, rather than the real, guided my actions.  So I must do my best today in each moment to be the best Steve that I can be and to heal not only the damage that I may have caused, but the brokenness in our world.  I see it as one of my sacred tasks, to help as many LGBTQ youth who feels similar to how I felt, to realize that they are each a unique and precious individual.  They are not bad.  That they must celebrate who and what they are is a blessing and gift from God.  And that, regardless of how they might feel now, things will get better. 

We must all work together to see that indeed they will.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful d'var torah. Happy Belated, Steven. May you go from strength to strength.

Anonymous said...

Steve, happy birthday!
And thanky ou so much for writing this piece, your reach on campus to so many is truly appreciated!

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