A couple of weeks ago in an essay entitled Eros and Spirit,” I wrote about a sad and painful situation vexing the progressive Jewish community. After many accusations, a rabbi admitted to a long history of abuse of power in clandestine sexual relationships, leaving his pulpit and pledging to seek healing.
The leaders of the movement’s main organization banned the rabbi from teaching at future events, and also from attending them. In the words of one respected teacher, he is to be “quarantined.”
Like the unethical acts themselves, this excited controversy. Some people called for stronger denunciations, but I want to write now about the calls for a softer response. In responding, quite a few people put themselves in the place of the rabbi who was being punished, finding it harsh.
Why should he be banned from merely attending events, they asked. Shouldn’t the community welcome him as a penitent, show him that a path of healing was open should he choose to walk it? They explored the issue from the inside out: if this had happened to me, they asked themselves, would the experience of quarantine be warranted? Or too painful to bear, too painful to mete out?
I see it quite differently. In such situations, an individual’s repentance and other individuals’ forgiveness form only part of the picture. They can’t rightly trump the experience of the group and the responsibility of those in leadership. Let me explain.
When a highly visible person who has attracted tremendous controversy, who has wounded others, appears at a public event, he changes the character of the gathering, making it about himself as much as anything else. The person’s presence becomes a dividing-line. It generates the imperative—hard to resist—that others choose to be allies or opponents. It ignores the feelings of others present who may have been hurt in interaction with the individual. The person’s presence becomes a huge, distracting topic of conversation. As in a distorting mirror, it reproduces the charismatic personality’s appetite for attention, returning him to a position at the center of things. Indeed, if his repentance is genuine and his caring for others is great, understanding the impact of his damaged presence, he would opt to stay away.
Had they opened the door wide, inviting such a person to appear at important public events in future, the leaders of the organization in question would in essence be saying that the experience of other participants is a secondary consideration. That would have expressed a lack of caring toward the larger community.
This is a specific case. The underlying question is widely applicable. How do we come to an understanding adequate to the challenges life in society throws in our path? We have to pay attention to the seat of our pants—how about me? how do I feel?—but if our attention stops there, too bad for everyone. I have often marveled at this short-sightedness as it appears in the political arena: I found it impossible to explain all the people of modest income who supported tax cuts for the richest few. After a few conversations, I understood they arrived at their position by imaginatively casting themselves in that fortunate role. If I worked hard and made zillions, they asked, how would I feel if the government took a big bite? Shouldn’t I get to keep it all?
Martin Buber described the mundane, thoughtless use of one person by another as an “I-It” relationship, relating to others as things to use or examples of a category. Instead, he called for a deeper “I-Thou” relationship grounded in full recognition of holy connection and unity: “The purpose of relation is the relation itself—touching the Thou. For as soon as we touch a Thou, we are touched by a breath of eternal life.” When we relate to people in groups, recognizing a collectivity of I and Thou and Thou and Thou, that connection is deepened. I and Thou become We.
To see truly, we must practice double vision. Whatever comes up, two sets of questions need to be asked. How does it feel to me? What does it mean for me? What does it mean for another individual I hold in my heart? These are essential.
But to be a responsible citizen of a community or a nation, further questions are equally essential: How does this affect others? What does it mean for the whole? And if it appears that my immediate individual interests are in conflict with the greater good, what is the best, the most healing, the most generous, the most far-sighted way to go?
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To see clearly, practice double vision.