Shadows: A Letter in the Middle of the Night

Dear dear chevra,

It is an unending joy for me to be able to open my Email here, even in the middle of a sleep-deprived night,  and find such thought-full, thought-provoking letters. (Our list is not always this way; let’s not, as I am about to say, forget the shadow; but let’s celebrate the light as well.)

Some thoughts, perhaps some spice for the nourishing stew we are collectively creating about the relationships among charisma, domination, sexuality, and abusiveness, and especially about how to deal with some gifts that come from the same people who are otherwise abusive:

1. Avraham Avinu sent one wife and one son almost to their deaths in the wilderness, took the other son up a mountain to (almost) kill him. What behavior could be more abusive? Gafni & Carlebach pale beside that. Are we wrong to remember him ALSO as a great spiritual adventurer, idol-breaker, walking forth to search within, challenging God?  

2)  Rebekah  lied, cheated, suborned thievery, played favorite as between her children. She evidently came from a whole culture of deceit (cf. Lavan) and perpetuated it, instilling in Yaakov the pattern of deceit.  We ALSO say she was in touch with God (as when she screamed at the war within her womb). Or maybe we say that was the only path to empowerment open to a woman in her era. Can’t we live with saying she was a schemer, a liar, a cheat — and ALSO a spiritually empowered person?

2) Martin Luther King evidently had both one long-term love affair outside his marriage (which as near as I can tell, his wife was aware of) but HUNDREDS of one-night stands around the country. I think they must have been partly abusive, based on his fame etc. (I say “partly abusive” because -- so far as I can tell from the biographies that discuss this, since they do not do so in great detail -- all seem to have been with adult women to whom he was not promising special spiritual gifts or his own special love.)  

What shall we do with this? Who among us would stifle the memory of the extraordinary steps that King walked on the path of justice? When one of his biographers surfaced this knowedge of his sexual behavior, there was an outcry from some of his old comrades (and more outcry from some of those who had already made him a saint) that it should have been kept quiet. Yet many of the civil-rights activists affirmed that telling the truth is what sets us free. And certainly this is what I think.

3) Besides individual people, basically the same question has arisen about groups that specialize in creating intensive spiritual change. Some on our list have vitriolically criticized one of them as a "cult" that has entangled and exhausted people; others have asserted the same group did them great good.

I know one person (whom I could not respect and admire more highly) who says that the old EST provided her [the opportunity for] one transformative moment that turned her life in a far healthier direction.  She did not get addicted to EST, but took the learning for its own intrinsic worth.

I say EST gave her “the opportunity for” her transformation, rather than giving her the transformation itself, because she took the moment of intense pressure they provided into a healing direction. Maybe she would have turned that corner in a different way, time, and place.  But she credits EST with the opportunity.

Now what are we to do with this? I am surely not about to hide the abusive aspects of these abusers. I am wearied and repelled by interpretations of the stories that justify Avraham’s willingness to kill, or David’s adultery/ murder, etc.  AND –- I am not about to give up singing Shlomo’s songs, or either reject or forget MLK’s amazing contributions to justice, or forget Avraham Avinu’s “Lech l’cha.”  

Along with many other Jews, I am glad that Torah does not pretend that all our spiritual guides are, or were, perfect. I am glad that when Torah tells the stories of sages who shine great spiritual light into the world. it does not whitewash them to keep us from knowing that some iof them ALSO acted abusively, even sociopathically. I am glad that “we” do not write them -- or their shadowy side and destructive actions --out of the story; and that although some midrash does try to whitewash them, not all.

We must be clear about their, and our, shadows. But shadows exist only because there is some light. Can we not learn from ALL their aspects?

I realize that there are some important differences between the impact of age-old stories from Torah and the impact of abusive actions in our own generation on people who are here among us. I realize that it may be far more painful for the people who were abused to try to stretch to affirm the "also,"  than it is for us to absorb the light and shadow in Abraham, or Rebekah, or Samson.

So we must certainly respect this pain. I may choose to sing Shlomo's songs while remembering that he abused women, but I would never insist that others sing the songs. And I WOULD do my best to make sure that whoever recalls and tells the admiring stories asbout Shlomo tells also the shadow side.

For neither story discredits or invalidates the other. We must learn from the old story of the rabbi who hears two contradictory stories told by two who are pleading a lawsuit before him, says to each "You are right!" and then when his wife says. "They cannot both be right!" says “Ahh, and you are ALSO right!”) Living with contradiction forces us to learn a higher complexity of life. We could take this as the opportunity for spiritual growth.

OUR OWN spiritual growth. For knowing all this does not give us permission to abuse, but it may give us the challenge to continue struggling toward the light even when we know that we have been walking into the dark.  

When the Kabbalah faced the question of evil in the world, they did not "extroject" the evil out of God, project it onto some other, utterly independent figore -- but instead called it "sitra achra," the "other side" of God. Isaiah says God is the ONE Who forms glow, shadow, shalom -- and evil.

One list-member suggested we remember the good stuff that bad-acting people taught and did,  but delete their names from our memory of the authorship of goodness. That notion has some attraction. When the rabbis couldn’t stand what Elisha ben Abouye was saying, they called him “Acher” -- “the other goy”  [I wrote that by “mistake,” I thought I meant “the other guy,” but that’s what the Rabbis meant ] --

Yet, yet, we somehow got to know “Acher” was Elisha ben Abouye. How else could we have gotten, 1800 years later, that gem of a novel, “As a Driven Leaf”??  

It’s 3:05.  I’m going to try to get back to sleep.  Shalom, Arthur