The Parallax View
Imagine for a moment the Cyclops – mythic monster of ancient Greece. As you may recall, the Cyclopes were hapless miscreants – giants with a single eye in the middle of their forehead and known for their foul disposition. Your typical Cyclops was huge, strong, violent and dumb as a post. Famously, Homer’s Odysseus escaped the wrath of one particularly nasty Cyclops by getting it drunk, and gouging its one eye out. When the Cyclops asked his name, Odysseus told the monster that his name was “Nobody,” so that when the Cyclops cried for help, he screamed: “Nobody is trying to kill me!” – Poor devil.
What was the “sin” of the Cyclops? It seems that with only one eye, he lacked the ability to see any other point of view.
We humans are different. We are one of a number of mammals who were blessed by evolution with two eyes in the front of our heads. As a result, like lions and tigers and other hunters, we meet the world head on. We are different from a host of other creatures (like bunny rabbits and squirrels and Cyclopes) who lack stereoscopic vision and the ability to take perspective that comes with it.
Stereoscopic vision gives us the ability to take two, slightly different perspectives and combine them into a single image of reality. By giving us a second angle, stereovision adds the invaluable dimension of depth to an otherwise two-dimensional view of the world. This is incredibly useful. For example, if you’re being chased by something – say a Cyclops – stereoscopic vision gives you the ability to know exactly how far you are from the edge of a cliff.
Curiously, the Jewish tradition viewed monocular vision as a special kind of spiritual disability, suggesting that the religious life requires the ability to view the world from more than one perspective. In Tractate Hagigah (2a), the Babylonian Talmud tells us that a person who is blind in one eye is exempt from making pilgrimage to the Temple. This unusual law refers to the religious obligation to travel to Jerusalem to make offerings on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.
The 11th Century commentator, Rashi, explains: “The purpose of pilgrimage is to see and to be seen – God by man and man by God. Just as God comes to see people with both eyes, so too must a person see God with both eyes.”
In his book, Heavenly Torah, Abraham Joshua Heschel takes the obscure law in Hagigah to an even higher metaphorical level. He sees the law as embodying a greater spiritual principle. Basing himself on Rashi’s reading, Heschel suggests that some people are spiritually blind in one eye – they look at the world from a single point of view. They lack the perspective of being able to hold two views at the same time. This ability, he argues, is crucial to the formation of a spiritual vision.
Some people focus on Jewish ritual and ignore ethics. Others are drawn only to folklore and disregard the importance of law. If you are blind in either spiritual eye, you cannot reach Jerusalem – your spiritual fulfillment. Heschel insists that Judaism cannot be limited to one thing. It is not only about God, or only about human beings. It is not only about faith or only about Mitzvot. Judaism is not exclusively about the past, nor is it only about the future. Judaism is a tradition of multiple perspectives.
In fact, Heschel writes: “[Judaism] is a covenant between the opposites – if one is denied, the other does not win. To shut one eye is to fail to make a pilgrimage to a place of religious vision. We need to be able to shift viewpoints in order to see the fullness of reality.”1
Jewish life is filled with many options for authentic religious expression. The classic metaphor for this is Judaism’s three-legged stool, comprised of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim – Torah study, prayer and righteous deeds. Often we see them as alternative, even competing pathways from which to choose as we seek a way to live and express ourselves as Jews. But Heschel would tell us that to privilege study over prayer, for example, is to hold a patch over one eye. We deprive ourselves of the parallax view that provides depth and richness to the experience of Jewish life. He would say that each of the legs of the stool is crucial for every one of us to stand fully as a Jew.
You cannot see the richness of a life of prayer unless it is complemented by study. Study has little meaning without taking action for social justice. Acts of tikkun olam lose their Jewish character if they are not grounded in a world that includes both prayer and study. The full dimension of Judaism and Jewish life does not come into relief unless we hold all three perspectives at once.
What would Jewish life look like if we did embrace multiple perspectives to form one dynamic image? Ideally, for example, we would run our free medical program in a way that would ground the experience of our volunteers in Jewish learning on a regular basis. We would seriously consider how prayer might be a adjunct to the healing that takes place, both for providers and their patients. Incorporating these dimensions would enrich our sacred work with the wisdom of our tradition and raise the Mitzvah of caring for others to an even greater level of holiness.
The challenge for us is that we tend to divide the world into two distinct spheres – the ritual and the ethical, which we see with one eye or the other. It’s a distinction people have been making for a very long time.
The rabbis of the Talmud divided all Mitzvot – all sacred obligations, into two categories: Bein adam l’makom – those between people and God, (in other words, the ritual commandments). And bein adam l’chaveiro – our duties toward each other – the ethical commandments. This artificial distinction sometimes gives the impression that the two have little to do with each other, as if God doesn’t care how we treat each other as long as we observe the Sabbath and keep kosher. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. To suggest that the ritual and the ethical occupy distinct realms is to see religious life through a single eye, like a Cyclops, instead of with the stereoscopic vision of a spiritual being.
But, as I said, the distinction has been around for a long time. The Torah itself sometimes reinforces this uni-dimensional perspective. It begins by making a distinction between hukim and mishpatim – cultic laws and ethical ordinances. Moreover, there is a kind of biblical obsession with cult practice and ritual, the priesthood and the sacrifices, which seems utterly foreign to us. Religious practice occupies the bulk of Leviticus and much of the revelation at Sinai.
Meanwhile, in the back of the Bible, the prophets railed against any singular focus on ritual law. Listen to the words of Isaiah from today’s Haftara:
“Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue business as usual, and oppress your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and fight, to deal wicked blows. Such fasting will not make your voice audible on high.
“Is this the fast that I have chosen? Is this affliction of the soul? Is it to droop your head like a bulrush, to grovel in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast that Adonai would accept?
“This is my chosen fast: to loosen the bonds that bind men unfairly, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, take the homeless into your home.” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
Amos’s critique of religious practice is even more radical. He rejects the obligation of ritual altogether. For him, the ethical is the only legitimate way to serve God:
“I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings, I will not accept them…Spare me the sound of your hymns…But let justice well up like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)
My teacher at the Hartman Institute, Israel Knohl, observed that the Bible insists that ethics is not just what is good or right for society. In the Torah, ethics rises to the level of Mitzvah. It is commanded by God. In its time, the idea of God as commanding moral behavior was unique to the Hebrew Bible. God is the source of all morality and ethics. So God does care about how we treat each other.
But does it have to be one way or the other? Can we not hold both the ritual and the ethical together to give us that parallax view?
In truth, parts of the Torah do just that. Parashat Kedoshim, the so called “holiness code,” which we will read this afternoon, sits right in the middle of Leviticus, squarely in the center of the entire Torah. Kedoshim proclaims: “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy!” Kedoshim then lists both ethical and ritual mitzvot as a way to godliness, fusing the cultic and the moral together so that we don’t have to choose between them. Kedoshim teaches us that the relationship between the ethical and spiritual can lead us to holiness. Holiness is the added dimension that results from holding the two perspectives together.
This is a powerful teaching, but it is not always easy to see. Twice a year, on the Torah Class Retreat, I invite Arnie Zar Kessler to lead an activity with our B’nei Mitzvah students and their parents designed to flesh out the nature of holiness. He introduces the class to Kedoshim, underscoring the power of a text that very clearly and concretely tells us how to achieve holiness in our lives. Then he divides the class into groups and gives them each an envelope with slips of paper containing verses from Kedoshim. Each envelop contains a mixture of ethical and ritual Mitzvot.
The Ethical Mitzvot include: “Revere your mother and your father. Do not steal. Do not deal falsely with your neighbor. Do not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. Do not render an unfair decision in judgment.”
Some of the Ritual Mitzvot are: “Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves. Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” And my all time favorite, Shatnez – “You shall not wear a garment made from a mixture of linen and wool.”
Then Arnie asks the groups to rank the mitzvot in order of importance as each commandment leads us to become holy. With few exceptions, when the groups have completed their task, nearly all assign the ethical mitzvot the very highest priority. The ritual mitzvot are granted little or no significance whatsoever.
As I said, this outcome is completely predictable and easily understood. Not only is there a strong impulse in our community to be good, ethical people (As Garrison Keillor would say, “all our children are above average..”) there is also something inherently mysterious about the ritual and the spiritual. To me, what makes the mitzvah of Shatnez so powerful is our complete inability to penetrate its meaning.
Ritual is complex and mysterious and, unlike ethics, it is not completely accessible by way of reason. According to the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto, holiness itself is that part of us that responds to the mystery and wonder in the universe — that which cannot be fully understood or rationalized. How else can we explain Shatnez – the prohibition on wearing clothes made of linen and wool? We can’t, and that is precisely the point. To be holy is to live with a sense of awe in the face of the mystery of our existence.
Albert Einstein understood the importance of the mysterious quite well. In his book, The World as I See It, he wrote:
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. One who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear–that engendered religion.”2
Mystery, awe, wonder and amazement are essential to the human experience and they are all experiences that Judaism embraces. Martin Buber had a clear understanding that both ritual and ethical perspectives are necessary to give both depth and meaning to our lives. He goes even further and insists that bringing them together in order to establish holiness is actually the very purpose of human existence. In his book, The Way of Man,” Buber teaches:
“Israel professes that the two worlds are essentially one and shall in fact become one. In their true essence, the two worlds are one. They only have, as it were, moved apart. But they shall again become one, as they are in their true essence. Man was created for the purpose of unifying the two worlds. He contributes towards this unity by holy living, in relationship to the world in which he has been set, at the place on which he stands.”3
When we open both our eyes and view the world with the enlightened perspective that both ethics and ritual afford us, we recognize that the potential for holiness may be found in all things. Yet the capacity for holiness is greatest of all in the human being. The religious life calls us to justice and righteousness. It calls us to mark times and seasons with joy. It calls us to embrace the mysteries in the world as we pursue lives of meaning. Ultimately, Judaism calls us to become as Godlike as we can be by fulfilling the potential for holiness found in every human being: Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem — Holy you shall be, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”
- Torah min Hashamayim, chap. 36, p. 709
- Albert Einstein, “The World as I See It,” pp. 14-15.
- Martin Buber, The Way of Man, pp. 39-40.