Why Ursula LeGuin Would Support Swarthmore’s Open Hillel

sparrowhawkFor other perspectives on this debate, read Rabbi Ben Greenberg’s post here and Rabbi Tsafi Lev’s post here.

In her series about the wizard Ged, one of the grand masters of speculative fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, writes about a young man who must go from being an ignorant boy who seeks power to a man who faces himself, his fears, and his flaws—and ultimately his loss of power and death. (There’s a reason she’s a master of the genre!)

A young Ged, in the first book of the original trilogy, has, through his own arrogance—which is really a reflection of his own sense of inferiority—let a thing of great power and evil into the world. He is rescued by the elder mages, one of whom tells Ged, “You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”

I’ve often thought that this series is perhaps one of the most Jewish in speculative fiction. The struggle of Ged to redeem himself reminds me of the Sfat Emet‘s comments in this week’s Torah commentary, on the conflict between free will and divine knowledge pointed out by the verse that Pharoah’s heart was hardened (Ex. 10:1). He explains that Jews’ duty is to make clear in the world what God already knows—which negates choice. The reason this task falls to us is because truth is hidden in this world, and it is only in God’s realm that truth is clear. It is our efforts as Jews revealing God’s clear vision that is so important—truth depends upon human effort—because without it, the hiddenness of truth obscures necessity.

The idea that knowing all possible variables allows us to predict all events is a trope in mystical literature, as well as in philosophy of a certain era. That of course, is one way to understand the idea of omniscience. But there are others.

In LeGuin’s books, it is those who try to flail against truth that bring evil into the world, by denying death, grasping at power that does not belong to them—or by covering up truth, by telling a false story that is more attractive. And all of these people, in the end, turn out not to be our caricature of Eviiiiiil, but rather flawed people whose fears rule them. They grasp for power to try not to feel this fear. And this use of inappropriate power is harmful both for them as individuals, and for the world, as the lie that each has told himself also leads others astray. Ultimately, power allows the truth to be hidden, but truth cannot be eliminated. And hiding the truth causes evil to enter the world.

Perhaps that’s why there is so much ferment in the Jewish community over who gets to talk about Israel, and how. When our community refuses to hear anything other than that the other side is purely evil, when it labels anyone who disagrees with what has been so far labelled as “mainstream” Judaism’s views about peace with the Palestinians as a self-hater (or an anti-Semite), it is out of fear.

But as the young mage Ged ultimately learns, it is only in accepting what you fear as part of yourself, accepting all your flaws as reality, that you can be made whole. Ged ultimately faces the terrible shadow and finds that it is (spoiler alert)—a piece of him. To conquer our fears, to reveal the truth, we must be wiling to listen and to see, so that we can uncover the truth. For that reason, I’m proud of the Swarthmore HIllel, which is taking that first step.

Facing what we fear gives us the strength to take our flaws into ourselves, to accept them—and then to fix them. We need not accept anything uncritically. But anything we refuse to hear gives that thing power. And while we needn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept anyone saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, the Hillel organization has been far too ready to exclude a far wider variety of critique than —critiques which are not only true, but necessary.

I do not doubt that those who oppose hearing from speakers who are anti-ZIonist mean well. Neither do I doubt that those Hillels who have interpreted this rule as excluding organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street—Zionist organizations that insist upon the necessity of a two-state solution, and on facing straightforwardly the dangers presented by settlements – do. But to use the power that they have as a large Jewish organization to silence debate in the community they are meant to educate is foolish, and ultimately harmful.

800px-Parrish_HallSpeakers that recognize that Israel’s acts towards Palestinians, towards its own non-Jewish citizens, and towards its peace process are not always in its best interests, let alone just and therefore worthy of a Jewish state, are not the enemy, even though some Hillels (and some other Jewish organizations) have treated them as such. To the contrary, until we as a community recognize that the growth of settlements is a real impediment to peace, that racism is a large and growing problem, that extremist violence is not only from one side—until we face that, we are not going to be able to make the adjustments we need to make so that we can truly be pro-Israel.

The only way to do that is to expose everything to sunlight. Look at the facts; hear all kinds of speakers; trust the Am (people) to make good decisions—and the truth is that we will anyway. The idea that there’s any way to hide the facts in the age of the internet is absurd, when anyone can go online and read a human rights report, see how many “price tags” are occurring, read (or watch) the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, or even just read Israel’s own news reporting, and we do. And indeed, the recent Pew report reflects that people have been doing just this.

To be fair, there has been some recent calling for “civil discourse” in the Jewish community—requests for people to be more open in hearing one another within our community with less name-calling by one side of the other.  But even should that call succeed (and I don’t see much evidence of it) it’s not enough. The discourse is not empty of content: the debate is important because lives, on both sides of the line, have been and continue to be deeply affected by decisions made, both by Israelis and by Palestinians, but also by large organizations in the Jewish community that push us to use our voices to maintain an unsustainable status quo, rather than stepping up and doing something about it, while simultaneously lamenting the lessening of the connection between us and Israel.

But that lessening is not because there are problems in Israel. It is because either we are deeply connected to our people, no matter where we are, obliging us —as our tradition insists—to rebuke one another when there is wrongdoing, or else we are not connected. It is the very act of insisting that we may not speak about what we see, that we cannot fulfill our Jewish mission when it pertains to our own people, that is one of the causes of the rift. Love doesn’t flee problems, but it does flee silence.

As the Sfat Emet says, it is our job as Jews to  face and reveal the truth, even when it is disturbing. Even when it is about us. This is the lesson that Ged, too, had to learn. That within him was the capacity for terrible things, and only by acknowledging them could he heal himself and the hole he had made in the world. Once the truth is faced, our free will is restored, because we are able to see the path through and we do what we must do.

Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good. In doing so, they show faith in the Jewish future, because they understand that in staring both truth and falsehood down, we will learn from both, and “the truth will spring up from the earth.” (Ps. 85:12)

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Posted on January 1, 2014

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