A figure-ground reversal is an image that appears to change before our eyes when what we think we see suddenly becomes something else—a vase turns into two faces in profile, or a flock of birds becomes a school of fish. I’ve learned that this can happen in Jewish life too. What may appear to be familiar can suddenly change and once we see the new image, it alters our perception in lasting ways.
When I left my Jewish comfort zone and got to know people who are much more observant than I was, I discovered that what appeared to be meaningless minutiae in practice and tradition could actually be something quite different. This realization was like experiencing a figure-ground reversal. It not only changed how I view my own heritage, it transformed how I relate to others in our diverse community.
Instead of an obsession with details that seemed irrelevant or mind-numbingly dull, I saw a vision of Jewish connoisseurship— and that new perspective has enabled me to wear the 3D glasses as I watch the live action movie that is Jewish life in Silicon Valley.
It is also a concept that I’m finding resonates with many others, as I discovered after speaking about it one recent Shabbat morning during Torah study. Weeks later, I am still hearing from people who appreciate the difference in what this figure-ground reversal might mean for them too.
For example, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our proximity to Napa Valley fosters an almost religious devotion to wine. Knowing about the vineyard, the variety of grapes, the vintage, growing conditions, barrels and more are all part of the enjoyment for connoisseurs of fine wine. This very detailed knowledge enhances rather than detracts from their experience. It creates a higher level of awareness that engages both the intellect and the senses, from breathing in the wine’s bouquet, to gazing at its depth of color and tasting complex flavors blended together in a unique way.
The more I delved into Jewish tradition, the more I discovered that this concept transforms the experience. For the first time, I met people who are true connoisseurs in Jewish observance and in study. In what previously had appeared as pointless detail and nitpicking, I now saw incredible depth, complexity of meaning and deepening purpose. Just as wine connoisseurs savor each sip, these connoisseurs were savoring Jewish life and learning.
In what aspect of Jewish culture, practice or knowledge might you become a connoisseur and how would that change your experience? I welcome your comments and feedback.