Justice Kennedy through a more spacious lens

‘Raising the young and pursuing the good’ are two of society’s highest aims.  Achieving them, David Brooks reminds us this week, is not a do-it-yourself job.  Their realization requires civic responsibility, generous mutuality, and strong community.  By contrast, Justice Anthony Kennedy captured today’s culture of individualism when he wrote: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Yes, we must take our sense of purpose and responsibilities personally. Fulfilling our calling and commitments should not happen vicariously.  Yet bringing our own subjectivity to life’s meaning and mystery should not be a narrowing exercise.  It should be a broadening one.

How can we open up when other’s seem so close minded?  A more spacious worldview is a challenge even when we’re not feeling under siege.

A lesson from this week’s portion of Torah can help. The foreign prophet Bilaam is irate. The donkey on which he is riding is behaving erratically.  The donkey sees a sword-bearing angel – which he does not see – that causes her to veer and even wound her rider.  Bilaam strikes and threatens further harm to the donkey, God enables an angelic voice to enter the animal (Num. 22:30).  “Behold, I am the reliable donkey on which you have been riding for years until now, ‘Am I in the habit of doing this sort of thing to you?’”  The brilliance of the question lies in its invitation to revisit assumptions.  Is there more going on?  Do I have all the relevant facts?  When posed sincerely, a question like “Is this typical conduct for me?” can dramatically shift a perspective from that of conquest of “Don’t you see?!” to that of curiosity, “What don’t I see?”

The next time you’re irate with a colleague, friend, or family member who seems to be behaving out of character, try to consider more than a demand for her or his apology.  Ask, “Is this normal behavior for her or him?”  If it is not, then what information that is causing such misconduct do I lack?

We may yet discover that our shifting from righteous indignation to interested curiosity will become a favor that will be returned to us in kind.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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