Daniel A. Weiner
A Northwest rabbi living the dream

Living In the Gray

Paradoxes are as puzzling and engaging as they are perplexing and frustrating. The most famous emerge from philosophy and faith traditions. Zen koans posit imponderables, like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” These force us to venture beyond our intellect and the shackles of binary thinking that delude us with the illusion of certainty, closure, and finality.

Similarly, Jewish tradition recounts the great Rabbi Akiba’s meditation on God and fate: “All is foreseen, but free will is given.” The struggle to reconcile God’s omniscience with our capacity to choose compels a lifelong consideration of the balance between divine power and human agency.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to faith, if not the entirety of the human experience, is that we must often live in the gray—the zone of uncertainty and lack of surety in which we struggle with paradox and contradiction—even in the face of situations screaming out for moral clarity. And as with trials of faith, the paradoxes of our lives offer opportunities for reflection and humility if accepted as inevitable.

Especially in our current moment of misinformation, disinformation, polarization and demonization—in which so many of us seek to reduce everything to an either/or, unable to rise above the siren songs of our narratives—complicated and intractable dilemmas require from us even greater nuance, subtlety, and deliberation. This inability but necessity to live in the gray is at the heart of our struggle with the Israel/Hamas war. It is a perfect storm—as the challenges to reason and demands for moral certitude meet one of the most complex historical and political debates of our times.

But if we are serious about understanding this issue with the hopes of responding to it thoughtfully and authentically, we must be comfortable standing in that middle place. It is a middle place in which we support Israel’s right to defend itself against genocidal jihadism in a just war, but still continue to question whether it is possible for this just war to be fought justly. It is a middle place in which our heartbreak and lament at the loss of civilian life in Gaza are amplified by our outrage at Hamas’ cynical and callous willingness to sacrifice their own children in pursuit of Jewish destruction. It is a middle place in which Israel should have better insured access to humanitarian aid, despite the reality that so much of it is diverted to support Hamas’ survival and hopes of perpetrating another October 7th. And it is a middle place in which the torture and suffering of Israeli hostages is often subsumed by unqualified calls for a cease fire that ignore their plight.

To refuse to struggle with these paradoxes in favor of simplistic analyses, knee-jerk responses, and sweeping conclusions is the fertile soil from which the seeds of ignorance, delusion, and malice take root. The shallow dualism of trendy ideologies that cannot allow for the evil of those deemed “oppressed,” nor the victimization of those cast as “oppressor,” subverts a pursuit of fact and truth that obscures far more than even the most enigmatic of paradoxical puzzles.

The misplaced and misguided idealism of so many of our young adults reflects a troubling and tragic concession to the tyranny of singular assumptions and group-think over broader considerations and the courage of personal convictions. Our centers of higher learning were founded to inspire more questions than to tender answers—the very essence of the cultivation of critical thinking. Their reduction and retreat into bastions of cultural indoctrination is a blight on our civilization with damaging implications far beyond this moment.

It is more comforting and affirming to choose the mirage of the absolute over the mélange of paradox. But as with so much that comprises our humanity, it is precisely the struggle with doubt that makes us stronger, with the competing claims of conscience that refine our thinking, and with the embrace of complexity that defines us as ethically enlightened creatures, echoing the eternality of our Source.

About the Author
Senior Rabbi Daniel Weiner believes passionately in building Judaism for the 21st century and in healing the world through social justice. Temple De Hirsch Sinai has grown to more than 5000 members and 1,600 families in two campuses in Seattle and Bellevue since he took charge in 2001. He has served congregations in Baltimore, Maryland and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His innovations in worship include producing “rabcasts” on video, streaming services on the internet, and leading a rock band in popular Rock Shabbat services.