Monday, December 16, 2013

Proud to Be an Idealist

I remember the day I found out I was naive.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah party. The event was held at some ritzy hotel downtown, its pristine interior infested with a gaggle of 40 seventh graders. There were glowsticks and a DJ, but if you were really cool you didn't dance. You were above that. Literally, in fact. The "cool kids" stormed the elevators, punched the buttons for every floor and helped themselves to an unguided tour of the premises.

I wanted to join them. I could be adventurous, right?

So I dashed between two open elevator doors just as a group of my peers entered.

As if on cue, every last one of them spun around and exited the elevator, convening in the foyer with their backs to me. A girl I knew from Spanish class turned around and latched her gaze onto mine. Smirking, she took the opportunity to enlighten me. "You can't come with us. You're too naive to partake in adult activites like this."

The doors rang shut just as she spit out her parting words. You're too naive. I stood paralyzed on the elevator, baffled. I didn't even know what the word naive meant.

As I silently ascended to floor 14, I somehow understood that in the eyes of my peers, I had been downgraded.

~ ~ ~

Now that I'm 24 and no longer tormented by the social traumas of middle school, I've given myself permission revisit this topic. What does it mean to be naive? More importantly, what's so wrong with it?

Well, maybe less than we think.

Take a look at Chumash, in the parshas dealing with Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov was the "man of the tent," immersed in study of Torah and oblivious to the tribulations of the "real world." He was gentle and innocent- a mama's boy. His brother Esav, in contrast, spent his days in the wildnerness. Weathered by the cold and energized by the adrenaline of the hunt, he was no stranger to the perils of the world. Esav was street smart, yet Yaakov was the one ultimately entrusted by G-d to leave the security of his tent and father the Jewish people. He was required to enter the "real world" to serve as an emissary of truth, despite having had no prior experience with the evil and deception that he would encounter. All he had was knowledge of G-d and a childlike idealism.

To understand the inner workings of an idealist, we must first distinguish between Truth and Fact. As Rabbi Manis Friedman elucidates, Truth is the world as it should be. Fact is the world as it is. Truth is G-d's reality, fact is ours. While some people might be pleasantly surprised when the ideal and actual are in harmony, a naive person is genuinely shocked when they're not. The mind of a naive person does not presume a chasm between theory and actuality, internals and externals. Because if truth is really true, it should persist across time, space, and context. Why shouldn't it survive the constraints of the world?

Because of this inherent (and often subconscious) assumption that the outer world must reflect the soul within, naive people are easily deceived. Personally, I can't possibly understand why one would intentionally decieve another. Why would you want to create tension between your inner and outer self? Lying to yourself and lying to others must be so....uncomfortable. Unnatural. No one would want to do that. That's crazy.

Injustice and corruption are not viewed as inevitable realities of society. They're believed to be exceptions to the norm. One time, I learned that one of my old high school teachers had been fired because an influential parent accused her of making the schoolwork too challenging. This woman had been teaching at my high school for 30+ years. She wrote my college recommendations. I was shocked and appalled that such a decision could be made without so much as a simple tap on the shoulder to ask her to adjust her expectations before cutting her ties with the school. I insisted that there must have been another reason- a more just or valid reason. A family member, who is a teacher herself and understands the corruption in school administrations, gave me a harsh word of rebuke for my "ignorance": Of course they're going to unfairly fire someone. How dare you be surprised after all the injustice I've suffered as a teacher. You should know by now how corrupt the educational system is.

The thing is, I did know. I've heard the frustrated narratives of countless teachers, exhausted and hurt by their treatment from administrators. I really do empathize with them. But I'm still just as shocked every time I hear a story like this. I guess I just have too much faith in humanity not to be shocked.

As much flack as I get for this quality, I think it's really a beautiful thing to believe in the world's potential for justice. To have an image of the best possible version of the world permanently etched into your mind. When it becomes apparent that the world hasn't yet actualized its potential, it's those stubborn people who are going to work hard to create change because they know it's possible.

This is why Yaakov was able to work 14 years in order to marry his soulmate Rachel without going insane. It didn't matter that he was essentially held hostage by Lavan and used for his manual labor. Failing to marry the woman he was truly intended to be with was not even an option in his mind. Truth leaves no room for compromise.

As Yaakov demonstrated, naivete is not just for children. As an adult, I was most recently reminded of my own idealistic tendencies when I returned home after a year in seminary. I expected the intensity of religious life that I had experienced in Israel to be just as vibrant at home. Why shouldn't it be? We're all following the same Torah and learning the same Chassidus as I did in Israel. I quickly realized, however, that that the philosophical roadmap I had constructed inside my "tent" contained different guidelines than those adhered to by the community.The ways of the community felt not only diluted, but foreign. The new application of all I had learned was but a murky reflection of what I perceived as "truth." I felt the way Yaakov might have felt, suddenly plucked from my tent and tossed into the exotic wildnerness.

Pop Chassid recently published an article in which he proposed the institution of a "Community class" in baal teshuva yeshivas and seminaries. The purpose of the class would be to make BT's aware of how a frum community functions in order to ease the transition from an outreach or yeshiva setting to a community. I would have been the perfect candidate for a class like this. My transition from seminary to a community was incredibly confusing, to say the least. This class could have given me the Facts before I went into the real world. Maybe if someone had told me what to expect, I could have mentally prepared myself.

But after thinking about this idea at length, I realized the following: As difficult as that adjustment was, I wouldn't sacrifice that naivete for the world. There's something really special about connecting to Judaism through a philosophy- one that has yet to be tainted by human interpretation or culture. There's something pure and beautiful and true about previewing Judaism as it's "supposed" to be, without even the slightest inkling of the compromises made by the "real" world. 

G-d created man to be naive. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Chava had no conception of anything outside G-d's will, possessing no desires contrary to His. Unadulterated G-dliness was all they knew. At first, that's what G-d wanted. Those first few moments in Gan Eden contained unmatched purity and clarity.

But then, Adam and Chava were tricked by the snake. At the mercy of a con artist, their naivete got the better of them and their innocence was snatched away in an instant. The simplicity of Gan Eden became a memory that only grew fainter with each subsequent generation.

However, that consciousness was not permanently lost. With the arrival of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, that memory of G-dliness gradually became sharper, closer, and more accessible. The coming of Moshiach will be the ultimate return of Divine Consciousness, when Fact and Truth will no longer be at odds, but rather one will be entirely reflective of the other in a way even more powerful than the original revelation of Gan Eden.

There is a time for innocence and a time to "face the real world." G-d weaved both into his plan for creation. First, one must appreciate Truth for what it is. One must take ample time to discover G-d's intentions, G-d's will and His wisdom without interference from cultural or community norms. Marinate in those ideas until they become a part of you.

When you're in a deep sleep, your dreams never take into consideration that your alarm will ring in 5 minutes. Your imagination never says, "Wait, dandelions can't talk in the real world, so I better rewrite that dream so it fits into the constraints of reality." That's what makes a dream so powerful. It is a pure recognition of what could be.

Eventually, you wake up. When the time is right, you take the plunge into a community where you'll experience a rude awakening. But that's good. It's not a problem. That discomfort means you know what's true. You're disturbed by the disparity between how things are and how things should be because your time in the tent helped you mold a vision for a better future- one where Truth is not filtered. Now, you have the ability to look at all those wordly constraints and bring G-d into them.

So don't be embarrassed if you're a dreamer. If you always see the best in people and are perplexed by injustice. Your peers may have excluded you from their "real world" adventures on the elevator, but I think it is specifically you who won't lose sight of the world's potential for elevation outside the tent.

After all, where would Judaism be without Yaakov?


  1. ""With the arrival of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, that memory of G-dliness gradually became sharper, closer, and more accessible. The coming of Moshiach will be the ultimate return of Divine Consciousness, when Fact and Truth will no longer be at odds, but rather one will be entirely reflective of the other in a way even more powerful than the original revelation of Gan Eden.""

    Aspiring for a better world may be considered naivette, but "realistically" expecting less is disillusionment.

    I think this is a beautiful accompaniment to your thoughts:

    "We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time."
    - T.S. Elliot

    So, spot on, Ettel. Keep exploring, keep dreaming, and keep writing.

  2. One correction, if I may; You say, "This is why Yaakov was able to work 14 years in order to marry his soulmate Rachel without going insane."

    Actually he worked for her 7 years, then got fooled and married Leah, but then, after the Sheva Brachot with Leah, he married Rachel, and THEN worked 7 years for this 2nd wife, whom he already had married. This is as I understand the events to have happened.