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October 4, 2014

Too Old for Fairy Tales (Yom Kippur 5775)

Ari S. Lorge

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“Witches can be right, giants can be good.”

Those are Stephen Sondheim’s words, written for his musical Into the Woods.

For those of you who have not seen it or heard the music, Into the Woods explores our classic fairy tales through an adult, scrutinizing lens.  We learn the complex background behind the oft-ignored and voiceless villains—Rapunzel’s witch, and the giants who reside at the end of the beanstalk.  In Sondheim’s treatment, they are not revealed to be perfect and good characters—as if such a thing would ever exist in a Sondheim musical—but rather we are exposed to their side of the story, to their struggles, to their motivations, and we discover we are not so quick to fault them, we are not so sure we would do different in their situation.

Witches can be right, giants can be good… but we would never know that if we only told the popular version of the story; we have to first hear their side of the story, actually listen to what drives them, and then the lyric starts to resonate.

And if we absorb Sondheim’s idea, we are stopped in our tracks, because it begs the question: in whose story am I a witch… in whose story am I a giant?  We might think of ourselves as Prince Charming, but in someone’s tale, try as we might to avoid it, surely each of us is a villain.  After all, in Sondheim’s story, even Prince Charming is not so charming.

We are familiar with the age-old adage that there are two sides to every story.  We’ve seen no end to artists capitalizing on this concept.  In the children’s book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, we learned the Big Bad Wolf was not so bad; in Shrek, we fell in love with an ogre; in the novel-turned-musical Wicked, we learned the Wicked Witch was kind of good and the Good Witch was… kind of manipulative; in the movie Maleficent, we confronted the story of the fairy who imprisoned Sleeping Beauty.  Our stories’ villains are not vindicated in these tales, but events are rarely as simple as they used to appear.  For every account there is another account, another truth.  Whose truth is true?  Are the villains in our stories as evil as we’ve come to believe, as we’ve taught our children to believe?  Despite enjoying art where we learn that witches can be right and giants can be good, in our own lives, we are too quick to say witches can never be right, giants can never be good.  It is time to allow life to imitate art.

Last year at this season, my message to the congregation focused on the importance of sharing our stories.  I spoke of the power of our personal narratives to anchor us and provide us with a context for our lives.  This remains true, but there is a vital second component to this charge that I left on the editing table.  I can’t just tell my story: I have to listen to yours.  Our inability to listen to stories that do not validate our own, our lack of interest in stories that challenge us, ultimately inhibits us because it traps us in conflict.

Sadly, it is easier than ever to turn a deaf ear to those with whom we disagree.  We are ingrained by our society to create a fortress around our point of view. The only beliefs allowed in are the ones that complement our own.  We read articles, join organizations, subscribe to podcasts, “friend” people on Facebook or “follow” them on Twitter, watch news channels—all of which reinforce our own outlook, entrench us in our mythology, and demonize anyone who deviates one jot to the right or to the left.  All day we encounter tools that say, “if you liked that movie, song, article, Facebook friend, Twitter follower… you might also like this.”

While affirmation may make us comfortable, it also polarizes us.  I’d suggest we strive to resist this tendency at a time and in an environment that makes it easier and easier to give in to it.  Because this validation and vindication—without balance and without healthy, reasonable, even crucial disagreement—ensures we will never be open to a different story. Where are the tools to help us think critically?  Where are the tools to help us get uncomfortable?  Where are the tools that might open our minds to a different portrait of those we have summarily declared to be witches and giants?  We have written ourselves into a narrow narrative where, despite knowing better, witches cannot be right, and giants cannot be good.  Within that certain assessment, our villains are entirely evil and, even more troubling, voiceless. 

But there is a way to escape this over-simplistic story.  We can follow Sondheim’s example and seek out the stories of the characters we have silenced.  We can reawaken our curiosity.  In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, members of the Harvard Negotiation Project point out the dynamics that trap us within cyclical conflict in our personal lives.  One of the most important chapters is entitled “Stop arguing about who’s right: explore each other’s stories.”  Sometimes it takes an academic to tell us what we know in our hearts: taking in someone else’s viewpoint—really considering it instead of shutting it down—is not just respectful: it’s essential. 

On the world stage and in our personal lives, our impatience with those with whom we disagree ensnares us in argument.  The Harvard book doesn’t encourage a Pollyanna urging to “just get along;” it reveals how we erode our discourse and our characters if we remain fundamentally closed and un-curious.

This does not mean we should seek out all stories.  I hope it goes without saying that some stories are too ugly, too belligerent or intolerant to merit any hearing. Those in our personal lives who caused us irreparable harm, like abusive family or spouses, do not carry stories we need to seek out.  Fundamentalists or fanatics of any type, who vocally condemn anyone with a competing narrative as a heretic, are not going to be able to join us in this work.  We need partners who will listen to us in return.  After all, it must be said that the work of really listening is really hard work.  Many of us feel we don’t have the time for it; many of us don’t have the patience for it. And yet, what might be opened up to us if we let ourselves listen?

This year, we have seen our government plagued by the rampant inability to listen to each other.  In the past, two senators who held starkly different narratives could sit down with the hope of finding a piece of common ground.  Russ Feingold and John McCain certainly held different visions for our nation, but there was a time when they could listen to each other’s stories of what mattered, and chart a unified path to campaign finance reform.  Today, bipartisanship costs senators and representatives their seats.  So long as each party insists their story for America is singularly true, everyone else becomes a witch and a giant—a voiceless villain who can be dismissed. 

The inability to hear one another’s stories has also afflicted the Jewish world this year.  Two moments stand out as examples where all reasonable discourse was drowned out by the shrill voices of opposing sides calling out “Giant” or “Witch.”  One was the controversy surrounding the Western Wall.  The continued dispute over attempts to create a pluralistic, egalitarian environment at the Kotel—to allow liberal Jews, and particularly women, to worship comfortably and uncompromisingly—reached new tensions this year.  I have witnessed vitriol on both sides of this campaign. And because each side’s account about what it means to be authentically Jewish has become a sacred story, there is little interest in any narrative but one’s own.  Some liberals point to orthodoxy and scream witch, and some orthodox point to liberals and scream giant. 

The second moment that sticks out this year was the dialogue, or perhaps competing monologues, surrounding Israel.  This past summer, we saw a devolution of Jewish dialogue to the point where many Jews felt afraid to speak at all: people were being labeled witches and giants around dinner tables, in editorials, in social media, often without the restraint of basic respect.  There was little listening, little interest in challenging voices.  We Jews inherit disputation in our DNA.  This silencing effect among Jews seems fundamentally un-Jewish.

So how do we move forward?  Can we be open to the possibility that more than one story can exist?  Or will we remain sealed in our certainty?  Openness is not a touchy feely slogan—it’s a discipline.  It requires patience, strength, calm, and the ability to put down our defenses no matter how easily they bubble up.

The book Difficult Conversations urges us to find a place where we can embrace more than one story.  We actually grow when we’re challenged; listening doesn’t diminish us.  Holding two stories does not mean adopting the other person’s story.  It does not mean pretending both stories are right.  It means believing that both stories matter

This sounds very theoretical.  Yet, let me give two examples, one global and one interpersonal, that will help illustrate.

I am a co-chair of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse.  Among its tasks, Jewish Women International works on the Hill to address issues of healthy relationships, intimate-partner violence, and women’s rights.  In our work surrounding reproductive choice, we often find ourselves on opposing sides with the Catholic Church.  We know that there is no way listening is going to bring us together on this issue.  Our stories are embedded in theology.  We could very easily label each other “witch” and “giant” and be done with one another.  However, because we are willing to see each other as more than villains, we listened to each other’s story and discovered we care about the issue of gun violence and its impact on violence against women.  Recently, two faith groups often at odds on a core issue have found common cause. Moreover, by coming together, we are more powerful than we could ever have been alone.  Witches can be right, and giants can be good. 

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that this very same dynamic of our inability to listen plagues our personal lives as well.  As I explained the premise of this sermon to colleagues, they flooded by inbox with examples that I might use in this section, but this one story resonated for me and I think hopefully it will demonstrate this point. 

A good friend of mine was helping his grandmother move into a new apartment after his grandfather had passed away.  He noticed that she was bringing along his grandfather’s fishing gear.  My friend had fond memories of fishing with his grandfather.  He asked to keep the gear, expecting that she would happily make a gift of it.  But to his surprise, she refused.  Instead of asking his grandma in that moment, “Why?” he immediately began writing his own story: “Grandma is probably planning to give the poles and tackle to my cousin, the favorite grandchild.”

On a later visit he noticed the fishing gear in a closet, untouched.  He was livid.  He vented to his parents, “A year ago I asked for Grandpa’s fishing gear but Grandma refused, and now it’s sitting in her closet collecting dust.  It’s completely irrational that she wants to keep it when I could be using it.”  My friend’s father replied, “Grandma and Grandpa met while camping with friends.  Grandpa asked Grandma to go steady while they were fishing with that gear.  I’m sure it reminds her of him.” 

My friend had spent a year in his own story full of bitterness.  If he had asked his grandmother in that original moment why she wanted to keep the fishing gear, he might have heard her story.  He may have still wanted the fishing poles, he may have still felt it was irrational that she wanted to keep them when he could make use of them, but he would have been able to understand why she would not part with them.  We have to be curious about the stories of those with whom disagree.  We have to believe they matter.  Doing so makes us better children, better parents, better siblings, better friends, better co-workers. Even better rivals.

Listening to others isn’t just the counseling of the Harvard Negotiation Project; it’s the teaching of Judaism rooted in our rabbinic tradition. One story from our textual tradition will exemplify the many others.  During the time of our ancient sages, there were two rabbis who were viewed as the most authoritative voices of the Jewish legal tradition.  Their names were Hillel and Shammai.  When deciding questions of Jewish law, they almost always disagreed.  Their students became known as Beit Hillel (the house of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the house of Shammai).  Surprise, surprise: these schools of thought never agreed; they always took polar positions.  One declared something kosher, the other unkosher; permissible, not permitted.  And we poor Jews—what were we supposed to do?  What law were we to follow?  Which rabbi was right?

The answer provided by the text echoes out from the past to use like a bat kol—a divine voice that resurfaces in times of great need: “Make yourself a heart with many rooms and bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the words of the house of Hillel.” 1  Which rabbi was right?  Whose truth is true? Our tradition says both.  As Jews, it calls on us to make sure that we have hearts with many rooms—where we can hold many stories—many narratives—many viewpoints.  The storeroom for what we believe and what we reject is, in both cases, our heart—the center of our empathy and compassion.  We must rediscover the great Jewish ability to hold multiple truths in the same hand, to hear stories that contradict our own and to believe that they matter, to see the world not as unshaded but as complex.  In the words of Rabbi David Hartman, we must find “the courage to be able to live in the world with conviction, without having to say I have the exclusive truth.” 2

Witches can be right, and giants can be good.  It is not an easy moral to the story.  It is easier to believe in the old fairy tales: to believe that witches are wicked and giants destroy.  That allows the world to be simple.  It allows our story to always be true.  It allows us to never question our convictions.

And yet, we have grown too old and too wise for fairy tales.  We should no longer believe in witches and giants—only in people and of what they are capable.  People can be right and people can be good. People can forgive and be forgiven.  People can create a heart of many rooms where they might hold many stories in which human beings, though flawed, strive toward a world redeemed and at peace.  The road to that world is through the challenging act of listening.  As we reflect during Yom Kippur, may we ask ourselves honestly: Whom have we silenced?  What villains might we redeem?  What stories will we challenge and allow to challenge us?  It was written: “You need to be wise to tell a story well, but you need to be even wiser to hear a story well.” 3

May wisdom open our hearts, and may we fill its chambers with stories, and in doing so bring about the possibility for healing, the possibility for forgiveness, but the certainty to bring richness to our world.


1. Tosefta Sotah 7:12 (back to text)

2. Rabbi David Hartman, Address at American University College of Arts and Sciences Spring Commencement. May 9, 2004. (back to text)

3. Attributed to Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch (back to text)