Saturday, September 29, 2012

My word of the week: Contextomy / Chol ha-Moed Sukkot

My new vocabulary word of the week is contextomy. It’s not a medical procedure, but rather a fancy term for quote mining, which is quoting out of context in order to distort meaning. This is beyond Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” beyond what spin doctors produce.

Creationists are famous for using contextomy to make their fallacious arguments. Mitt Romney’s first campaign ad provides a disturbing example. Paul Ryan’s speech at the convention was so riddled with lies and distortions that even a FOX NEWS columnist took aim at his dishonesty. 

Public discourse these days is too often dominated and steered by contextomy, spin, obfuscation, and dog-whistle messages -- all forms of intentional dishonesty.

Our liturgy contains an interesting contextomy taken from Exodus 34, which we read this Shabbat, chol ha-moed Sukkot. Known as “The Thirteeen Attributes,” the prayer book includes only the positive attributes of God; but Torah follows them with several less savory descriptions of God.

(6) The Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, (7) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin [here’s where the prayer book cuts off the verse, but in the Torah it continues:] yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

Compare these verses with Exodus 20:5-6 where God’s judgment and punishment are recounted prior to God’s compassion and kindness.

You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:6-7)

Why does one passage lead with God’s compassionate side, and the other lead with God’s judgmental side? And what has this to do with the nature of public discourse in our society?

I would posit that the two passages reflect Israel’s experience of God. Context -- as critics of contextomy rightly preach -- matters. In the case of the passage that leads with God’s judgment and punishment (Exodus 20:6-7), the Israelites are assembled at the base of Mt. Sinai. They have witnessed God’s plagues against Egypt (including the sins of the Egyptians visited on their children in the horrifying death of the firstborn sons) and they have seen God’s retribution at the Reed Sea.

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder… (Exodus 19:18-19)

At this moment, God’s power and retribution loom large in the experience of the Israelites. But they do not leave out the rest of the truth of God’s kindness that they have come to know.

By the time we come to chapter 34, which contains the verse only partially quoted in the prayer book, the Israelites have built a Golden Calf, Moses has smashed the first set of tablets, and a punishing plague has taken those guilty of idolatry. Yet the people have also seen that the pillar of cloud -- God’s presence among them -- remains at the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) (33:10), that God continues to speak directly to Moses (33:11), and that God will continue to lead them through the Wilderness (33:14). In fact, God reveals the goodness and compassion of the Divine Presence directly to Moses,

…“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.” (Exodus 3:19)

At this moment, the people are imbued with a sense that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, and so those are the words expressed first, but not to the exclusion of the full truth as they know it. The Israelites are honest.

The Rabbis make much the same point about speaking the truth of our experience of God. The Talmudic sage Rav Chanina (B.Yoma 69b) tells us that:

…the seal of the Holy One blessed be God is TRUTH (emet).

How do we know this? A midrash in the Talmud, tractate Yoma, tells us that Moses, from his experience, praised God as “great, powerful, and awesome,” but Jeremiah and Daniel could not. Jeremiah prophesied the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, and the destruction of the First Temple; he did not experience God as “awesome.” Daniel experienced the Exile in Babylonia; he could not say “powerful.” The Rabbis ask: How could Jeremiah and Daniel uproot the phrasing --  “great, powerful, and awesome” -- that Moses had instituted?

R. Elazar said: Because they knew that the Holy One blessed be God is truthful. Therefore they could not speak untruthfully about God.

The midrash teaches us that God desires honesty, not false piety. This is a fine message for Creationists, but also for all of us in our public and political discourse.

It’s a message that the festival of Sukkot drives home. During Sukkot, we leave our hermetically sealed homes and live for a week in a sukkah. The sukkah is both an image and an experience of openness and transparency -- honest reality, no pretense, no lies. The sukkah strips away our insulated borders. Its permeable walls and ceiling, open to heaven, allow the wind and rain to come through. It is time to leave our hermetically sealed ideological environments, where we choose our news to fit our views, accept quote mining and spin as substitutes for truth, and build walls to keep challenging perspectives far from us.

I extend plaudits to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who recently opened a section of their website devoted to civil discourse in America. I’ll close with their words:

We will discover civility in the guarding of our tongues and the rejection of false witness. We will find it wherever we show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will find it by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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