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Wrestling with God in Bethlehem: Seventy-one Faces

by Becca Linden | Published on September 1, 2008 in PresenTense Magazine

The rabbis of the Talmud write, “There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for every­thing is in it” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15).

In theory, this message of coex­is­tence at the core of our reli­gious beliefs is helpful when living in frac­tioned Israel/Palestine, a zone with infi­nite truths, and often conflicting narra­tives: all are true, and none are complete.

In prac­tice, seeing many truths and holding all of them is diffi­cult to say the least. “It is almost incon­ceiv­able to hold within your­self at the same time the possi­bility hesed and hate. What does God want from us?” says Yael Krieger, 26, who was supposed to have been in Bethlehem on a listening project with a group of 50 rabbinical students and Jewish educa­tors the day of the shooting at Mercaz haRav. Trying to accept the 70 faces is paralyzing—like watching 70 tele­vi­sions simultaneously.

Despite the rabbis’ univer­sal­istic tone, their comment allows for bound­aries. “There are 70 faces of Torah—but not 71” says Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, an Israeli citizen orig­i­nally from South Africa, and a teacher at Pardes Institute of Jewish studies in Jerusalem. 70, and not 71—many, but not infi­nite ways to serve God.

Taking a different approach to the quote by focusing on the second half—the turning not the faces—is Encounter, an orga­ni­za­tion that exposes American Jews from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum to Muslims, Christians and Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. At its core, Encounter is not about clar­i­fying the boundary between face 70 and 71, or finding the Solution to the peace conflict. Rather, Encounter empha­sizes the truth of a method. Their process is based on a foun­da­tion of deep listening, open­ness, and the creation of a safe space in which one can hear narra­tives of the Other, and inte­grate their stories with one’s own.

This method allows one to see many truths about God, history, poli­tics, reli­gion, hold all of them at the same time, and turn them around and around and around. As the rabbis say, the turning is enough in and of itself, for every­thing is in it.

Becca Linden was a 2008 Fellow at the PresenTense Institute, where she worked to model a new phil­an­thropic struc­ture fami­lies can use to encourage a tzedekah conscious­ness, the Rivkah and Yaacov Lifchitz Philanthropy.04.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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