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Rosh Hashanah: Avinu Malkeinu and Janusian Thinking

by Sarah Bassin | Published on September 1, 2009

It happened once that a rabbi medi­ated a dispute between two congre­gants — some­thing about goats and prop­erty bound­aries and what belonged to whom. The first congre­gant, Yankel, walked into the rabbi’s study and gave his side of the case. The rabbi listened intently and then exclaimed, “You’re right!” The next congre­gant, Berel, came into the study and argued his side. Again the rabbi exclaimed, “You’re right!” The rabbi’s wife, who was watching the whole thing said, “First you told Yankel he was right, then you told Berel he was right. They can’t both be right!” To which the rabbi replied, “You’re also right!”

I think of this story some­times when I hear the prayer Aveinu Malkeinu. Aveinu Malkeinu– Our Father Our King. They don’t really go together. Aveinu — A parent loves uncon­di­tion­ally, sacri­fices for a child. Malkeinu — A sover­eign rules with his or her own best interest in mind; a sover­eign is owed some­thing by the subjects. Using Aveinu and Malkeinu together is like telling both Yankel and Barel that they are right. It doesn’t make sense. And yet, we use both, Aveinu and Malkeinu in the same sentence, to address God. Most other prayers let us dwell a little bit in one under­standing of God — as creator, covenant maker, one who grants atone­ment…. But as Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes about Aveinu Malkeinu its “formula is a unique one, combining what are usually seen as two contra­dic­tory features, that of a parent who is loving and accepting, and that of a sover­eign who is usually seen as stern and demanding.”

So why do we conjure up both notions of God in one breath? I believe that this prayer, Aveinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, is trying to teach us an essen­tial life skill — that of holding two contra­dic­tory ideas in our heads simul­ta­ne­ously without rejecting either. Scholars have given this not-so-new notion the name “Janusian thinking” after the Roman god Janus who was able to look in four direc­tions simultaneously.

So what’s so essen­tial about this life skill? I’ve person­ally been a bit skep­tical of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s defi­n­i­tion of intel­li­gence – the one that claims that someone who’s intel­li­gent holds two conflicting ideas in her head. I’m skep­tical because of the stories like Berel and Yankel’s – where Janusian thinking leads only to paral­ysis and indecision.

But Janusian thinking doesn’t just stop at believing two different stories at the same time. Janusian thinking is the capacity to utilize them as well. It’s weighing the pros and cons of each respec­tive side, under­standing their rela­tion­ship, their inter­play, and then using them to create some­thing new without negating either.

I think that the rabbi in our story missed that last creative step. He didn’t create any new solu­tion while respecting both Berel and Yankel’s posi­tions — no new ways to think about goats and grass. In spite of the rabbi’s short­com­ings, Janusian thinking does have tremen­dous poten­tial in conflict reso­lu­tion if we’re able to work in this last step. It’s just not an easy skill to master as I’ve been learning in recent years.

When living in Israel for my first year of rabbinic school, I helped facil­i­tate a number of trips to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank through a program called Encounter. As part of this program, we explored the effects of the secu­rity barrier for both Israelis and Palestinians. Now, I take a nuanced stance when it comes to the secu­rity barrier. I believe that its pres­ence is essen­tial in preventing suicide attacks and saving lives. I also believe that its current path is not for the sake of secu­rity alone. I was deeply upset when I saw the effects of the secu­rity barrier — cutting Palestinian fami­lies off from their olive fields and their liveli­hoods. There was no justi­fi­able secu­rity reason that the wall took its path in the middle of Bethlehem to let Israeli tourists visit Rachel’s tomb and other reli­gious sites. And yet, trou­bling as that was, Palestinians proposed that the only just thing to do was to tear down the wall entirely — tear down the wall that had prac­ti­cally elim­i­nated suicide attacks in Jerusalem. I didn’t feel like the Palestinians with whom we spoke heard us at all — how could we possibly return to weekly bus bomb­ings and restau­rant explo­sions throughout Israel. There seemed to be an impas­sible abyss on many issues with both sides unable to acknowl­edge the real truths of the other. Those trips left a lasting impres­sion of how diffi­cult it was for both Jews and Palestinians to really hear one another. I person­ally felt schiz­o­phrenic, not knowing which byproduct of the same reality to inter­nalize more, whether to feel more guilty or defensive.

Janusian thinking can be really hard, espe­cially when you’re emotion­ally invested in one side of the issue. But I assure you that while the alter­na­tives to Janusian thinking may be easier on the psyche, they have little hope of moving us forward.

One alter­na­tive is cham­pi­oning your side and completely rejecting the other. “I’ve consid­ered your point of view, and I consider it wrong.” With the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, this produces chain emails about how many more Jewish Nobel Prize winners there are than Arab among many such lists of the Other’s sins and our own virtues. These emails serve well to affirm beliefs, but not to address conflict.

Another alter­na­tive to Janusian thinking that’s easy on the psyche but bad for conflict reso­lu­tion is to relin­quish your own narra­tive and take on that of the other — to distance your­self from the wrong­do­ings of your own group. “I’ve consid­ered your point of you, and you’re right. My people are wrong.” Germany has a shock­ingly high number of converts to Judaism — often people who are trying to escape their collec­tive guilt for the Holocaust by taking on the iden­tity of those who were perse­cuted. One can’t be held respon­sible if one becomes the victim instead of the oppressor. Some Jews have taken on this approach with the Israel/Palestine conflict — pushing the Jewish narra­tive aside to fully embrace Palestinians and their suffering. This serves to alle­viate a sense of guilt, but it too does little to address the conflict.

Janusian thinking demands that we start from our own story, but not be stuck in it. “I’ve consid­ered your point of view and I under­stand where you’re coming from. So how can my point of view make room for you without sacri­ficing what’s essen­tial to me?”

It seems that right now, there’s a stale­mate in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that makes this discus­sion seem more theo­ret­ical than anything. Over 80% of Israelis are in favor of a two state solu­tion, but over 97% do not know what the next step forward ought to be for the peace process. It’s a situ­a­tion that’s backed everyone into their corners with their boxing gloves on. No Janusian thinking happening now.

But this is a missed oppor­tu­nity. No, peace may not be feasible to expect tomorrow or within the next 6 months, or even the next few years. But Rabbi Doniel Hartman, an Israeli rabbi, suggests to us that this stale­mate not be used as an excuse to promote the status quo. The Palestinians may not be ready for peace today as a coherent polit­ical entity. But what happens if eight months, two years, ten years down the line, they come knocking at the door really and truly ready. Will we be ready for that knock?

It depends. If we use the time now only to espouse our virtues louder, then no… we will not be ready for that knock. If, however, we use this time to consider where in our own story there’s room for the other, we may just put enough new facts on the ground – thou­sands of empty new housing units in Israel proper ready for settlers to move, finan­cial incen­tives for the Israeli lower class to live in Israel proper rather than the terri­to­ries, a secu­rity barrier that encom­passes Israeli cities rather than cutting through Palestinian fields – these things will not bring peace. They will, however, make peace tangible when the time comes. When we are able to use Janusian thinking at its best, when we consider the Palestinian perspec­tive along with our own, we discover that there is room for the other in our own story.

Now it’s perfectly conceiv­able that the Israel/Palestine conflict may not feel central or even rele­vant in your life. That’s okay. The message is the same whether we’re talking about inter­na­tional rela­tions or inter­per­sonal rela­tions. The life skill of Janusian thinking is still essen­tial. It’s a skill that we ought to exer­cise not only in conceiving of peace in the Middle East, but also peace in our own homes (shalom bayit). When we argue with our loved ones, are we seeking to under­stand where they’re coming from? Are we listening with more than the intent to refute them and win?

Seeking to under­stand before being under­stood comes with the complexity of Janusian thinking, when we’re able to acknowl­edge two competing narra­tives simul­ta­ne­ously. It’s some­thing that our tradi­tion has been training us over millennia to do — to simul­ta­ne­ously think Aveinu — our father, and Malkeinu — our king… to hold onto these two competing notions, not letting go of either.

May Aveinu Malkeinu—our parent and our sovereign—guide us down this diffi­cult but rewarding path of Janusian thought.

Sarah Bassin is the program manager of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California. A native of Overland Park, Kansas, Sarah grad­u­ated summa cum laude with a B.A. in Religion and History from Lafayette College. Bassin held a fellow­ship focusing on Jewish/Catholic rela­tions through the American Jewish Committee and worked at Princeton University’s Hillel before entering the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

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