Out Beyond Ideas

The Maccabee revolt in the 2nd century BCE. The Rebellion forces in Star Wars. On the one hand, we identify with oppressed people sticking up for their way of life, refusing to be assimilated. On the other hand, what are the rebels really fighting for? Are they fighting for or against progressive values?

Writer Lev Grossman raised questions about the usual way we interpret Star Wars:
“It’s entirely possible to read Star Wars as a movie about white men fighting to regain their rightful position as rulers of the universe, against a man who, if he’s not actually black, wears all black and has the voice of a black man. (Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones.) With a few notable exceptions – Princess Leia, Yoda, maybe Admiral Ackbar – women and nonhuman races are relegated to the sidelines. Human males run the show. Star Wars is framed as a story about revolution, but in some ways it’s also a fable about maintaining an old worldview of race and gender.” (Time magazine, "How J.J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars," 2015 Dec 14)
Likewise the Maccabee revolution: it's about maintaining an old worldview. The story draws us into cheering for the rebels – yet we also identify with the sophisticates frustrated at the traditionalism of the less educated. Do these traditionalists not fear and hate people who are different? Do these traditionalists not seethe with resentment at what threatens the privileges to which they cling?

Perhaps we should let go of our own opinions, and not take sides if we aren't forced to. Instead, recognize that both sides upheld some important values and negated some other important values.

Of course, we are bound to have opinions. It is, in fact, a civic duty in a democracy, to form opinions about which candidates should be elected and which policies would be best. We also form opinions about what would be best for ourselves, what would be best for our families, what would be best for our congregation.

We exercise our best judgment, but we never really know what would be best. We don’t know if our criteria for best-ness are as comprehensive as they could be, nor do we know if our strategy for maximizing those criteria will work better than alternative strategies. We don’t know. We make our best guess – and then deal with the results with more guesses.

We can’t avoid making and having opinions. But as the saying goes: don’t believe what you think. In other words, be ready to change your mind and maintain a healthy skepticism about your own reasoning process.

We are especially prone to be suckered by stories. We love a story of good guys and bad guys. If we can just identify some group as the bad guys, then some version of the story we love can snap into place. Letting go of our opinions will mean letting go of our stories. We don't have to abandon stories altogether. We can still enjoy them -- in the way we enjoy any good fiction. We can have our stories, but we don't have to really believe them.

We see around us neighbors ready to identify Muslims as the bad guys. Perhaps we detect a similar but opposite impulse in ourselves to identify those neighbors as the bad guys.

We have to have some opinions about some things, but maybe we don’t have to have as many as we do. Are there some of them you could just let go of? If your situation doesn’t need you to weigh in on one side or another, then just stay in that space of openness, not judging good and bad, right and wrong. Unless you’re actually on the jury, you probably don’t need to have an opinion on whether the defendant is guilty or not. And when we do hold opinions, perhaps we could hold them lightly – tentatively – seeing clearly that threats to the opinion are not threats to us personally.

There’s a Zen koan about Fayan and his teacher, Dizang, in 10th-century China.
Fayan was going on pilgrimage.
Dizang said, "Where are you going?"
Fayan said, "Around on pilgrimage."
Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"
Fayan said: "I don't know."
Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate." (Book of Serenity #20)
When we think we know, we filter experience through the categories of what we think we know. Letting go of those categories allows us to be present to the freshness of each situation. Not knowing is most intimate.

So, yes, light a candle for the Maccabee children. They represent a way of life we have left behind. We today are much more Hellenic than traditionalist. Yet still we light a candle for them – though they fought against change, though they despised anyone who was other, though they upheld patriarchy and theocracy.

We light a candle for all our enemies, for letting go of dogmatic insistence on our opinions, and for the hope of loving our enemies.

Our own opinions are surely right – and, at the same time, are also surely wrong. There is a light that shines beyond the question of who is the good guy and who has turned to the dark side. Rumi called it a field:
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.”
Rumi called it a field, but we might call it a light: the light beyond the dimness of our judgments of wrong-doing and right-doing, the light that shines on what we share. We all have fears; we all have the same needs, though different strategies for trying to meet them. It is a light that shines both from the sacredness of traditions and also from breaking through tradition to new ways of understanding. It is a light compassion: compassion for those who are other – compassion as well for those who fear those who are other. It’s a light of love that transcends all opinion. Don’t let that light go out.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 1: Hanukkah History
Part 2: Yay for the Bumpkins...?


  1. Greetings - I'm a liberal rabbi (Reconstructionist) and I loved this 3 part essay on Hanukkah, as well as your insights and suggestions for moral and spiritual conclusions. Do you happen to have this entire essay available as a single written piece? I'd be interested in sharing it with a few people. Blessings - Maurice Harris

  2. Greetings - I'm a liberal rabbi (Reconstructionist) and I loved this 3 part essay on Hanukkah, as well as your insights and suggestions for moral and spiritual conclusions. Do you happen to have this entire essay available as a single written piece? I'd be interested in sharing it with a few people. Blessings - Maurice Harris