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Jewish Journal

Living in the Gray: A Holy Way to Interpret and Experience the World

by Lia Mandelbaum

September 25, 2013 | 4:52 pm

One of the toughest ways to experience the world is through developing the capacity to live in the gray area.  Although living in the gray can be perceived as taking an abstract approach to life, I really see it as being a student learning to see the big picture.  I believe it is a crucial lesson to learn because most of life is truly a gray area. 

We live in a society that often has a strong impetus to take polarized positions when faced with conflicts that challenge our belief systems.   The lens in which we view the world can present life as a dichotomy (especially in politics), where things are good or bad and right or wrong.  This is harmful because it limits our ability to see the full spectrum of life and its rich depth and nuances. 

It is easy to make judgments because the unknown can be scary, but if we suspend our judgment we can take a learning approach and grow.  I have found that the more I become flexible and open to the big picture, the more well-rounded I become as a person.  I feel more whole (and holy), alive and inspired.

We all make judgments that are relevant and important, and it is also very important to do this with discernment.  This can be done by making sure those judgments aren’t being guided by our biases and fears.  It is so imperative that we are aware of our fears and biases because they can be very overpowering and ultimately what drives you.  They can shape the lens in which you view and interpret the world.   

How it can pertain to Islam

I have begun to see how in Islam, there are many varieties of how the Quran is interpreted, and that the Muslim community is a huge community made up of many different communities.  My willingness to live in the gray area helps me to see this. 

With the Muslims who are violent extremists, and that we often hear about in the news, many of them believe that their actions are driven by a message within the Quran that encourages their behavior.  That is their interpretation.  One major disservice that the extremists do to other Muslims is by creating huge stigmas based in fear, and then all Muslims are viewed as being violent and suspicious. This is a prime example of interpreting all of life through black and white thinking.  It is a root cause of Islamophobia, and is a part of the same beast that fuels all of the hatred and phobias in the world.

Like with the Old and New Testament, the Quran is interpreted through the eyes of the beholder, and I got the chance to learn this through an interview I had with a really great Muslim woman for a school project.  As I listened to her speak I saw and felt her deep passion and conviction she has for the Quran.  She shared her own interpretation, and I thought it sounded really beautiful and it even resonated with me as a Jew.  She said to me, “I would find messages of compassion and of social justice, and of taking care of the most vulnerable in society, whether you knew them or not, if they were your family or if they were strangers, if they were a different ethnicity or if they are the same.  I feel like the stories of the prophet, and the texts, and the scriptures in the Quran are all so full of that.  The first of the 99 names and the first of the 99 attributes of God in the Islamic tradition is Rahmah, which means compassion.”

The woman I interviewed is now a dear friend.  We see and get one another on a very deep and meaningful level.  Although I don't see her too often, whenever I do, it is as if no time has passed. 

Raw Courage

It takes a great deal of courage to not dehumanize anyone, and especially your “enemies”.  It is a holy act to pause and try to understand where they are coming from, and have the self-awareness of why you are so emotionally triggered by that individual.

I have come to understand that anger (and especially rage) is often masking a deep sadness, and that the individual is just using a coping mechanism that is unhealthy and sometimes even violent (extremely unhealthy).  It is where the darkness in their being takes over and prevails.  How can I recognize this?  Because I can recognize it within myself. 

As Jews, we are taught that everyone is made in the image of God.  Being open to fully understanding this is what has helped me to free myself from wandering in my own personal desert, and be able to see the image of God within others and myself.  I believe that our greatest  journey is to develop the courage to witness this great truth and key Jewish principle within every human being.

The most beautiful part of it all is coming to find that by trying to understand the people I may have labeled as “not my people,” are often the ones who have helped bring me closest to God. 

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