Thursday, December 8th | 14 Kislev 5783

January 7, 2019 8:28 am

To Truly See, We Must Stop Demonizing Those Who Disagree With Us

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law (1659), by Rembrandt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“There is none so blind as he who will not see.” That, I think, applies nowadays to very many people. Seeing is not just looking. It also means understanding — and to understand requires one to try and see things from different angles and perspectives. It requires us to see things from another point of view.

In ancient times, blindness was a curse and a punishment, but it was also often an inevitable result of old age. Isaac and Jacob went blind in old age, but this was not true in all cases. When Moses was old, his eyes had not dimmed at all.

The main Hebrew word for a blind person is iver. It is found in such phrases as “Do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind man” (Leviticus 19:14), and “Bribery blinds the eyes of wise men” (Deuteronomy 16:19 and 26 other times in the Bible). These metaphors both act as a warning against taking advantage of another person’s limitations.

Interestingly, the Hebrew letters for blind are exactly the same as the Hebrew word for light. The Midrash says there was a special form of light saved for the righteous in the next world. And from that comes the idea that light is linked to enlightenment — seeing the truth and choosing the morally or spiritually correct path.

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Blinding someone has often been used as a punishment or tool of war. Not only was Samson blinded, but so too were captured kings of Israel by their conquerors. And priests who were deposed during the Maccabee period were blinded to prevent them from assuming the positions that required a complete physical body.

There is another word for “blindness” in Biblical Hebrew: sanverim. When the men of Sodom gathered around Lot’s house in order to attack his guests, the Torah says that they were stricken with sanverim (Gen. 19:11). This word only appears twice more in the Bible. There are not many words I know of that have inspired so many different suggested meanings as sanverim, and how it differs from iver.

Here is a selection of explanations that I garnered from an article that Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein recently published. One is that sanverim refers to distorted vision, but not visual blindness — or that sanverim is a contraction of the phrase soneh ohr (“he who hates light”) and refers to some sort of over-sensitivity to light.

A more modern medical opinion is that sanverim is linked to the rare word tzinor (“pipe”), because an eye which cannot function resembles a hallow pipe or tunnel vision. Sanverim could refer to confusion, where one can physically see something, but cannot process what one sees for emotional reasons. My favorite is that it might mean “hypnosis.” The text says that the men (or the Angels) stretched out or waved their hands towards the men of Sodom, which sounds very much like hypnotism. Whatever it was, the Bible wants to tell us that their punishment was the result of their moral corruption.

In the Aramaic of the Talmud, there is a phrase used for a blind person, sagi nahor, made up of the two words sagi (enough or too much) and nahor (light). On the face of it, it is a euphemism that says the exact opposite of reality. This is a device often used in the Talmud. For example, instead of saying that something bad is going to happen to Israel, the Talmud often says bad things will happen “to the enemies of Israel.”

In ancient Jewish Law, blindness, deafness, or being mute were considered handicaps that prevented people from normal activities. The assumption was that they could not understand or act rationally. Of course, we know today that this is not the case. Yet already in the Talmud exceptions were made. R. Yehuda forbade blind people from performing positive commands. But R. Yosi the Blind insisted on performing them nevertheless. Often, blind rabbis were scholars valued because they had to learn everything by heart, and this gave them an edge in a world where books were rare. And there are many stories of blind rabbis showing off their capabilities, even to Persian emperors.

Whether it is blindness or deafness, we have made great strides helping to ameliorate the lives of those who have been affected. But I am still upset at how prejudiced so many societies are.

I have inordinate respect for those who can overcome such challenges, and they should be given special consideration and places in our communities — not made to feel inadequate or less valued. But in truth, what worries me even more about people I encounter nowadays is the inability to see another point of view. Civilized discourse is becoming all but impossible. When that happens, normal human interaction and the exchange of ideas becomes severely limited. And this is the root cause of almost all the prejudice, racism, and antisemitism that exists today.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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