Check Your Theological Privilege
Nahum was an optimistic man of simple faith.
No matter what life threw at him, or how bad things got, he would always respond with the maxim “this too is for the good”. Eventually his friends started to call him “Nahum Gam Zu” or “Nachum this too”, perhaps somewhat sarcastically. Whether he was robbed, put in a dangerous scenario, or faced any type of illness, Nachum always knew that everything God did was for the best.
One day Akiva, a top student of Nahum, was traveling through the countryside on a dangerous road with night time quickly approaching. As darkness was about to fall, Akiva hopped off his donkey, lit his only candle, and leashed up his rooster to prevent escape. Suddenly, a wild animal approached, first killing the donkey, then eating the rooster, extinguishing the fire in the process. Alone and scared in the dark, Akiva followed in the steps of his teacher and simply muttered “everything God does is for the best.”
Well, it turns out that same night a ruthless group of bandits made their way through the forest, completely plundering and destroying any encampment they discovered. Had the fire stayed lit, or the donkey and rooster stayed alive, the light or noise would have drawn attention towards Akiva and he would have suffered a terrible fate.
This story, as related by the Talmud, is meant to teach and inspire what true faith in God means along with the reinforcement of the idea that God has a plan and everything really does happen for a reason.
However the world does not always work out as well as a talmudic fairy tale.
Akiva later grew up to be the great Rabbi Akiva - leader of the 2nd century Jewish community - and on a darker note, a somewhat tragic figure in Jewish history. A rabbinic myth relates that thousands of his students were killed by a mysterious illness reflecting the failure of his pedagogy, he helped lead the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt while backing a false messiah, and was eventually tortured to death by the Roman empire for illegally teaching Torah after it was outlawed by an antisemitic decree. Nevertheless, Akiva remained steadfast in his faith through all of it.
But this isn’t a conversation about just Nahum or his student Akiva and their simple faith in God. Rather, this is a conversation about a certain type of privilege that many in the Jewish community have, and how they must be careful to “check” this privilege during conversation.
People believe a variety of things about the metaphysical reality of our world. There are those with firm conviction of God’s existence, of an afterlife, and of a specific recipe for how the world operates and how to subsequently lead the best life possible given these beliefs. These people are then able to trust in their faith to guide them both physically and mentally through the toughest of times.
Now the point of this article is not to evaluate the reasonableness of said beliefs. I have written about these topics in many places and do not desire to re-open the philosophical can of worms. The point of this article is to send a message to people with metaphysical beliefs of any shape or size that they must be cognizant of the point that verbal expressions of these beliefs can often come across as unhelpful, unempathetic, or non-understanding.
In other words, unless you are certain that someone else shares a specific belief, never use that belief to console them in times of trouble.
If someone is facing a rough patch in their life do not tell them that it is all in God’s hands and that everything happens for a reason. If someone is ill do not mention anything about prayer. And when someone is dealing with the death of a friend or family member, make no mention of heaven or the fact that they are “in a better place.”
Simply put it is a privilege to have theological faith of any kind. It makes the world and all of its difficulties easier to process, understand, and digest. It offers a simple equation for everything in life from the day to day all the way to how to react to disaster.
And this is a privilege that not everyone shares. There are those who reject any specific type of faith due to their understanding of the world. For them, belief in a specific conception of heaven or God makes no epistemological or rational sense and their intellectual honesty simply won’t allow faith. For these people, faith is as untenable as convincing a man that red is green.
If that last paragraph came across as confusing or erroneous then congrats, you have theological privilege. Now please, whenever you find yourself in a deep or important conversation about life be sure to check it.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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