Jewish Ethics and Play: The Exaltation of the Possible

Article excerpt

  It is essential to understand that a constant tension between two
  diametrically opposed concerns--preserving and betraying--is
  intrinsic to spiritual life. (Rabbi Nilton Bonder)

  The best way is that you grasp one thing, yet you must not let go of
  the other. (Ecclesiastes)

Although there is always a great temptation to do so, it is impossible to think of ethics as complete and perfect. Even as we surrender to an ethical system, as we always must, we do so playfully.

We view ethics as both real and not real, and in doing so, we temporarily give up the rationalistic demand for consistency. Ideals are always imperfect ideals. In embracing playfulness, we experience new pleasures and freedoms. We seamlessly move from the world of play to the world of the player (and back again).

In play, we grant ourselves and others the needed liberty to experience the world from different perspectives. Normal constraints are relaxed. Everyday points of view are challenged. New values, beliefs, and desires emerge. Responses become varied, paradoxical, and complicated. We stay with our emotions and stop hiding from them. We tolerate and welcome differences. We develop more sophisticated tastes, nuanced sensitivities, and mature emotions.

Over time, we discover that play is a way of being in the world more lightly and less permanently, yet more profoundly and comfortably. In play, we discover new purposes, choices, modes of being, and new opportunities.

More open ways of interacting with others suddenly become available to us. More honest communication is possible. According to the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, one of play's all-time greatest advocates, "Playing has a place and a time. It is not inside ... Nor is it outside ... Playing facilitates growth and therefore health; playing leads into group relationships; play can be a form of communication ..." (Winnicott 1971, p. 41). Dialogue and dialectical thinking become a way of life. Creativity is enhanced. Imagination is embraced. Deeper layers of meaning are revealed.

In play, we hold on to our old selves less tightly. We take more risks. We move to the edge of our own capabilities and consciousness. We enter what one psychologist has dubbed a state of "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi 2003). We push and challenge ourselves and each other. We begin to experiment more, and we realize that to take ourselves more seriously, we have to take ourselves less seriously first. A tiny gap between the past and the future opens. Identities loosen. Transitions become possible. The promise of growth and transcendence is strengthened.

It is through play that we evolve. New and challenging ways of interpreting and making meaning in the world are adopted. Perceptions are widened. New connections are made, and old ones are seen as obsolete.

More complex identities emerge to subsume older and more simple ones. We are still who we always were, only better. Play is evocative and transformative:

  Through play we learn that all perspectives and behaviors belong to
  categories and that these categories can be manipulated. They can
  support each other (science and discovery), transform each other
  (art), or cancel each other out (comedy) ... When we are able to step
  back from one categorical level to see and play with it from another,
  we begin the process of transformation. (Gordon and Esbjorn-Hargens
  2007)

The content and authority of ethics derives from legitimate and open dialogue. It is a process that one chooses (or not) to participate in. Such a process--to work effectively--must recognize its own limitations and imperfections. Paradoxically, it must come to recognize that its own ideals are only imperfect ideals. Whatever we agree to today will become outdated and constraining over time. However brilliant and insightful we are now, no one can anticipate what the future will bring.

It is because of all of this that no matter how important ethics are to the quality of our lives and no matter how permanent we think our ethics to be now, we must learn to approach and embrace our own ethics in a playful and tentative way; as simultaneously real and unreal. …