Getting Perspective from Two Eyes

Here’s a little experiment. Close one eye and look around at your hands on the keyboard in front of you. Notice the details of where your fingers are relative to the keys. Then, close that eye and look at the relative position of the keys with the other eye. The two pictures you have are similar but yet different. From one eye it might look like your left ring finger is directly in front of the 2 key, and the other eye its in front of the 1 key. Which is it?

Now open both eyes and look at the scene. Your brain has two sets of data coming from the left and right eye that actually disagree. From one eye things are hidden, but the other sees them. Edges of objects recede at one angle in one eye, and through the other eye, they’re at another angle. Somehow, your brain takes these two conflicting pictures and merges them and gives you new data about depth that neither eye could see on its own. Very cool, I think.

Now, consider Proverbs 27:6. In the New International Version, it reads, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” But in the Jewish Tanakh, it reads, “Wounds by a loved one are long lasting; The kisses of an enemy are profuse.” The two versions don’t agree! One says that friendly wounds are good, and the other says they are bad. How could they be so different in how they translate the verse?

The key is the word that is translated “trust” or “long lasting.” The Hebrew word is ne’emanim (neh-eh-mah-NEEM), which is related to the word emunah, which means “faithful” or “reliable.” It is also related to the verb aman, meaning to believe or trust. But the same word can also mean “steadfast, long-lasting, enduring.” So the wounds of a friend can be trustworthy and reliable, or they can be long-lasting, in the sense of never going away.

Which is the correct translation? Ironically, I think it is both. When our loved ones tell us their greivances, often they are something we should seriously consider changing, because they know that telling us will hurt us. But on the other hand, the speaker should realize that no matter how carefully said, his or her words will tend to stay with the hearer forever, often causing a wound that will take a long time to heal.

Reading this verse in either version gives you part of the sense, but having the verse in both translations (and knowing a little about the Hebrew behind it) gives you “depth perception.” The seemingly conflicting data points actually give you new information that neither give you on its own. This is why when people  ask me which Bible translation they should use, I say, “Use more than one, and learn a little about the original languages.”

This habit of reconciling two points of conflicting data is a typically Jewish way of thinking about reality. Think of Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, who goes back and forth with “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” At first with my Western sense of linear logic and background in the sciences, I found this really quite irritating. It felt like confusing rhetoric – one way must be right, the other is just plain wrong! Otherwise, you are headed straight into relativism, where all things are true – I just believe my thing, and you believe your thing. There is no truth anywhere.

And yet, my two eyes work with two sets of conflicting data and somehow tell my brain about three-dimensionality, something that neither eye can tell me anything about at all. You could almost say that three dimensions are an illusion of your mind. That’s why stereoscopes and ViewMasters and MagicEye puzzles can make us think we see dimensions that aren’t really there. (For instance, check out this video.) But our life experience is that this mental construction is actually the truth – when we walk toward something that our eyes say is farther away, we come up to meet it. Our brains deal with conflict and look past it to a further, hidden reality. Actually, our ears do a very similar thing too, and that’s why we like stereo sound much better than mono – it sounds so much more real.

There is one more thing going on that is important to note, and that one eye is dominant – it sets the perspective that your brain ultimately considers “authoritative.” With both eyes open, point your index finger at something across the room. Now close one eye, and then close the other. From your dominant eye’s perspective, your finger stays in the same place. From the other eye’s perspective, it “jumps.” If neither eye was dominant, your brain would just have a hopeless jumble of conflicting information. One eye is the final authority, but the other eye provides perspective that it doesn’t have by itself.

I find this important to remember as I have been learning to use this “on the one hand, on the other hand…” method for reasoning, in particular, when I consider the Jewishness of my Christian faith. Most people reading this blog have discovered the power of knowing more, as Christians, about what Jews believe about different things. Sometimes we see things very similarly, other times we see things very differently. At first it might be disconcerting, but if you have a solid sense of your own faith, the conflicting data can often give all sorts of three-dimensionality to what we already believe – it gives perspective.

For other people, however, I honestly don’t recommend this kind of study, if they have a shaky faith and some wounds from abuses or errors in their church past. Or if they actually believe that all truth is relative, which makes no sense at all. What will happen is that the two conflicting portrayals of reality will simply cause confusion.  You need to have a dominant eye, that gives you the final say. Sometimes you might modify what you think, but sometimes its necessary to reject something incompatible with your faith. If you want to learn about your Jewish roots, first learn your traditional Christian beliefs, and know why you believe. People who grow the most from this kind of study are ones who have a solid faith, but are not “brittle” – unable to deal with any kind of new information that might threaten them. It takes a mixture of humility and self-questioning, and confidence about convictions to survive in this field. And a lot of prayerful discernment.

As Tevya said, on the one hand…, but on the other hand…

Published in: on March 1, 2008 at 10:28 am  Comments Off on Getting Perspective from Two Eyes  
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