Many artists will tell you: limits foster creativity. Staring at a blank canvas or a blinking cursor on a white screen can be agonizing, but throw some boundaries around your space (mental or otherwise) and things immediately become more manageable. Maybe it is because our creativity needs something to bump up against, or a box to think outside of, or just a place to start. We can do our best work within seemingly constraining limits.
This is exemplified perfectly through the Six Word Essay. I recently performed this exercise with my students on the campus interfaith council, and it just so happens to have coincided with a similar exercise promoted through World Interfaith Harmony Week. The gist is simple: Respond to a prompt using only six words.
I gave students several prompts, and then we shared the essays with the rest of the group anonymously. Far and away the most intriguing prompt was to pose a question to your religious tradition. It’s amazing how deep we can dig with just six words. Some of the group favorites were “What were you like in youth?” from an Orthodox Jewish student, and “Why didn’t anyone check Paul’s grammar?” from a Christian student. Another provocative question was “How have you been so misunderstood?” asked by a Muslim student. Personally, I found the the most compelling question to be from a Reform Jewish student, who asked “Do you accept the Seder Orange?”
The Passover Seder plate traditionally has six items, all of which represent an important aspect of the Exodus story. In the early 1980s, Susannah Heschel added an orange to symbolize the inclusion of LGBT members and other marginalized members of the Jewish community. The orange represents the fruitfulness of this population, and the seeds stand for the homophobia that must be spit out rather than accepted. Today, many include the orange on the Seder plate to symbolize not only the inclusion of these marginalized peoples, but also the equality between men and women, as well as between the diverse sexual and gender identities present.
The simple six word question can be read as being posed to either Judaism as a tradition, or to God. I know from further discussion with the student which she intended, but I would like to look at the deeper meaning of both interpretations. Posed to Judaism as a religious tradition, this question would receive many answers. We know only too well that several sects of Judaism do not accept homosexuality, do not accept transgender identities, and do not see women as equal to men in terms of leadership and religious office. As one of the oldest world religions, many Conservative and Orthodox Jews strive to maintain the tradition and teachings that have been passed down for centuries, and would not be open to the addition of something so recent to a traditional Passover Seder. They might even be less inclined to accept something new when the addition is made in an attempt to draw the circle wider, be more inclusive, and change the way we think about our community, our identity, and our relationship to God. In asking whether or not her religious tradition accepts the Seder orange, the student is asking: can you change? Can you grow? Can you adapt? Can you learn to love those who have been outcast? Do you have the authority to offer that love and acceptance?
Posed to God, the student’s question, “Do you accept the Seder orange?” sounds simultaneously monumental and tiny. Facing a long and specific history, she is asking about the authority and ability of human beings to change, grow, adapt, and include those who have been cast aside previously. She is also asking: do you accept me? She asks about the morality of patriarchy and hierarchy, attempting to uncover whether centuries of male leadership and dominance was truly a holy institution or simply a human societal construct. She asks whether or not God has known what we as a society are just beginning to learn – that everyone deserves to be included and to be loved regardless of their sexual or gender orientation. She is asking whether God is a reflection of her religious tradition, or whether her tradition is really continually striving to catch up to the acceptance of its God.
In six short words, this student has articulated one of the most pressing questions that religion scholars and practitioners deal with today: How do we navigate the changing times of human society and discovery with these beliefs and practices that come to us through centuries of fear, abuse, ostracism, misunderstandings, genocide, war, adaptations, apologies, disputing prophets, schisms, scientific discovery, and learning from our mistakes? How must we adapt ourselves and our understanding of our religion to make up for what we know better now? It’s not only do we accept the Seder orange, but how we accept the Seder orange, when do we accept the Seder orange, and why we accept the Seder orange.
Religion is important, and our traditions are important. Our beliefs shape the way we perceive the world, adding and removing color and nuance, filtering an overwhelming abundance of stimuli into an order that makes sense, feels safe, and inspires. But we also shape our religion. Our experiences change the way we feel and express our beliefs, and how we engage in tradition and discourse. People are drawn to religion because it answers to their needs in all areas of their life. We talk about the relationship between religion and our world because we are the bridge between them. This can be challenging. If you don’t accept the Seder orange, can we accept the Seder plate?
Limited parameters foster creativity, but they can also inspire us to simplify huge questions into small, bite-size portions – six words is just the right size to carry around with you in your pocket and think about as you go about your day.
This image of a Seder plate is taken from the public domain stream on Flickr.