Why Would We Settle?

Cheryl Goldstein
February 12, 2014
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There are a variety of uses for the word “settle,” and as I began to think about those various meanings, I found that in many cases (most cases, even) it was difficult to conceive of “settled” without “unsettled” as an inherent part of the construct. In other words, the idea of “settling” remains in a dialogical tension with being “unsettled,” with the one always suggesting and implicating the other.

Consider, for example, two relatively colloquial uses of “settle.” Hearing a house creak in the night we speak of how the building is “settling.” In this case “settling” describes a process of continued movement, a slow, incremental but perpetual motion, usually undetected, that contrasts with our sense of the stability of architectural structures. As a house “settles” it reminds us that our sense of permanence is just that, a particular perception of an experience. In fact, the structures that surround us move and shift constantly. Feeling settled is something of a state of mind. Things are never quite as settled as they seem.

And this is true within relationships as well, although the idea of “settling” in this context often implies something less comforting. How many people do you know who feel they have “settled” for something less than they had hoped for? Someone who has taken a job that they did not really want? Remained in a relationship that seems only marginally satisfying? Made an agreement that did not really meet their expectations? Each of these situations describes a form of “settling,” by which we mean abiding with a compromise. As Larry David pointed out, “A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied.” So, when we “settle” we reconcile ourselves to remaining in a state of subtle perturbation. To “settle” requires always being a little unsettled.

This feeling of slight discomfort, of “not quite-ness,” of living in a state of accommodation, or taking up residence within that ubiquitous space where “settled” suggests “unsettled” emerges throughout Jewish texts and Jewish experience. Beginning with Abraham’s uprooting from his ancestral land, the Jewish narrative has raised the problematic nature of “settling” not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well. The unsettled, as well as unsettling, nature of family dynamics repeats from generation to generation in Bereshit and throughout the Tanach generally. The stories of struggle between siblings, husbands and wives, fathers and sons all illustrate the perpetual motion, tension and conflict that resides within emotional relationships.
Judaism’s central covenant, the contractual relationship between God and the people Israel, suggests further forms of “settling.” Like any contract there have been (and continue to be) negotiations involved. For the agreement to hold, each side has had to “settle” to reconcile itself with the other. Consider the famous aggadah from Bava Mezia 59b. Rabbi Eliezer is arguing for a halachic position that goes against the majority. He puts forward “all the arguments in the world,” but they are not accepted. He then performs three miracles, two of which involve moving the ostensibly immobile or unsettling the settled. Yet even his moving of a carob tree and his bending of the walls in the Beit Midrash, overt displays of the rightness of his opinion, will not “unsettle” the majority’s decision. They stay put. They are even told, by the heavenly voice itself that “the halacha is according to him [Rabbi Eliezer] in every place.” In every place except “in the heavens,” Rabbi Jeremiah tells us. Even that is not really settled. Ultimately, God acknowledges the redistribution of control in this case. “My children have defeated me,” God says, laughing. And that settles it.

So, even the relationship between God and the people Israel remains a bit “unsettled.” And Jewish life is like that. We experience Jewish disruption even in the most mundane ways, at moments, for example, when the Jewish and secular calendars make us acutely aware of the distinctive rhythms of Jewish time. And we feel a frisson of delight in the synchronicity of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, a conjunction that reminds us of the more often unsettled relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish calendars. On so many levels — intimate relationships, spiritual and religious engagements, halachic concerns — Jewish life allows us to embrace the dialogic nature of being “settled/unsettled.” We can never just “settle,” but remain slightly perturbed, dissuaded from complacency.

Jewish texts, life and experience are deeply concerned with “settling.” Rather than choosing to “settle,” we can remain in the dialectical position, the “unsettling” position, of negotiating between. Why should we settle for anything less?

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Cheryl Goldstein Cheryl Goldstein got her Ph.D. from UCLA in Comparative Literature and works in the areas of literature, psychoanalysis, and Jewish identity. Currently an Assistant Professor of Comparative World Literature at Cal State University, Long Beach she is also a student research clinical psychoanalyst and has a Masters in Rabbinic Literature.

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