Learning to “Think in Jewish”
Later this morning my wife and I are going to an open house at the Chabad of Elgin and Hoffman Estates. The rabbi and his wife are celebrating the birth of their new daughter with the community they are building. I am looking forward to this event.
So what is an atheist Jew doing spending time with a Hasidic rabbi and his family? Funny you should ask. In this post I’ll try to explain, if not for you, for myself. Two reasons jump out to me. The first is that Rabbi Mendel is a meaningful example of living the fundamental ethical obligation, living a life of service without reservation. Secondly, and this is quite a selfish reason, I will be studying Jewish texts with Rabbi Mendel in order to better learn how to “think in Jewish.” Let me elaborate.
The Fundamental Ethical Obligation
About six months ago, Rabbi Mendel and his wife and infant son packed up and left Ohio for Elgin, Illinois. He was commanded to leave his father’s home, much like Abraham was commanded to leave his father’s home, and go to a land where he would build a Jewish community. With only a few dollars to his name and a donation of a house and some land upon which to build, he and his family set out on this great adventure. Arriving in Elgin, Rabbi Mendel announced to anyone who would listen, Here I Am! without knowing anyone there, establishing a proximate space and he waited. His announcement is made (it is an announcement made in this very moment without interruption) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation, yet people hear it and they come.
I met Rabbi Mendel about a month ago. I explained to him that I do not believe in god, that I was raised Jewish but I rejected the religious aspect of my life. While I still acknowledge my Jewishness, I do not chose to perform the tasks required of the religion. I explained that my interest was to learn to “Think in Jewish.” I already know how to “think in Greek” the logical discourse that the West took from Athens and made its own but because of the influence of Emmanuel Levinas and his ability to synthesize thinking in Jewish and thinking in Greek, I wanted to develop a competence in “Thinking in Jewish.”
I responded, reciprocated if you will, to Rabbi Mendel’s open invitation and, in spite of the fact that I did not absolutely fit his Hasidic mold, I was embraced. That’s right, my difference was and is embraced by this man from Ohio who left his father’s house and set out, like Abraham, to find his own way. The fundamental ethical obligation to be responsible for the welfare of the other sets up the obligation to embrace the other as one finds him or her; to embrace difference without reservation. Certainly, this obligation is part of the lived-experience of Rabbi Mendel. It provides me with a living model of the ethical experience, one that reaches well beyond the theoretical.
Thinking in Jewish
In graduate school I was trained to think in a logical, deliberate manner, to think in the language of philosophers, to think in Greek. During my academic career that thinking served me well. I published academic papers, wrote a book that was published, presented academic papers internationally and influenced the lives of many of my undergraduate and graduate students as well as the lives of many of my middle school students before I entered post-secondary education.
Then I discovered Levinas’s work which led me to deconstruction and a different way of thinking. Somewhere along the line I decided that if I were to become competent as a complete thinker, I needed to learn to “Think in Jewish” as well as Greek. I tried reading Jewish texts without a teacher and found that, while there is a logic to the approach, that logic is not completely clear to me. Like deconstruction, a method that concentrates on language use, the sages of the Talmud uncover meaning through concentrating on language, sometimes on single words and sometimes on single letters within words. How words are pronounced also creeps into the logic of the Talmud (Hebrew and Aramaic being vowel-less written languages making pronounceation a matter of interpretation).
Without a competent teacher, one may uncover the methodology for reading these texts but it is a difficult chore. For quite selfish reasons, therefore, I sought out a competent Talmudic scholar to help me understand how to “Think in Jewish.” When I told Rabbi Mendel of my reason for wanting to “Think in Jewish” he stood ready to help me in my studies.
So there you have it. A true model for the ethical life I know in theory and someone, because of his commitment to what I call the fundamental ethical obligation (thanks to Hillary Putnam), is willing to help me learn how to “Think in Jewish.” What more could one ask for except to be able to celebrate a new life on this beautiful Sunday morning.