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Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII

Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII

Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII

Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Yes, it is true but it has absolutely nothing to do with teleological purpose, punishment or reward for behavior deemed to be unclean, unspiritual or unworthy or, in the case of rewards, the precise opposite. To believe that creation is purposeful, that some deity has a plan for me and you, that it is in our best interest to keep this deity appeased or it may not rain, crops might not grow, rivers might turn to blood and hail, tornados and hurricanes (not to mention earthquakes, volcano eruptions and tsunamis) is, to my mind, an exercise in wishful thinking. Oh, perhaps it was important in late antiquity to try to answer the mysteries that presented themselves but there is little reason to ponder the very existence of a God that plans for each and every outcome as a part of the grand teleological plan for creation (and extinction). Since Darwin, who showed how natural selection (not the survival of the fittest which is a term that may be applied to Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism) follows random genetic mutations that help insure the survival of a species or, perhaps, the demise of that species altogether, teleological arguments fall in the ranks of mythology and fairy tales without evidence other than the evidence of the recursive nature of its own writings of the foundational truth contained within the mythology.

The universe is, it seems, a very large random number generator. Things happen randomly. These things become part of a larger and ever changing historical narrative, one that has little staying power as interests and contexts shift quite rapidly. Underlying the idea of randomness is the closely related notions of isolated, almost solipsistic, existential experience of the life of the self and the random social network that begins with the dyad of self and other, two unique beings that interact for a while and then part; each leaving a trace behind that is both self and other. These encounters, even among close friends and lovers are random in their occurrence and yet, in some cases may be quite predictable as well (by force of habit rather than by chance meeting; say I have dinner with my wife at 6:00 PM every night except when we have other plans, the meal didn’t get cooked, the stove went on the fritz, the dogs ate the chicken before it got to the table…and so on).

The very fact that you or I am present in the world is the outcome of a single sperm out of millions of potential sperms penetrated a single ova to produce each unique other and the unique self is the beginning of the ontogenesis of the self or the other; an entirely random outcome, one that is based on the probability of connection produces a unique being at birth. On the other hand, the wanton destruction of human beings during the Shoah (Holocaust for those who chose the Greek) by Germans with the aid of Poles and Lithuanians seems to mitigate against the idea of a God with a plan. If the plan was to kill six million Jews then this God is a sadist and not worthy of adoration. If this God with a plan was horrified by the escalation of the murderous mania of the German bureaucracy and didn’t intervent to stop it then this God with a plan is simply weak and not worthy of adoration. If this God with a plan was horrified by the murdering and was unable to stop it then this God with a plan is impotent and unworthy of adoration. We can say that today because there is so much evidence pointing directly to the very randomness of the exercise of free will; the intentional actions that human beings follow that are brought on by both the convergence of time and space at this very moment and the intention to act within that time and space to insure the survival of the planet until such time as the sun explodes into a red giant engulfing the orbiting earth turning it into a crispy rock where no life survives as we know life.

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From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action...Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

Once the foundation of analysis was laid out by the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds they turned to the problem of holiness, of what is spiritually clean and unclean and how the lines of demarcation were drawn to insure that the actions of the community would, when properly practiced, form a holy space on earth. The sages rationalized from their own insistance that God created the entire universe with a divine purpose; that nothing happened without the purposeful intervention of a just and fair God for whom the purpose of creation is known. Human beings, in the sages minds, served as the ultimate teleological rationale for creation but that was merely speculation because nothing could penetrate the actual mind of God. They were also faced with the problem that rendered it all but impossible to understand the communal punishments as nothing other than the workings of a just God; for them the very thought of an unjust, capricious God was outside the realm of the possible. Their task, therefore, was to create a world in which the separation of the profane from the sacred could be achieved, if not in total at the very least as a conscious effort to mirror God’s heaven on earth. Their solution was to make clear distinctions of space, time and action (in terms of prohibitions) that turned teleology into theology.

These categories are made most clear in Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Mishnah and Talmuds dealing with the laws of the Sabbath. By separating space into public, private and neutral (karmelis) the sages made it clear that the space surrounding man was made for different purposes and that these purposes carried with them a divine spark that must not be violated. The public space equates to profane space, the place where work is permitted while private space (defined generally as the place where one eats his bread) equates to spiritual or sacred space separated from that public or profane space by a set of laws that make clear how one is to celebrate the sacred space as holy. Once armed with the distinction of space as public or private (karmelis presented a different problem and is defined as neither public or private but neutral) the sages begin by offering arguments as to what can and cannot be transferred from public to private or private to public space on the Sabbath. The fundamental rule to be followed maintains that the household, the private space, is sacred therefore not subject to invasion from the profane space of the outside public world. Nor should the stuff that represents what is holy be transferred to the public world on the Sabbath. The absolute separation of space requires diligence on one day of each week, mirroring the culmination of God’s work in creation; in fact, the entirety of Jewish theology turns on the very idea that creation is relived in the sense that on six days there is disorder and chaos while on the seventh day sacred order is restored. The teleological idea of creation is thereby converted into the theological insistence that creation is the guiding miracle and that all others pale in comparison.

Separation of space is nothing if not the first step in the separation that guides how one thinks about the profane and sacred. The idea that time must also be separated into profane and holy is the second leg of this three legged stool. During the time between sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday time stands still in the sense that the Sabbath is a day in which nothing happens that is not designated as holy prior to the advent of the Sabbath. No ‘work’ is to be done that benefits the worker. No utensil is to be used that is not properly designated for use on the Sabbath. This does not mean, for example, that one cannot keep food warm on the Sabbath so long as the flame keeping the food warm was started prior to sundown of Friday and not tended all day Saturday. If the fire had to be tended then a violation of the Sabbath occurs because the tender of the flame benefits from that action. During the sacred or holy time of Sabbath two criteria must be met when deciding whether or not the act is allowed. First, does the action (work) have a lasting impact when the act itself is finished. In short, is something being accomplished or are the results of the action taken merely transitory? Secondly, does the act benefit the individual actor or the larger community as a whole? If it does it is prohibited during the time designated as sacred and if not then the act is permissible. There are many arcane laws that seem to be arbitrary but when placed under the microscope of separation of space and time appear as consistent.

Finally, the separation of profane and sacred turns on the prohibited acts and the intentional violation of such actions in terms of atonement required and/or the communal consequences of mass violation of separation of profane and holy that befall the entire house of Israel. Here is where the teleological meets the theological head on. Contextually the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds are struggling with the consequences of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the abrupt, painful shift from the Temple cult of atonement sacrifices to the synagogue as a simulacrum of the sacrificial atonement through prayer. Because the Temple was destroyed, a great tragedy is imposed on the Jewish people by a just God (the other alternative is outside the possible) due to their profane actions, actions that angered their just God. It is ever more important after such a tragic consequence to become even more rigorous in as to how one practices one’s beliefs. Stringent laws apply to even the most mundane activities in order to assure that some time in the future God’s purpose will be revealed through the coming of the Messiah. Yet, all of the laws boil down to a set of principles that separate the profane from the sacred in such a way as to keep the distinction clear in the minds of the people practicing the acts of separation itself.

It is precisely here where the two Judaisms diverge. Rabbinic Judaism focused on the intentions of human beings to keep the law that led to the separation of sacred and holy from the profane. Christianity, on the other hand, placed all responsibility for separating the holy from the profane in the hands of the Messiah, the sin-eater, the person-God and all that was needed was a belief in the efficacy of this Messiah and all would be well with the world. Neither of these Judaisms could escape the stranglehold of the teleological idea of purpose nor the eschatological notion of the end of times when the teleological is fulfilled. The primary difference turns on how one defines the theological response. Rabbinic Judaism places the responsibility for atonement in the hands of human beings while Christianity places the very idea of forgiveness in the hands of their identified Messiah. In either case, the underlying assumption turns on the belief in the very idea that creation is purposeful, that there is a definite end to history as we know it and that the God in control is just and fair. To this I would argue quite the opposite. Creation is a random event that progresses (not in any linear sense rather in the sense that there is an appearance of progress) randomly to the universe we are privy to at this very moment. As to God’s justice, the evidence is simply not there and it is not good enough to not be able to contemplate the possibility of any other alternative.

While I am beginning to understand the rationale, that understanding is mitigated by a post-modern ethic that rejects teleological and eschatological responses to tragedy. The demands of separation of profane and holy are meaningless in the face of the randomness of the universe and, if there is a God at all, the capriciousness of that impotent God spreading tragedy, war and hatred across the globe. One need not separate the sacred from the profane, withdraw from the world or otherwise disappear into a quagmire of priestly regulations to live a moral or ethical life. All that is required is the ability to live in this very moment and announce to the world that “Here I Am!” expressing a readiness to be response-able for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI

Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI

Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI

Some things are beginning to emerge with some clarity, although I am not absolutely certain that my analysis is at all correct until I am able to run some ideas past Rabbi Mendel on Thursday. As I read Talmud with him and read some on my own as well I am struck by the consistency of analysis I am beginning to see unfold. In this post I want to discuss what I think of as preparatory rules of analysis. These rules focus primarily on secular and not religious definitions almost as if they were conceived by classical philosophy and not priests and rabbis. They set the stage for all behavior rather than define that which is holy or what must be done to insure holiness. Much of this is gaining clarity as I read from Tractate Shabbat, the rules for the Sabbath.

The first of these principles is human intention. In a nutshell, the rule for intention exempts from any and all liability for atonement acts that were performed that one would otherwise be liable for if they were performed without intentionality; one forgot it was the Sabbath and performed an otherwise forbidden action. The one caveat to this rule is that once the error was recognized the behavior must stop. To intentionally violate a Sabbath prohibition is strictly forbidden but if one violates more than one provision the liability extends only as if the combined acts constituted a single act and therefore a single liability is attached. In short, human motives play a large role in the attachment of liability.

Liability must flow from action and not merely thought. If three frogs were sitting on a log and two of them intended to jump off the log into the water, how many frogs remain on the log? The short answer is three because if intentions are not translated into specific action then the intention does not constitute a violation of actions prohibited. This seems so logical it almost hurts. Thinking is not punishable, period.

Violations of intent coupled with actions have consequences. To make this leap, the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds adopt a teleological point of view that argues for historical purpose; that all of history in its separate and independent acts are all part of a larger plan, a purpose for the very existence of the universe and ultimately human beings. Taken to its logical outcome there must also be a time when history as we know it must end, the eschatological time, the end of time itself. Consequences, especially negative consequences, serve to mark the severity of the end of times. Consequences are both cumulative and generalized to the whole of the population. If only a small minority of the people violate prohibitions of any kind the entire population is likely to suffer. Punishments from God differ but they are always traceable back to a breakdown of ordered living into chaos, the very reverse of the process of creation itself.

The underlying purpose of these fundamental tools of analysis are in place to set the stage for the next three and much more deeply connected to religious life; space, time and prohibitions. Up to this point, it seems to me that these preliminary rules are deeply philosophical at their core and, while the argument is not made in such a way as to flow neatly from one point to the next, the argument is, nevertheless, identifiable and defensible. While I can quibble with the teleological view of history and the eschatological consequences of that very teleology, I am also able to understand the context in which it occurs. As one of the fundamental cornerstones of Rabbinic Judaism these preliminaries are found in all four of the tractates of Talmud Bavli I have read to date. I am less certain to agree with the next three which I will discuss next.

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

The historian acknowledges that answers are not contained in the questions and effects in the causes. There is in history an indefinite space for freedom and surprise, where human genius and blind fate…exercise their power above any deterministic constraint. Yet, thoughts and ideas cannot be understood historically apart from the social setting in which they were born and apart from the people who produced them.
Gabriele Boccaccini, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Midway between Fargo and Grand Forks North Dakota is a roadside billboard advertising the Bible as “Complete, Unchallenged, Settled.” The very idea that a collection of texts, some related and some quite distinct from one another and redacted into a normative collection that is revered by some but not all between 2,500 and 1,800 years ago, is totally settled, completely unchallenged and a perfectly complete statement of the world and everything in it is, on its face, nonsensical. Bronze Age manuscripts tell the story of a particular people living at a particular time, subject to political and social pressures unique to themselves and their times. They do not reflect the Truth or even the truth for all time prior to and to still be realized. To be completely understood they must be understood in the context (political, social and economic) in which they came to be in the first place. Because the collection of texts that form Scripture are often contradictory it is crucial to understand these contradictions in terms of the chronological order in which they came to be as well. To blindly accept these collections of stories, rules, diatribes and histories as the revealed work of a deity is to turn a blind eye to the politics and social structure that created them.

Now I don’t claim any special knowledge of or expertise in Biblical scholarship; what I do claim is the ability to read and comprehend what Biblical scholars have written, the arguments they make and the ability to make rational judgments as to the reasonableness of the arguments put forward. The application of rationality to the myriad of problems posed by Scriptural texts is necessary if one ever hopes to understand the motivations of those writing the texts in the first place. Understanding motivations as a product of the times when the documents were produced goes a long way to understanding the intellectual history of the documents themselves.

Boccaccini, in his 2002 book, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, From Ezekiel to Daniel, makes a strong case for the development of the Rabbinic Judaism we are familiar with today has its roots in the Babylonian diaspora and the return of a group of exiles to Jerusalem in the priestly followers of Zadok, the Zadokite priests, who re-formed normative Judaism through textual and political innovations that overturns the very notion that Rabbinic Judaism was well formed at the earliest phases of the Second Temple. In Boccaccini’s analysis, the revolution he attributes to the Zadokites begins in exile after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and gathers steam as the Zadokite priests rebuild the Temple along completely new organizational principles. This revolution continues through the Maccabean period, strongly influenced by the mediation of the Pharisaic movement that gains momentum during the Roman occupation of Palestine. By the time of the Roman destruction of Herod’s Temple, there were many Judaisms, the two most prominent being Rabbinic Judaism and Christian Judaism with the final schism occurring at around the time of Constantine.

Boccaccini analyzes contradictions in texts, especially contradictions in priestly lineage, that all tend to revise the contradictions into a tight historical lineage giving the appearance of being more-or-less continuous. At one point he writes that there is no better way to convince people to join in the revolutionary efforts than to convince them that this is the way things always have been.

Far from being the revealed word of YHVH, Rabbinic Judaism’s Scriptures are cleverly redacted to serve the priestly class that wrote them, complied them from multiple sources and reflect the political, social and economic realities of the times in which they were written. Understood in this way, it is easier to read the documents for what they are, a manifesto proclaiming the emergence of a priestly cult that, over time, adapted itself to life without the place of priestly sacrifice into a cult that relies on the combination of prayer and adherence to a specific code of practice which acts as the simulacrum of Temple sacrifice.

Good to Be Back

Good to be Back

Good to be Back

I feel like a suspended NHL player, having missed a week or more of posting to the blog. Let me explain. A week ago today, my wife began complaining of severe pain in her neck, upper back and knees, especially the left knee. Nothing, not medication, physical therapy or sleep seemed to do much to relieve the pain. She went to her internist who scratched his head and said, “Hmmmm?” and sent her to the emergency room where the ER attending physician scratched his head and said, “Strange?” and wrapped her knee with an ace bandage for lack of anything better to do and suggested a follow-up with both the internist and her orthopedic physician. The orthopod drained a bit under 200 cc of fluid from her left knee and said, “Hmmmmm, the fluid is cloudy suggesting gout…Let’s run some tests.” When the tests came back all within normal range, he scratched his head and said, “Hmmmmm?” in agreement with everyone else. It is no small wonder that my grandfather always said, “Doctors don’t know nuttin!”

Over the past week I have tended to her needs, her demands and her complaining. The one thing the three doctors did agree on was that she contracted some strange virus but none were willing (or able) to identify the virus or suggest a cure. Hmmmmm!

Since we have a wedding to attend in Grand Forks, ND (in February for goodness sake) we left home yesterday after going to the orthopod for a cortisone injection in her right knee. It seems the stress of the pain in the left knee placed an additional strain on her right knee and, well, you can guess the rest. Now in Grand Forks, the weather was good to us, we are getting ready to join family for dinner. I am tired from all the driving but not so tired that I didn’t want to avoid another day of not checking in.

On another front, I have been reading a lot that I want to comment on but that will wait until the very next post.

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, they do not look for , nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and binding’ binds and holds them together.
— Plato, Phaedo 99

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Plato’s description of the teleological, the account holding that final causes exist in nature, providing an underlying systemic design to the very forces that mysteriously point to the divine, is a classical riddle leading human beings to project the eschatological end times; the design of a divine being whose enterprise of death, judgment, heaven and hell ends with apocalyptic transitions from one life to another. There is a teleological presumption that this design requires a creator, or at the very least a first cause creator, one with a thoughtful mind that plans and executes that plan over which human beings have little or no control. On this view, humans are prisoners of this design, powerless to affect the outcome of the planed end of times.

It seems that eschatological programs dominate major religions of the world. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Zoroastrian eschatology dominate their respective belief systems. Most of the modern eschatological thinking is dominated by a violent disruption, even the destruction, of the world. Jewish and Christian eschatological understanding sees the end times as the perfection of God’s creation of the world; God created the world for a purpose and is constantly moving toward the final goal of this creation. For Jews, the end times will be noted when the messiah presents himself to the world. For the Christians the end times come when the messiah returns to the world. In either case, the end times, the perfection of creation means the end of the world as we know it; even, perhaps the destruction of the world and the end of everything.

Teleological eschatology presents a mix of optimistic joy and pessimistic terror, with pessimism holding most of the good cards. Even true believers will suffer in the end of times; the inevitability of which is programmed into the plan of which only God is certain. So we constantly face predictions of the end of the world, the most recent of which was the Mayan Apocalypse but this prediction is not isolated in the minds of those who believe in the very idea of a linear path from creation to destruction, a plan conceived by some creator God (or gods) or another to explain that which is difficult to explain.

There is, however, a significant problem with the teleological insistence on God having a plan for everything. It simply doesn’t mesh with science. Let me explore some teleological arguments juxtaposed against a single scientific program, evolution. While I do not claim this analysis as a comprehensive one, I do claim it to be a good faith, albeit brief, summary of some key ideas. One claim of those who embrace religious eschatology is that their system explains reality. Evolution, on the other hand, only claims to be an explanation of the development of life on earth without looking at or making claims about origins. Evolution or natural selection is a random process over which no design appears to dominate. Natural selection eschews the very notion of supernatural intervention into the process of biological changes while their religious counterparts claim supernatural intervention through a creation ex nihilo that is static and unchanging. Teleological eschatology claims a purpose for creation where evolution understands the world in terms of its very randomness, a randomness that creates biological diversity in constant flux; changes that are not instantaneous, rather that occur over long periods of time, far longer than the span of a human lifetime. Finally, teleological eschatology claims that the only way to avoid the ultimate catastrophic end of times is to do God’s will as they describe the will of God. Natural selection makes no such claim; it claims that biological changes are responses to environmental conditions that, in turn, provide a context to insure survival. These conditions and contexts are not part of some grand scheme but, rather, are random natural events occurring over time.

While teleological eschatology appears rational to many, it has a distinct flaw that cannot be overcome. It is dependent on its own rationale, its tautological dependence on its own sacred texts that somehow, when taken together, make up (yes, the pun is intended) a belief system that cannot be questioned. The belief system feeds upon itself, taking ancient proof texts to prove that the hand of God permeates everything. When questioned, the system falls apart. Proving the existence of God, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is fully dependent on one’s prior belief in that God without which all proofs fail. If belief is required for proof then one has a system that, on its face, is tautological in the sense that it uses a set of self-reinforcing statements or claims that are not subject to refutation; in short, using different words to say the same thing.

In the end, teleological systems fail, not because they are not rational for their internal rationality is often quite exquisite, rather they fail because they feed only upon themselves without opening the door to distinctly rational, observable, and replicable understandings.

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion, in the following sense: “true for me but not for you” and “true in my culture but not in yours” are weird, pointless locutions. So is “true then, but not now.” [William] James would, indeed, have done better to say that phrases like “the good in the way of belief” and “what is better for us to believe” are interchangeable with “justified” rather than “true.”
Richard Rorty

Truth cannot simply be rational acceptability for one fundamental reason: truth is supposed to be a property of a statement that cannot be lost, whereas justification can be lost. The statement “The earth is flat” was, very likely, rationally acceptable 3000 years ago; but it is not rationally acceptable today. Yet it would be wrong to say that “the earth is flat” was true 3000 years ago; for that would mean that the earth has changed its shape.
Hillary Putnam

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

A question I am struggling with at the moment is simply this: is it possible for the same thing to be ‘true’ in one circumstance and ‘false’ in another? The answer to this question depends on a rational definition of ‘truth’ and the implications that definition has on a warranted claim based on a consensus of normative ‘facts’ available through rational experience. To simply make the assertion that something is true as an a priori ‘fact’ begs the question of rational acceptability or, as John Dewey would propose, warranted assertability.

For Dewey, inquiry must be open, subject to self-correction over time only if ideas are submitted for testing by a community of inquirers. Such inquiry clarifies, justifies and refines and/or refutes claims made as truth when the evidence suggests a rational shift in rational justification of ideas.  Richard Rorty suggests that such communities of inquiry simply set aside claims that no longer meet the standards of open inquiry rather than reject said claims completely. An example of this might be the maintenance of Newtonian physics as it applies to gross objects while, at the same time, accepting the relativity of Einstein incorporating the notion of space-time as a dimension as it explains the gravitational warping of space, something Newton could not conceive of in the 17th century.

If I were pressed to choose one single idea that helps me understand what counts as ‘true’ or ‘justified’ it would be the foundational idea that inquiry can have no pre-conceived ‘Truths” guiding all inquiry. Inquiry must be unfettered, have no boundaries, be completely open to questions, most of which will land on the scrap heap of ideas. Open inquiry, more often than not, builds on existing knowledge, on what Rorty calls normative discourse or what Thomas Kuhn calls paradigmatic thinking. Paradigms or normative discourse are suggestive of theoretical concepts accepted across nearly the entirety of a discourse community; conventional thinking is a nice way to think about this. Kuhn points to the time before the ‘discovery’ of chemical elements. Just 300 years ago there were but four recognized elements among the scientific community, earth, wind, fire and water. All else was something called phlogiston. Because of the work of several scientists in the mid to late seventeen hundreds, and an experiment using mercuric oxide heated using a flame thereby breaking atomic bonds separating the metal from the oxygen (an experiment every high school chemistry student does today) the discovery of oxygen set aside the prior normative theory and phlogiston is no longer on the minds of any reputable scientist. A new discourse emerged as the old paradigm lost its grip and a new one replaced it. Because phlogiston was the stuff that wasn’t earth, wind, fire or water did not make it true. To the contrary it was ‘justified’ by the prevailing thought of its day and revered among alchemists. The fact that oxygen was not recognized as an element does not mean that oxygen did not exist until it was discovered; to the contrary, it was there just waiting for someone to observe an unexplainable anomaly and puzzle out the consequences of that anomaly.

Paradigmatic thinking is normative within any given discourse community; paradigms guide inquiry, suggest reasoned questions that should be asked and, because of that, exert a strong hold on that which is thought to be normative. It is only when unexpected results from experiments show up that the community, if it is a true discourse community, engages in what Rorty calls abnormal discourse, discourse that is other than normative. New questions get thrown out, new experiments or observations find their way into the peer reviewed professional discourse and are picked apart by those committed to preserving the paradigm. Good ideas, ideas that pass through the filter of peers and critique, tend to survive while others are pushed aside because they do not stand up to the scrutiny of review. Sooner or later, those good ideas change the face of the inquiry community and the discourse it uses to guide future inquiry. This only happens in open inquiry communities. In closed inquiry communities, those who have determined that there are certain untouchable, sacrosanct starting points, the inquiry can never proceed beyond the point of the starting point and this is the problem I spoke about at the beginning of this post.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the community of rational thinkers that are Orthodox Jews are brilliant, thoughtful, focused and sincere. Their starting point, however, is an archaic a priori position that, as I understand it, requires the acceptance of certain points as outside the bounds of challenge. 1) the Torah is perfect and must be taken literally word for word, 2) the Torah (written and oral) were revealed to Moses, our teacher, at Sinai and passed down to Joshua, then to the Elders, to the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly (rabbis) who conveyed it to the people, and 3) that all Jewish souls, from the beginning of time to the end of time, those already dead, those living and those yet to be born, were present at Sinai when the Torah was revealed. To question any of these principles and the consequences of questioning is prohibited from the discourse. Rabbinical literature (the oral Torah and all of its components) create a hypothetical world in which the purpose of the contained dialectic is to show that 1) God exists, and 2) God’s law is unified and eternal. To question these a priori ideas is to engage in something akin to heresy and is prohibited. In brief, the discourse community comprised of Torah scholars past and present, from Sages to rabbis of our present times is not an open discourse community and are, therefore, unable to accommodate science to their particular brand of theology.

Yet, I find the rational process intriguing. Beginning with a proposition, the rabbis engage in an exegesis that, in the end, leaves no stone unturned. From the proposition the Sages turn to competing voices that disagree as to the impact of the proposition. When that dispute is made clear, the Sages turn to similar cases to make their point that the law is always unified. Finally, they return to the original case resolving the conflict where possible but sometimes leaving the resolution open to further review. This is an intriguing way of thinking, one I have yet to fully appreciate but one I am working hard to learn.

In the final analysis, I cannot reconcile the stubborn insistence on the a priori ideas that guide the entire process; the closed system of inquiry finding proof texts from within to justify one’s conclusions. This practice, I think, leads to more and more difficult justifications when often the simplest answer (vis. Occam’s Razor) is the best one to follow. The more convoluted the argument is the less convincing it becomes; yet there is some value in learning the rhetorical form and the conventions that make understanding the method productive in other areas of textual interpretation.

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 1-14

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz was fond of exclaiming just after awakening, loud enough for everyone in his dwelling place to hear, “Wake my friends, a guest you have never before seen has arrived. Once gone you will never see him again. “ His students asked, “Who is this guest, Rabbi?” Dov Ber replied, “Why today, of course!” In fact, Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz had it almost right; he just was counting too long a time period. The guest he might have considered would be this very moment, a period of time so infinitely brief that it cannot be measured without stopping time itself and the very moment it arrives it is always already gone, disappearing into a trace, a remembered moment.

What is remembered is but a simulacrum of the moment, what is the remembered past is but a mere string of traces left behind by this very moment, glossed over by a varnish that enhances the good and diminishes the pain. In this sense, the lived experience, the existential life, is guided by the simulacra of this very moment compressed into an interpretation of a life lived; a remembered past serves as the guidepost for the wished for future.

Time is experienced by the self as a linear extension of moments strung together moving progressively along a thread of experience. Time is an experience of the interior self extended into the exterior or material world presenting the self with a significant problem, that of intercourse with the other, with other absolutely unique selves existing in the world. Without the bother of the other to contend with, the self would be content to be only for itself. Presented with the other, however, the selfish act of being only for oneself is impossible. The very idea of turning totally inward to the interiority of the self is to withdraw from all social contact. While there are times when one normally withdraws, times of physical or emotional pain for example, the thought of remaining totally withdrawn is outside the very nature of the human being to seek social contact.

Intercourse with the absolutely unique other is a sort of practice for the encounter with the Absolute Other, the infinite awaiting each and every human being. There is no escape, no substitution for this encounter with the Other; the only question is when. Yet, given the encounter with the infinitely brief moment in which the lived experience is fully engaged, the infinite passes by almost unnoticed, leaving but the ever-fading trace behind as a reminder of the existential journey.

The encounter with the other requires one to be response-able, to respond to the call of the other while demanding of the self to be absolutely available, to become proximate while waiting for the call of the other. Being response-able is a choice one makes, an ethical choice to be ready to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or without the expectation of reciprocation. The proximate choice, the placing oneself in the position of ethical response to the cry of the other involves waiting for the call. In this sense the ethical choice appears to be passive. In fact, making the ethical response-able choice is actively renewed in this very moment, over and over, while waiting in the proximate space for the call that may never arrive to come. Like Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz, the moment of choice to revel in the moment of response-ability is now because to overlook the opportunity is to lose it forever. Like Rabbi Hillel, there is no better time than this very moment to make the ethical choice to announce to the world “Here I Am!” and wait for the response. Life in this very moment requires each self to act for the welfare and benefit of the other without demanding anything of the other in return.

Choosing Not to Declare is Not a Negative Option

Choosing Not to Declare is Not a Negative Option

Choosing Not to Declare is Not a Negative Option

How exactly does one describe belonging? Belonging to what exactly? How am I defined in relationship to the exteriority of life in general? The difficulty lies in the bare fact that the description of belonging is a constant requirement applied to me as I trudge through the lived experience we call life. Yesterday, for example, I was at the doctor’s office, a specialist I hadn’t seen in a year, and I had to complete some new paperwork. At the very top I was asked to declare my ethnicity and my race. Suddenly, I was once again faced with the decision of whether or not I declare nothing or declare something. The issue of race is problematic for me. While I look rather Caucasian, when my grandparents arrived in these United States as immigrants in the very late 19th century their race was shown as “Hebrew;” a choice no longer available to me but one in which I take some degree of pride.

Ethnicity is also a problem for me. What does ethnicity mean? There were only two choices given for the problematic of ethnicity: Hispanic or Non-Hispanic White. While offended by the two and only two choices for ethnicity I wondered why ethnicity is both connected to race and to geographic linguistic associations.

There were many more choices for race than for ethnicity, among them White, African-American, Other, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American each of which presents a specific problematic. Take African-American as an example. If that is a category of race then why isn’t there a category for European-Americans? Or, what about the plain fact that I was born in the United States making me a Native American but the term is reserved for the aboriginal people who resided in this country before there were any European-Americans bent on eliminating or assimilating the aboriginal people in the 19th and 20th centuries. Confusing to say the least. What about the “Other” category, which, by the way, is the one I choose if I decide to declare anything at all. It seems to me that we all should choose “Other” and if it is not available make a new category with a pen and a margin.

My sense of belonging is not compartmentalized; it does not belong in a check-box for the sake of statistical data sets that somehow tell the collectors nothing about the individual, rather, the data set collected tends to flatten by reducing individuals to categorical compartments that focus on the sameness of belonging to the arbitrary category claimed by the declaration of belonging through the simple act of checking a box on a form. The only category that is uniquely different is that of “Other” the category that is a catchall for those of us who are uncomfortable with the reductionist choices available on most forms.

“Other” declares that I do not belong to the arbitrary groupings set down as somehow normative. The “Other” classification lets me honor my “Hebrew” grandparents, my assimilated parents and my acculturated self, each of whom are able to be represented in the category that does not contain an arbitrary reduction to the same; it is a choice that does not flatten into sameness the check-box membership declared out of a sense of duty or obligation to comply with the requested information.

The option of not declaring is one that embraces the uniqueness of the self, my uniqueness in this world while also recognizing the absolute uniqueness of every other [human being]. Not choosing to reduce the self into a compartmentalized arbitrary category is a way of screaming softly that I do not belong to that which is a capricious choice, rather I am not allowing myself to choose because I cannot rationally choose any of the categories and remain an honest ethical human being. So I chose to not choose, to not declare either race or ethnicity because the choice, if made, is too complicated for a check-box on a form.

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

According to Jacob Neusner, religions come in two forms. The first relies on a personal and immediate connection to their god or gods and may or may not rely on a written scriptural foundation; rather the emphasis is on the idea of personal salvation or enlightenment that comes from experience. The second, relies on a compilation of written texts that outline one’s relationship with god or gods focused heavily on the exegesis contained within the sacred textual books. This latter form of religion connects through historical referents rather than through personal experience and relies almost exclusively on the written word. Neusner places Judaism in the latter category. In arguing this position, Neusner places an emphasis on the Tractates of Talmud Bavli or the Babylonian Talmud as the re-invention of Judaism that the Sages of Talmud Bavli completed in the year 600 C.E., at roughly the same time that the Moslems conquered much of the Middle East and the Mediterranean coast of Africa along with large portions of the Iberian Peninsula, a time period that saw the end of late antiquity and the beginning of the so-called “Dark Ages.”

What Neusner is quick to point out; a point he repeats quite often, is that the re-invention of Judaism did not take place by offering mere commentary on the texts that preceded the Talmud Bavli, rather, the re-invention completely subjugated all other documents that came before it as secondary to the Talmud Bavli. The Talmud Bavli was intended to be the definitive take on what it means to be a Jew in the world. In order to take up this task, the Rabbis of the Talmud Bavli connected it to the already accepted lineage of the Torah itself, the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the Mishnah, as an expanded connection between the written Torah and the Tractates of the Talmud Bavli. Neusner’s argument, while foundationally connected to the tradition attached to the Talmud by the Sages who redacted the document, insists that the document is much more than that; it is the re-imagination of the very foundational structure of Judaism.

All this, Neusner argues, occurs through the formalized use of language, rhetorical technique and the application of two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, to stress specifics of the rhetorical. First, the Sages dissect the Mishnah, on the surface a compilation of laws, but on a far deeper level a text that focuses on the crisis created in Judaism by the destruction of the Temple (and thereby the destruction of the Temple cult of animal sacrifice) and the rabbinical response to that destruction, by picking and choosing how they will comment on the Mishnah itself.

Neusner argues that the Mishnah provides the bricks of response to the period beyond the Temple itself while the Talmud provides the mortar and internal structure of the newly created rabbinical response (a new Temple contained within the structural formality of the Gemara or commentary on the Mishnah) to the absence of a sacrificial alter. The Mishnah is written in middle Hebrew, the Gemara in Aramaic with a smattering of biblical Hebrew thrown in when proof texts from the Tanakh, the Torah plus the Histories and other writings (the Jewish Bible if you will), are used. In this structural formalism, middle Hebrew indicates the foundational aspect of the law, Aramaic provides the reader with the thread of discussion and argument that ties the law to the Tanakh with proof texts interspersed to cement the argument written in Ancient or Biblical Hebrew using Aramaic structure and grammar.

Taken as a whole, the Talmud Bavli connects the practice of rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism practiced in much of the world today, to the beginning of creation by insisting on a direct line of communication from Moses at Sinai to the Rabbis and ultimately to the Jews through the rabbis. The Talmud Bavli also incorporates all of the texts, both biblical and rabbinical into one long textual platform that is then connected by a particular three-fold formalism of argumentative dialectical discourse: First, the statement of the Mishnah being commented upon thereby setting the stage for further commentary. Second, commentary that is directed directly or indirectly at the particular questions that arise from the generalization of the Law contained within the Mishnah, an act of clarification. Finally, the rabbis of the Talmud Bavli ignore the Mishnah entirely and pursue ideas that are loosely connected or perhaps not connected at all to the Mishnah’s approach to the Law and present a dialectical argument that may or may not result in clear results. When read in this way, Neusner argues, the Talmud Bavli becomes more than an arcane document, rather, it provides one with a foundational tool for thinking in Jewish, a method that provides one with a way of thinking that, while apparently different that that of philosophy, is foundationally similar to philosophic inquiry.

I actually look forward to seeing Neusner’s analysis unfold as I continue to read and study Jewish rabbinical texts including Talmud Bavli.

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