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Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses, Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”
Exodus 3:3-4 (Jewish Publication Society translation)

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

The appearance of the response to God of “Here I am” (hineni) is not the first time this word is used in the Torah, nor is it the last. Every time it is used, however, the implication is the same; the responder, in this case Moses, responds to God without reservation, with a sense of obligation born of a duty to service to the Absolute Other. This raises the question as to exactly what is this Absolute Other to which one senses an obligation to be of service? The answer to this question is not simple, but it is quite easily digested if one thinks of the Absolute Other as ineffable, indescribable in human terms. Emmanuel Levinas relates this Other to the boundless infinity which bookends human life; even life in general. The sense of obligation one recognizes with the utterance of hineni is, in truth, related not to the Other but to the other that one senses and engages as a representation of, a reification of the Other in the person of the other.

How is this possible? If one thinks of the absolute uniqueness of each and every human being that is, has been or ever will be then any encounter with the other mirrors, though does not quite reach the level of, an encounter with the Absolute Other. It is through the uniqueness of the other that one connects to the Other. This relationship, then, is the foundation of the fundamental ethical obligation that one has with regard to encounters with the other.

Like the biblical encounter with the Other, nothing occurs until the Other calls to the self. In our ethical interactions with the other, it is necessary to wait; to offer oneself to the other through a pronouncement of readiness and then waiting for the other to call out in need. Once the call is heard, a state of proximity between self and other exists in which the self answers the call without reservation and without expectation for reciprocation. In one’s relationship with the Other, one’s response must be without reservation or expectation for reciprocation as well. It is a fundamental human response to the call of the Other mirrored in the fundamental ethical response to the call of the other.

Ethics, in this sense, does not begin with moral action or with any expectation. Ethics begins with a single realization that I am, in truth, my brother’s keeper. I have a fundamental ethical obligation to act for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation; in doing so I create a simulacrum of the relationship between the Other and myself, a counterfeit, if you will, of the uniqueness of the very infinity from which I came to the very infinity of the very death to which I must necessarily go. Living in the world, encountering the uniqueness of the other, is as close as I am able to come to defining the Absolute Other. It is my human responsibility for the other which trumps the intervention of the infinitely unknown Other as a palpable connection to my own humanity; it is the responsible life that forms my definition of the Other.

What, You No Longer Post on Saturday? Thinking in Jewish 41

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.
Exodus 20:8-10 Jewish Publication Society Translation

What, You No Longer Post on Saturday? Thinking in Jewish 41

What, You No Longer Post on Saturday? Thinking in Jewish 41

While the Torah is specific that the sabbath is modeled on God’s six-day creation myth (although the Torah would not think of this as mythology even if I do), an effort so difficult that even God had to rest from his labors, the authors of the Torah understood that such a human mirroring of Godly behavior is not necessarily all bad. Of course, there are some pretty drastic punishments described in the Torah for willfully choosing to not honor “the sabbath day and keep it holy” up to and including death by stoning; of course, the Torah is a product of Bronze Age justice which, in our modern eyes seems a bit over zealous.

That all being said, the fundamental premise upon which the very idea of a day of rest could be included in Bronze Age thinking is, it seems to me, extraordinary. Spending too much time at work and not enough time at play is detrimental to one’s health and well being, but we know that now because of scientific research into things like stress and disease. Three or four thousand years ago, thinking along these lines must have been understood as somehow a bit off center. In order to get the job done, in order to actually get people to take a day off, the very idea that the orders originated with God or that human beings were but imitating, in some small way, the behavior modeled by God, coupled with the overt threat of serious consequences for failing to do so, must have been enough.

But, it seems to me, there are other reasons to take a day off, to not work, to not engage in activity that mimics the efforts of work. While the definitions of work have changed significantly over the ages (there are 39 categories of “work” discussed in the Talmud. According to Wikipedia, “these thirty-nine melakhot (prohibitions) are not so much activities as categories of activity. For example, while “winnowing” usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, it refers in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials that renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi solution to this problem.”)), there is enough reason to consider just how these activities may or may not be applied to our modern society. What then? I decided to begin to explore these categories not as a religious obligation but, rather, as a secular Jew living in the modern world. This decision was not taken lightly, rather as a response to what a well respected Reform Movement Rabbi, Arnold Wolfe, argued that before absolutely rejecting mitzvot (commandments) outright, one is obliged to try them on for size. He discussed the mitzvot as gifts, packages distributed on the road and found in one’s path. Pick them up and try them out deciding for oneself whether or not they work for you. So my exploration of sabbath commandments begins with writing and publication. Since there is a prohibition against writing I simply decided to stop posting on Saturday, the traditional Jewish sabbath.  There is also a prohibition against lighting a fire. Since the advent of electricity and electrical power, the very act of flipping on a light switch is understood as a violation of that prohibition, so much more so for exciting electrons in a computer.

History is Written by the Victorious…Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40

History is Written by the Victorious...Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40

History is Written by the Victorious…Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40

It is often stated, mostly by the victors, that history is written by the victorious not the vanquished. Perhaps normative history, whatever that may conger up as an image, but not all history. Vanquished people often cling to their own stories and their own versions of the past that are freely told among their particular group. There is, however, no general sharing of those stories or those narratives often because they remain in an oral tradition. There is one clear example of history being written by the vanquished, a written tradition that is millennia old, beginning with the first Babylonian exile so deftly explored by Isaiah and Jeremiah. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Temple constructed when a remnant returned to Jerusalem from Babylon about 500 years earlier, and the subsequent defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE when the People of Israel were firmly ensconced in the Diaspora did the rabbis collectively decide to write their version of the record of the Jewish people in multiple texts as a way to preserve their legacy for the world.

In addition to the Torah and the other writings of the Tanakh, writing which preceded the post 135 CE exilic writings, texts which became the foundational texts of the Jewish people, and, to a large extent because of their inclusion in the Christian holy texts, served as a building block for Christians, the texts following the Bar Kochba revolt took on a completely different character; one determined to preserve and protect the Temple cult while living in the world without a Temple.

The Mishnah completed in 200 CE is the fundamental work that was written in an attempt to codify Jewish practice and law while creating a utopian world that no longer existed. The Mishnah is attributed to Judah H’Nasi (Judah the Prince) is a complex document written in Hebrew (although not Biblical Hebrew, rather in a form that was more like the Hebrew of the 3rd Century CE, which attempted to explore all aspects of Jewish life and practice including ritual Temple practice, when and how to recite blessings, as well as civil law and the laws of the Sabbath among other things. Some have argued that Judah the Prince wrote the Mishnah at the request of the Roman governors in order for the governors to understand and administer Jewish Law to the Jews remaining in Palestine under their rule. Whether this is true or not is of little consequence, although it makes for an interesting conjecture. What is important is that Judah the Prince created a massive document outlining Jewish practice in the days of the Temple, a world that no longer existed, thereby stopping time and preserving a world which otherwise would be lost.

The Mishnah was, it seems, incomplete in the sense that there were many instances where the text did not address problems that might arise. Someone, for example, might come to his rabbi with a loaf of bread found in the street asking, “Rabbi, may I keep this loaf of bread to feed my family or must I seek out its true owner?” The answer to this question is unclear in the Mishnah so groups of rabbis separately in Jerusalem and Baghdad began to address these kinds of problems. Their arguments and decisions are codified in both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud was finished around 400 CE while the Babylonian Talmud was not completed until somewhere between 600 to 700 CE. The Babylonian Talmud contains longer, more detailed arguments and generally carries more weight than the Jerusalem Talmud but both are an attempt to clarify the Mishnah where clarification is necessary. If no clarification is required the Mishnah is still primary.

Not to be outdone, later rabbis saw the necessity for additional commentary to the Talmuds. In the 13th Century CE, commentaries by Rashi and others made their way onto the pages of the written Talmud. It was Rashi’s goal to clarify the decisions of the Sages of the Talmud in plain language. Others, such as Maimonides (Shimon ben Maimon) who was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, attempted to put the whole of Jewish sacred texts into philosophical terms. Other rabbis followed until this very day creating commentary on the spiritual and legal foundations of Jewish texts.

What is clear is that the Jewish connection to the written word is both ancient and modern. It is a tradition that goes back four to five millennia and over time is a story of victory and defeat and victory again. It is a story of preservation, of timelessness. It is understood at a deep level the Jewish experience is one that is experienced by every Jew at the moment of its occurrence. When asked at the Passover Seder, “What does all this mean to you?” the response is as follows: “It is for me when I was a slave in the Land of Egypt that the Lord brought me forth from Egypt and delivered me to freedom.” That I was a slave, that I was brought forth a free person, that I was there; not that someone told me about someone who was there but that I was there to experience the Exodus from Egypt; not just to witness but to participate. I was at Sinai when the Ten Commandments were heard by all the people; not that I read about it or was told about it, no, I was there in the flesh and I will experience that once again this Wednesday when the Ten Commandments are read aloud in the synagogue.

The very nature of the cycle nature of the Jewish calendar is to be present, to experience that which was always already experienced. Time standing still for the past 2000 years yet repeating itself like clockwork year in and year out all connected by words on parchment, words that survive Diaspora and connect me to the very first anonymous person who decided to call himself a child of Israel and later a Jew in an unbroken lineage from that moment to this very moment.

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

What does he pray? Rav Zutra bar Toviyah said in the name of Rav: May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger, and that My mercy overcome My sterner attributes, and that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of judgment.
Talmud Bavli, Berachot (Blessings), 7a

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

The snippet of Talmud above comes from the tractate dealing with blessings, the law of blessings, when they should be said, how they should be said, where one can perform them and so forth.In this brief encounter with the Gemara (the rabbinic commentary on the earlier Mishnah), Rabbi Zutra bar Toviyah informs us, not in his words, but in the words of another sage, Rav, that Rav prayed for mercy in three distinct places, to control his own anger, to overcome his sterner behaviors, and that he be able to show mercy to his children when needed. He goes on to consider the very idea of mercy as being beyond the boundary of judgment or reason. Embedded in this brief encounter with Rav Zutra and Rav himself is one of the foundations of Jewish ethics, the attribute of mercy or, perhaps, translated as compassion for the other.

I find it interesting that the translators of the Aramaic text chose to use an upper case ‘M’ in My. Perhaps this is to emphasize the fact that Rav was not asking to understand God’s will for him in this instance, Jews rarely do this, rather he was praying to control his own willful behavior; to restrain his natural propensities toward anger and stern action and not to have God intervene to change his nature. In this act of translation (or interpretation) the translator understood that, especially in the time when the Talmud was being constructed, the sages understood that interpretations of laws (and, perhaps, the behavior of living human beings) was not governed by what goes on in heaven, rather the duty to interpret the law and to engage in willful behavior, was in the hands of living human beings almost as if there were no God in the heavens at all. By praying to control his own relationship to the concept of mercy or compassion, Rav was acting consistently with the attitudes of the sages of the Talmud. But I digress…

The notion of compassion or mercy is also an important aspect of the very idea of responsibility in an ethical sense. I have written about this idea many times but it still bears repeating: The primary ethical obligation is to make oneself available to become responsible for the welfare of the other [parson] without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. In is monograph, Hospitality, Jacques Derrida focuses on the very idea of reciprocation through the eyes of a host. Emmanuel Levinas, in almost all of his writing, both philosophical and his Jewish commentaries, focuses on the idea of offering up the self without reservation for the welfare and benefit of the other. When Rav prays for his own mercy, the overcoming of personal negative attributes, what he is also praying for is to become available to the other, to become aware of other people around him in order that he be better able to become response-able.

Rav is not praying for reason or judgment, rather, he is praying for unthinking restraint in order that he can ‘see’ the other, to become available emotionally and not rationally. He is not abandoning reason, rather he is putting reason in its proper place by acknowledging that reason has little place in his personal relationships with others. He recognizes that this is a personal journey, one in which there is no intervention from a higher power, an intervening God. Rav is announcing in his prayer Hinani (Here I am!). Here I stand, naked, waiting for the call of the other to engage. No judgment here, only raw emotion waiting to become. When the call comes, Rav wishes to show mercy before anger, mercy before strictness, and mercy before his children.  Rav is praying to become response-able. So am I.

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

Therefore man was created singly in the world, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, it counts as if he destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved a full world.
The Mishnah

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

On the surface, the Mishnah demands that human life is a precious commodity; each and every life, Jewish and Gentile, is of significant import. From this springs the very idea that every human being is responsible for the life of every other human being, what Levinas described as an ethical imperative. The Jewish idea of the soul, nefesh in Hebrew, is grounded in the centrality of the individual living among others who are simultaneously of central importance. It is a concept grounded in the here and now unlike Christian or Muslim concepts that ground the soul in the eternal afterlife. No, the Jewish idea of the soul may be described as being present rather than being anticipatory. There is a concept that blood is the nefesh, leading to the very idea that the soul is only viable in the living bodily experience of existential being. This very idea is captured in the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, watching out for the soul. Under Jewish law, nearly every law may be broken on the Sabbath if life or death are involved.

Jews, with some minor exceptions, are not fond of martyrdom. A mere three Mosaic laws are worth dying for: idolatry, illicit sexual intercourse and bloodshed. Better to give up your own life or the life of the other than transgress these three commandments. Each of these prohibitions have their own problematic, specifically in terms of defining exactly what is meant by each term but the thrust of the prohibition is stark and compelling. Jews choose life rather than death. But the strength of the pikuach nefesh is its inherent flexibility when human life is at stake. At its core, the pikuach nefesh refuses to worship martyrdom and ignores the promise of some unknown reward or punishment in the afterlife by clinging to the flesh and blood of life itself.

There is a second meaning  in the Mishnah quoted above, that of the responsibility for “saving one soul, it counts as if he saved the full world.” As I indicated earlier, Emmanuel Levinas understood that ethics comprised the first philosophy, more important than all other philosophical questions; that all ethics boils down to a single principle that one is personally responsible for the welfare of the other [person] without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. This fundamental idea is deeply embedded in the textual historicity of Judaism. It is found in Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In Abraham’s argument with God regarding the destruction of Sodom and the finding of righteous men in the city. In Mordechi’s and Esther’s intrigue to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people. There are many more examples that a short post will not allow. The underlying principle here is that every soul, every nefesh, is a full and complete world and that every other nefesh is complete and different from all others. As a secular Jew I claim this legacy in the sense that each of us, each and every one of us, is a singular, unrepeatable, irreplaceable piece of mankind, one singular part of a whole. Once gone, that life is gone forever. It, therefore, every one of us is responsible for every other one of us.

 

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

I have written about time as an illusion; that all that exists is the very moment which is always already gone. Time, in this sense, is the always already present. While one creates traces of memory as one passes through this very moment and one has the ability to project into the future, to create a future that may or may not be, the fact remains that existential time is only this very moment. Now, there are surely other ways to explain time and one is particularly Jewish.

Generally, time in Jewish thought is based on the idea of seven, seven days, seven weeks, seven years, seven groups of seven years. In each of these cycles, the seventh part is a sabbath, a day of rest governed by strict rules for what can and cannot be done during that day, year, or jubilee year. These cycles are the cycles of life with the foundation of them all resting on the creation myth where God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the human being’s desire to become God-like, it follows that we should act as God acted. The seven-week cycle, the counting of the Omer, is spelled out in the Torah as is the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. The Sabbatical and Jubilee year  place a great burden on the people in that the fields cannot be worked, no food is produced so the only available food is that which is stored for future use. Poor planning and the people starve while good planning keep the people well fed during these periods of fallow.

Additionally, there is a rhythm to the seasons. Celebrations, holidays occur at specific times during the year: Springtime celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah; Fall celebrates the harvest as well as the process of amends and redemption focused in the spirit of the High Holidays; Winter brings the celebration of the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. In between, but measured by the calendar falling in their appropriate times.

Measured together, the cycles of daily life to the annual cycles of holidays high and low, time in the Jewish perspective is focused backwards. We celebrate the historicity of the people who have called themselves Jews since the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with a long historical record flowing backward toward Abraham, the patriarch who was ordered to leave his home by the creator God and follow all the instructions and he would be the father of a great nation. Going further back in time we look to Noah and before that Adam (roughly translated as man) and Chavah (Eve). It matters little to the celebrations fixed in time whether or not there was an historical Adam and Chavah, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Judah (the reason we are called Jews), or any other figure represented in scriptural texts. The fact that they appear in stories meant to provide lessons for living an ethical life makes them real. The fact that generations before me, for at least 2500 years, perhaps longer, looked to these figures and these holidays as representations of living a Godly life confirms the value of the mythology.

The cyclical nature of Jewish time and the singularity of existential time must be reconciled. The nature of Jewish time, in this sense, may be seen as a community trace of memory, a utopian trace  for sure, allowing members of the community to constantly and consistently look back across Jewish history that, at each repetition, provides new and fresh insights in the flow of life. The illusion of time creates room for cycles that build understanding through the textual references that constantly are studied and re-read.

Close to every Jewish life one finds a strong connection to study and texts. That those texts that are often read ritually is not important, that they can and must be read critically is. Reading these texts at the appointed times, another cycle present in Jewish time, helps one explore the foundations in the text which is quite different that merely reading the texts as a ritually appropriate act. While I am not a religious Jew, I find great connections to the texts of my ancestors, to the melodies of prayer, of the sing-song rhythms of reading and studying the texts with a melamed, a teacher, deeply attached to the text allowing that text to come to life. Texts and time are intimately connected.

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community or The Fragmented Self

The Vaguaries of Community

The Vagaries of Community

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community or the Fragmented Self

I created the splash art on the right as a representation of the vagaries of the whole idea of what it means to be a member of a community. Loosely defined, a community consists of a group of people with common interests, skills or vocations. Based on that definition I belong to many communities. Professionally, as a retired professor of language and literacy, I belong to a broadly defined community of reading teachers and specialists as well as to a broadly defined community of English educators with a concentration in the teaching of writing. Additionally, I belong to a community of prostate cancer patients with a current sub-set of prostate cancer survivors (although that could change in the future). I also belong to a religious community because I identify as a secular Jew with an interest in Jewish texts and how to interpret those texts. This latter identification, however, does not connect me to a community of religious/practicing Jews in any way. I also belong to a recovering community of alcoholics belonging loosely to Alcoholics Anonymous having put a cork in the bottle over 22 years ago. In fact, I could likely list dozens of additional communities that I loosely belong to but I don’t actually feel the need to do so at this time. The point is that the lines between what constitutes a community are blurred; they are noticeable covered over by other interests while often overlapping and turning back into themselves.

The communities I feel closest to are independent of my membership. What do I mean by that. First, they existed before I had any active memory and they will exist when my active memory ceases to be. My birth nor my death have any impact on the existence of these community groups. In fact, these communities are based on the ethical idea of extending oneself for the welfare of the other. I want to look briefly at three specific examples: first I explore the Chabad as a place of both refuge and learning that is open to all without reservations, then I examine Alcoholics Anonymous as a more specific ethical engagement, one recovering alcoholic helping another alcoholic for their mutual benefit, a slightly different twist on the fundamental ethical obligation. Finally, I briefly look at the social construction of race and ethnicity in light of my own existential experience and ask what it means to be able to free oneself from the shackles of stereotype; from external definitions and categorizations.

The Chabad as Community

As those who follow this blog know, I am exploring Jewish texts in order to better understand how to think in Jewish. This knowledge will, as I see it, make me into a more well-rounded thinker for two reasons. First, by learning to attack an issue from different perspectives, I will be better equipped to come to more thoughtful and, perhaps, more relevant conclusions. Secondly, learning to think in Jewish fills in a number of gaps in my own education and religious heritage. Both reasons are selfish on my part. What is interesting, however, is that when I approached Rabbi Mendel of the Elgin Chabad, his response was immediate and, as I expected, fully welcoming. He placed himself in my path without reservations offering to assist me in any way he possibly could to help me in my quest.

This notion of community is one based on the clear notion of being available to those wishing to belong. All I had to do was present myself to the community and I was immediately included in the goings on of the group, no questions asked. The Chabad existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone; a community of Jews, some observant and some totally secular, coming together for the common goal of learning about their heritage. While I believe there are many roads to this very kind of learning, for most groups one must hang around for some period of time before they are accepted into the community. They must show up on a regular basis, show up when expected and participate to a level that the group expects of them. Not so with the Chabad. Just showing up is good enough for them. Period.

Alcoholics Anonymous as Community

There was a time in my life when suicide seemed to be a reasonable cure for the pain of what drinking was doing to my life. I saw no way out of the trap alcohol had for me. While the journey to AA was long and difficult, at my first meeting of AA, the day I admitted to myself and to a room full of strangers that I was an alcoholic, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders that felt like the release of a thousand pounds. At my very first meeting of AA I was accepted by those in the room, by those who were there before me. I had no idea why they were being so nice but I did have the sense that I was clearly in a place where I belonged.

Not until sometime later, when I had spent some time in AA meeting rooms, did I begin to understand the power of one alcoholic helping another alcoholic stay sober. Of all the people in the entire world, only another alcoholic can laugh at the tragic circumstances that brought us together in the first instance. While limited to serving anyone with a desire to stop drinking, AA’s mission is given without reservation. My obligation if approached by another alcoholic is to provide whatever assistance is within my power to help that individual stop drinking. From this friendships develop that last a lifetime but that are first and foremost anchored in the simple fact that I do not wish to take a drink today. AA was around before I was born and will be around long after I am gone because its call to community is strong.

Both of these communities have one other thing in common, they are tied together by ritual both in the form of liturgical practices and custom. I have been to AA meetings in any number of places and they all take on the same character and structure. Praying at the Chabad differs little from practices at any other Jewish religious organization. It is clear and recognizable even though they take on a local character as well.

Ethnicity and Race

When my grandparents got off the boat at Ellis Island as they immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1898 their immigration records listed their race as Hebrew. Now, when I am asked to fill out a government form that asks for racial information I am given any number of choices but Hebrew is not among them. While I was young, being indoctrinated by Sunday School teachers at the Reform Jewish congregation that my parents belonged to we were constantly told that Judaism is a religion and not a race. The assimilationist strain ran quite deep in the Reform movement at that time, the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s. As I grew older, however, I found that I did not always fit in to a broader, more Christian, community. My first experience with the whole thing was a flat rejection from all college fraternities except the Jewish fraternities on campus. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it was a precursor of things to come. Sometime, in my mid 50’s, right after I earned my doctorate in language and literacy, I made a conscious decision that assimilation wasn’t working out quite so well as I was led to believe. I began to think more about the ethnic and racial categorization that was placed upon my grandparents, that of Hebrew, and I began to think about just how the very idea of race and ethnicity are socially constructed. I came to the conclusion that race and ethnicity can, and should, exist side by side with social responsibility. One can be a good citizen and yet identify with a group outside the norm. W.E.B. DuBois called this idea acculturation, an understanding of the dominant culture while maintaining a strong identity with one’s own core group. Since the time I began to think about just where I belong in the ‘human race’ I check the other box when I am asked about race or ethnicity on a form. I do not elaborate, I simply protest the very idea that one fits into a stereotypical category that serves to define one’s status in society and power over others.

Questions that Remain Open

Because these communities precede me and will exist without me, can I truly claim membership? Because I belong to any number of groups, some core and some peripheral, does that belonging fragment me into pieces that emerge only when I am within a specific place and time surrounded by fellow travelers? Or, should I even seek to try to identify with any group, any community, even the core community that forms the ethical core of being in terms of membership and simply live as a sentient being in the river of time beholden to no one or nothing that serves to classify me or put me into a cubby hole?

May an Omniscient God Give Up Knowledge or Having Your Cake and Eating it Too – Thinking in Jewish 36

Omniscient: 1: Having infinite awareness, understanding and insight. 2: Possessed of universal or complete knowledge.
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Private Library Edition

The Lord annuls the counsel of nations; he foils the plans of peoples. But the lord’s purpose stands forever; his plans are through all generations.
Taken from Psalm 33 in the Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem

May an Omniscient God Give Up Knowledge or Having Your Cake and Eating it Too - Thinking in Jewish 36

May an Omniscient God Give Up Knowledge or Having Your Cake and Eating it Too – Thinking in Jewish 36

There are many who argue that an omniscient God relinquishes to mankind free will, that mankind is faced with choices that pit good against evil and that humans are free to choose the path upon which they trudge, whether that path be the path of righteousness or the path of depravity. If this is the case, why do so many pray to understand God’s will for them so often? If one believes that God has a particular will in mind that, if known, would lead to doing right, can one then claim that God granted one free will? If that were the case, one gets to have his cake and eat it too, an impossibility. While those who banter about the idea that God relinquishes some of his knowledge, the knowledge of the outcome of human choice must climb an impossible mountain to squirm through the very idea that omniscience can be relinquished or even a small part of omniscience might be given over to the idea of free human choice. In the end, the argument always fails because, by definition, omniscience is the possession of complete and universal knowledge. The only way the argument succeeds is to strip God of one of God’s attributes completely, make him all powerful and benevolent but not omniscient. If this were the case, however, then God would not even know the outcome of God’s exercise of omnipotent power. Could this be? I highly doubt it.

For me the problem is quite simple. Either God is omniscient or God is not. If God is then it follows that all outcomes are known from the beginning to the end of all time and all human beings have is an illusion of free will. The choice is already predestined; determined long before the choice was made. If God is not omniscient it follows that human beings truly have free will but they have no need for God. What is the use for a God that cannot know the outcome of God’s own actions? The simple truth is that one cannot have his cake and eat it too. One may have one or the other but not both. If you cleve to an omniscient God then free will is out of the question. The fact that God knows both the choices and outcomes of those choices is proof enough that free will could not exist. There is no way around that. If that is the case, then knowing what God’s will is for an individual is of little consequence; the path is already set and is irrevocable. One must conform with one’s own predestination because it is predestined by being known in the mind of an omniscient God. On the other hand, if one chooses to accept the idea of free will, of choice, one must do so without regard to the existence or non-existence of God. The question of God becomes irrelevant. Free will trumps God’s omniscience thereby rendering the all-knowing God unable to predict the future, a God that is certainly not worthy of serious consideration. It seems to me that omnipotence without omniscience would produce a God who might be jealous, fearful, punishing, a God capable of creating great loss and great harm just because God is capable of doing so (think of Job or the Shoah, one a likely fictive story to illustrate that God is capricious and arbitrary and the other of a contemporary horror resulting in the wanton murder of six-million Jews in Europe). This God is much like a spoiled child kicking and screaming because she doesn’t get her way.

Here’s the rub. If one believes that the omniscient God exists, then thinking about one’s actions, taking responsibility for those actions, is both unnecessary and unwarranted. Since one has no control over choices, one does not carry the burden of choice at all, one also doesn’t carry the burden of responsibility. One does what one does because the almighty one has already set those actions in stone. On the other hand, if one truly has free will, then one must carry the burden of ethical responsibility, to do the next right thing, to do the mundane and to do the exciting. Without the deity to interfere with choice one is free to act as one wishes, for good or evil, but the responsibility always is in the forefront of each and every decision. It can be no other way.

Of course, if this is the case, then it is far more problematic to live a Godly life if the deck is already stacked against the very idea of free will than it is to live an ethical life outside of the watchful eye of a deity. If I am responsible for my actions, good or evil, then I must shoulder the rewards and punishments associated with the very choices I make. What I realize is that the choices I make are not rewarded by an outside force called God, rather, the rewards and punishments are imposed by the body politic or, even more importantly, as an internal guidepost in which the self regulates the self. So I announce to the world calling me to action, “Here I AM!” raw and ready to accept the responsibility for my actions no matter what the consequences. At that moment, I also acknowledge my obligation to be response-able for the other [person] without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. I don’t require a God to accept the ethical imperative of responsibility, in fact, that God may even be a hinderance to my seeking ethical exteriority.

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Somewhere between the end of the biblical codification, the redacting of those Jewish texts deemed important enough to be included in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the rabbinical writings of the Mishnah, the Tosafot and the two Talmuds (Jerusalem and Babylonian) something happened to a Jewish understanding of the place of women. It seems the rabbinic sages were fiercely misogynistic, so much so that they turned a once open and, while never equal, respectful tradition of honoring women into a gender divided world, a world dominated by men so such an extent that women were often ridiculed in the Talmudic texts. I am not arguing that women were always treated equally in the Torah or the other codified writings, far from it. What I am arguing, however, is that women were often singled out as models of behavior, of sensual and sexual equals of their male counterparts, of leaders of the children of Israel and of examples of ethical and moral protectors of continuity for Jews.

One such story singles out Miriam, Moses’ sister. When the Pharaoh, the one who knew not of Joseph, issued a decree that all Hebrew male children were to be put to death, Amram, Miriam’s father, divorced Yocheved his wife. Miriam went to him telling him that he is worse than even Pharaoh because he is killing all future generations in his line. Amram went back to Yocheved, withdrawing his divorce, his get, and promptly sired Moses who would, of course, become the leader and emancipator of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. In this story, Miriam is the hero not her father; Miriam argues for his return, shames him as she should and convinces him to return to his wife, her mother, not as an act of personal gain but one that insures continuity of the people who would become Jews in a short time to come.

When the Israelites cross the dry bed of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea was a horrid mistranslation of the Hebrew) and then see the sea collapse over the whole army of the Egyptians, it is Miriam who sings and dances with the entire congregation of women in front of all the men. They are rejoicing that God has not only released them from harsh slavery but that they were for sure free of the Egyptians now and forevermore. It is not until the women singing and dancing and playing timbals on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds have finished that the men in the congregation are allowed to join them and sing the same song.

It is Ruth, the Moabite, who proclaims, “Whither thou goest I will go. Your God is My God…” and so on. A conversion for sure illustrating an important point. Being a Jew is not a matter of blood lines, of chromosomes or of genealogy, rather, it is a matter of choice. While I was born into a Jewish family, to a Jewish mother thereby making me a Jew according to Jewish law, I rejected the whole idea of religion in my early teens. This rejection continued until I was in my mid fifties when I made the choice to study Jewish texts to learn about that which I rejected. My Jewish education up to that point was what one rabbi referred to as a 3rd grade education. When I discovered Ruth somewhere along the way I understood that I had a choice, to be or not to be Jewish. It was the Moabite, Ruth, who convinced me to make the choice to recognize and acknowledge my Jewishness. It matters little whether Ruth was an actual person, whether she existed as “Ruth” or was hewn from an author’s experience as a fictive truth. When I read her words in the text I am listening to the words of someone recorded to be a Jew by Choice and that clearly reflects my own pathway. I didn’t get this sense from any other male character in the Tanakh. No it took a convert to convince me to make the choice to acknowledge my birthright.

Then there is Sarah laughing at God when he promises her that in her 90th year she will produce a son and that from his loins a nation will be born. This 90 year old matriarch hears God’s words and laughs out loud essentially calling God out. She gives birth to Isaac (translated as he who laughs) to commemorate her own experience. Was there an historical Sarah? Who cares? It makes no difference because I believe fiction to be quite real. Characters come alive on the written page whether or not they ever existed. In fact, they exist between the covers of a book and in the mind of the reader and that is quite good enough. Abraham, on the other hand, comes off as one lacking courage on many levels. First, when sojourning to Egypt (an interesting precursor to Jacob’s relocating to Egypt at the end of the first book of Moses (Genesis), Abraham is so frightened that his beautiful wife, Sarah, would be prized by Pharaoh that he passes her off as his sister, a cowardly act for sure. One is also left to wonder exactly what Sarah would have done had Abraham told her of his intention to obey God’s word and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abe, it seems, was too much of a coward to share this news with his wife.

There are so many examples of strong women in the Bible, too numerous to mention in this post. Yet all this disappears when the sages of the Mishnah through the two Talmuds lend their creative minds to the problem of gender. In those texts, women were relegated to a second class position. Their place was in the home, in the kitchen and pumping out babies. The sages were concerned, not with celebration and dancing, but with modesty and obedience. The doctors of these rabbinic writings redefined the role of women and their place within the entire structural makeup of the Jewish world for nearly two thousand years. While there are some exceptions to the rules applied by the sages, women were relegated into second-class status. To this day in the orthodox cults of Judaism, women are required to sit separately from men in synagogue, are required to cover their hair, dress modestly and cleve to their men. In the reform and conservative movements, however, women have regained the voice they had in the Tanakh, lost in the “oral Torah” and regained as these movements opened their doors to women as equals. I must admit, the synagogue with strong voices of both men and women is preferable to the separation required by those who fail to see the disparity between the “written” and “oral” Torahs when women are portrayed. Texts must be read critically, even texts that have somehow been declared as sacred if one is to understand the whole story.

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

As readers already know I am a secular Jew. I am also a Jewish atheist. This set of facts, perhaps, presents a difficult question of trying to connect these two similar but separate positions. How can this aporia be resolved; how is an understood connection to a Jewish continuum be reconciled with a secular position of atheism, a rational rejection of the existence of God? Is it possible that the two are not self-exclusionary, one canceling the other? In fact, I believe they are compatible, even necessary in today’s hyper-atomistic, self-centered, selfish world.

Let me begin with the idea that in spite of being a secular Jewish American I am directly connected to a lineage that dates back perhaps 14 millennia; a lineage of written texts that tell the story of a particular people arising from the stories of the Middle East. Texts, with origins in mythology, beginning with the Torah and carried on as a tradition of teaching and learning through the rest of the Tanakh, Mishnah, the two Talmuds and commentaries that followed to the present day. While I have a deep interest in understanding the historical relationship of text to text as well as an interest in an account of who may or may not have committed those texts to writing thereby preserving them for generations to come, in the final analysis it simply doesn’t matter about the historicity of the texts themselves or the authorship of those texts. While I find much to disagree with in the textual message, like the very idea that an all powerful God would be so insecure as to require curses for disobedience, when one carefully explores the texts themselves as total entities rather than as catch phrases, there is often a significant underlying ethical truth revealed.

One might ask, for example, if there is any ‘truth’ to Shakespeare’s character of Shylock or MacBeth, or Lear any more than there is any ‘truth’ in the biblical Moses, King David or Job. Let’s for a moment consider that all six characters mentioned are fictional. Does this mean that the characters themselves do not exist? I believe it can safely be argued that all six exist in the here and now while the question as to whether or not they were historical figures is irrelevant. They exist because they can easily be accessed because their words have been preserved in the continuity of text. Each of the characters may be accessed and the lessons they have to offer may be learned irregardless of whether or not I profess faith or belief, whether or not I believe in a creator deity or question if William Shakespeare actually was the author of the body of work attributed to him. Those questions, it seems, are irrelevant to the ethics embedded in the stories, in the available human lessons that may be learned. In thinking about the textual connection as a viable condition for understanding I am able to turn faith into wonder.

In this sense, wonder provides a unique freedom to accept some but not all of the written word. It means that I am able to read a text critically and completely; to not be satisfied with slogans cherry-picked from the text without placing those slogans into a rich context of the whole text from which the slogans were stripped. There is much in Jewish textual material that I find abhorrant at worst and naive at best. Some of the text I find arbitrary while some simply cannot stand up to the scrutiny of a natural world. Yet there are stories in the vastness and complexity of Jewish textual material that illustrate important ethical lessons. The fact that some of the texts are deserving of rejection does not mean that much is not worthy of consideration. It is interesting to consider, for example, that just among the named sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the two Talmuds, there are more people richly contributing to the texts that all of the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome combined. There is a rich scholarly heritage attached to the library of Jewish textual documents that serve the greater purpose of providing continuity from generation to generation across millennia

While I rationally reject the existence of God (as Bertrand Russell once quipped about this very subject, “Not enough evidence!”) and see little purpose in following an arbitrary set of commandments that are supposed to insure that I live an ethical life based on the fear of reprisal from an impassioned God, I do not reject the continuity provided across more generations than I can ever hope to count, a continuity bound together by an ever increasing volume of textual response to problems of the day. Being a secular Jewish atheist is completely in accord with the continuity of text, of the words spoken by my grandfather’s grandfather as far back as human memory cares to travel. I read these texts from a sense of wonder rather than from a sense of faith or belief and the wonder allows me to connect to the living characters, the men and women that were we to be able to meet across space and time would have something in common to talk about.

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