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Priase the Lord…A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Priase the Lord...A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Priase the Lord…A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Leaving Alamogordo, New Mexico Friday morning, I set my gps for Joplin, Missouri and set my rain alarm app for push notifications. Our dog, Simin, developed a severe infection on his right-front leg requiring constant care throughout the day. Our plan for returning home was to spend around three nights on the road, stop off and see a few sights that we wanted to visit and arrive home on Monday. Those plans were shattered when Simin was diagnosed with this ugly infection. A friend’s daughter was kind enough to stay at the house to nurse Simin until we returned from our trip. But back to the point of this post.

Driving through Oklahoma City, the rain activity was picking up with storms tracking on either side of I-40. We drove on, with the bulk of the rain and storm activity either behind us or to either side. Pushing through Tulsa and on to Joplin, we arrived in Joplin tired and hungry. As we arrived the tornado warning sirens were blasting. We parked under the canopy to register but, rather than register, we were herded into the central hallway of the hotel and told that because we were under a tornado warning it would be best to stay in the hallway until the danger passed. They take tornados quite seriously in Joplin, Missouri, especially since the category five tornado that destroyed much of the town only a few years before. Once the danger passed we checked in, went next door to the hotel where there was a 24/7 Waffle House (hardly my first choice) for a light dinner and then back to the hotel where we went to bed.

From Joplin, we had about a 550 mile drive back home. With that in mind, I set my alarm for 6:00 AM so we could leave the hotel and be on the road by around 7:00 AM. At around 6:30 AM we were walking in the hallway toward the complimentary breakfast (which was, of course, included in the room rate) when a tiny, woman with a shock of tightly curled white hair greeted us. “Mornin’,” she said. “Quite a storm last night. But we’re okay…Praise the Lord.” That set me to ponder exactly what she meant when she so flippantly praised the lord. Was she praising the lord selfishly for her personal safety. If this were the case, then her praise is immoral, based only on her personal needs and desires and to hell with everyone else. If, on the other hand, she was praising the lord for the storms, including the tornado in Oklahoma City which killed at least five people according to the news that morning, then her praise for the lord was also immoral when one considers the fact that the storm was deadly as well as destructive to property. It begs the question, what did the people of Oklahoma City do to deserve this devine punishment of multiple tornados even as they were cleaning up from the Moore category five tornado which struck only a few days ago.

Either way, praise for survival when others lost their lives or praise for the occurrence of the tornado itself, the praiser is caught in a trap of immoral praise. Either the god to whom praise is offered is mean and capricious, offering a killer storm to some while saving others from wanton destruction or the praiser herself is acting from selfish relief that she wasn’t harmed by this god for whom she has apparently released her praise on purely selfish terms. It seems that one who insists on praising the lord does so without regard to the consequences suffered by others from the very act of destruction from which one is spared. This is an immoral, unethical act because it is self-centered, contained within the outcome of the self without regard for the outcome of the other. Shame on the woman in the hallway for her selfish response to the tragedy suffered by Oklahoma City residents.

A proper response to such tragic loss and one’s personal escape from the personal impact of that loss is not that of praise, for praise cuts a two-edged path. To the contrary, a proper response would be to consider one’s safety in terms of probability, a statistical calculation having little to do with one’s imaginary friend in the sky. When considering one’s own safety, one might also consider just what one is able to do for those who actually suffered devastating loss. In addition, one could consider one’s own contribution to the climate change that is bringing devastating weather events like category five tornados and super hurricanes to this small, rather insignificant blue ball orbiting a star which, in turn, orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and work to reverse the harm to the planet we call home that we ourselves caused. Praise the Lord but Pass the Ammunition was a slogan that arose from the trenches of WWI. In the final analysis, it may be applicable here.  Go ahead and praise the lord if you must; in the end, it is what you personally do to influence the outcome that counts.

On a final note, an old Jew was praying by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, something he did for the past forty years of his life. He was asked what he was praying for to which he replied, “I pray for peace, for an end to hunger, for the Messiah to come.” The questioner then asked, “Does it help?” To which the old Jew replied, “It’s like talking to a wall.”

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Last night at dinner our server, a delightful woman named Amy, and I got to talking about places to visit in order to take in the natural wonders of the Southwestern United States. I think the conversation began when Amy and my wife began comparing ski resorts but it quickly evolved to places we have been. We spoke of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Saguaro National Park when I mentioned that I had just checked off Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from my bucket list. Amy then commented, “It surely makes you feel small, almost insignificant, when you see the beauty of this world. The time it took to carve these magnificent landscapes and the short time we are here to enjoy them.” The only thing she left out of her comment, but it was clearly on the tip of her tongue, was the God which obviously created these landscapes. I don’t mean to put words in her mouth, for she didn’t actually add the bit about God, but I was certain that she didn’t want to offend by making God a central character in the drama of nature.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

To a large extent, her restraint was refreshing. I have been in similar situations where my interlocutor was not so thoughtful nor so humble. More often than not, the fundamentalist Christian response to such a conversation about natural wonders includes the notion that the creator God made this beauty in order to humble mankind, to make us feel insignificant in order to understand the power of the creator. To that I generally respond, “Poppycock!” There is no reason to believe that there is a creator God because of the natural forces that shaped the wonders of our planet. In fact, there are geological explanations that trump the mystic late Bronze and early Iron Age mythologies, no matter whose mythologies one chooses to adapt.

While natural wonders tend to humble the viewer, one does not require a creator God in order to be humbled by the grandeur of the natural world. To the contrary, humility comes from the eons required for a small, rather insignificant, river to carve through layers of stone to create a canyon which one can stand in awe of. The geological forces required to converge to create the canyons and mountains that make us breathe a bit quicker as we stand in their glory (religious terminology need not be exclusive to religious belief) explain a great deal without removing the humbling effect of these natural wonders. Standing on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, looking nearly straight down on to the Gunnison River some 2,000 feet below, hearing the rush of the water as it continues (albeit more slowly than ever because the dams upstream limit the flow of water through the canyon floor) to carve through layers of rock, is truly something to stand in awe of but not something to attribute to the whims of a creator God. Beauty need not be compromised by failing to understand the science contributing to the creation of these magnificent structures. Amen.

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

If you were to die today, where would you go?
Billboard Sign in Kansas

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

Driving through Missouri and Kansas for the past two days, I couldn’t help but notice the many billboards that read “If you were to die today, where would you go.” I know what the people spending money would like as an answer, thereby allowing their organizations to profit from one’s repentance; my answer, however, is simply this…I’ll go into the ground. I have no illusions about that for which there are no answers. I do not believe there is knowledge beyond the grave. I do not believe that the body and the soul exist as separate entities, rather, the soul, if there is such a thing, is fully dependent upon the physical body for its very existence. It is not a separate entity housed in the body at the pleasure of some deity or another. That being said, should one present evidence to the contrary, and by evidence I do not mean textual references to Bronze or Iron Age documents that purport to be the undeniable word of God for that is not reliable nor valid evidence. No, I mean something that counts as evidence that is both replaceable and reliable through valid experimentation. In short, evidence that does not rely on belief first and results second. If I were presented with that sort of evidence, I would be the first to change my mind.

What strikes me about these billboard adverts is their arrogance. They purport to know an answer that is absolutely unknowable, relying on fear laden belief systems that infuse guilt as the guide to right or moral behavior. The question being asked relies on a belief that there is an afterlife, that in this afterlife one is either rewarded or punished, that one has some measure of control over which afterlife one will receive and that this decision is ultimately out of one’s hands and in the hands of some eternal bureaucrat who metes out rewards and punishments like an angry parent might. It is just this kind of thinking that causes some people, Christians, Jews and Muslims, to choose martyrdom on  the promise that because of their actions they will be granted the highest rewards available in heaven for committing unspeakable acts upon their fellow man. None are immune from behavior rooted in the ancient mythology of the Bronze or Iron Ages because the holy texts of these monotheistic religions make promises based on nothing more than the words scratched out on some ancient parchment.

The Buddhists have a saying that keeps the whole thing in perspective, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” The force of this simple idea is that one who purports to know, who claims knowledge of the unknowable, is a false prophet and must, therefore, be ignored. One must not listen to the self-serving arrogance of one who claims knowledge of that which is ineffable. To do so is to engage in dangerous, menacing behavior designed to serve the self-interest of another rather than the interests of the greater good. The arrogance of those claiming knowledge of that which they have no knowledge other than their reliance on ancient texts born, perhaps, of political propaganda to serve the interests of the priests and ruling classes or, perhaps, the human need to understand that which is currently explainable  or, perhaps, both is palpable in the sense that it exploits those most easily exploited. In the words of P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“If you were to die today, where will you go?” is in the same category as the arrogance of those who predict the dates for the end of the world and the evangelical campaigns like “I Found It” and “I Support Religious Freedom.” Ideas without evidence, relying only on faith for their foundational underpinnings. For me, I’ll simply pass.

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

In their provocative book, The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, drawing on the most recent archaeological research present to the reader a stunningly new vision of the rise of ancient Israel and how the Hebrew Bible served as a powerful mythology for the Judean kings beginning with the rule of King Josiah in the middle of the 8th century BCE. What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that the Torah and the historical writings from Joshua through Kings I and II provide a picture that is more mythological than historical. Their argument is based on both archaeological data and practicability; could the events recorded in the Bible actually have occurred, do they pass the giggle test.

In terms of the mythological argument, Finkelstein and Silberman present a case that suggests that many of the events have an 8th century BCE contemporary feel that seem to be supportive of Josiah and his ambitions. Many of the “historical” stories presented use 8th century BCE geographical references to cities and peoples that could not have existed in the 15th century BCE when the stories were said to have occurred. Perhaps an example is in order. When the exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred, the People of Israel (they were not yet Jews) took the long way around, wandering in the Southern Sinai for 40 years. Had they taken the Northern route across the Sinai, along the Mediterranean Sea the people would have come in direct contact with a line of Egyptian fortifications which surely would have created an Egyptian response, if only to document the rabble of Israel leaving Egypt. There are any number of Egyptian documents extant today that mention the travel of many peoples but there is no mention anywhere of a rabble of 600,000 people, former slaves in Egypt, leaving as a whole group to cross the desert. To confirm the historicity of the Bible there must be other confirming data, either Egyptian records or archaeological discoveries; neither exist. Crossing the desert with so many people is also beyond reasonable expectations. Small groups of nomads for sure but the population of a small nation crossing the desert and surviving is beyond the capacity of human beings without leaving significant archaeological evidence behind. If the evidence is not there the historicity of the stories fails.

What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that trying to understand the Bible as an historical document of the development of a people is not supported by the historical or archaeological evidence. It is, however, supported by inferential evidence as dating from the reign of King Josiah, a time in the mid 8th century BCE of great power shifts and an accompanying religious revolution. The evidence found in the historical place names in the Hebrew Bible through Kings II have a corollary in the historical record of that time period as found in documentary evidence from outside of the Judean Kingdom and from the archaeological data dating from this time period as well. Understanding the Bible as a cobbling of extant mythological stories and a political document supporting the ambitions and activities of King Josiah and his immediate successors is a more accurate view.

All that being said, the staying power of the texts is nothing less than extraordinary. The mythology of the Torah and the histories took on a life of its own surviving to this very moment as a guide to ethical practice in the world. It is a book of actions leading to understandings, even if those understandings are quite different and perhaps unrecognizable by those of 8th century BCE Israelites for whom the stories related to their contemporary lives.

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.

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