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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.

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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.

 

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.

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.

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I started the “Thinking in Jewish” series of posts by numbering each post with a Roman numeral. This numbering system is antiquated and cumbersome and I am, quite frankly, tired of the whole mess. So from this day forward I will number the “Thinking in Jewish” posts using Arabic numbering system which means that the next post will be labeled 32.

There is a question I want to answer for the readers of this blog. It comes up from time to time in the comments which makes it a worthy topic to blog about. It centers on what on earth my atheism and the posts in the series “Thinking in Jewish” has to do with my prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. Along the same lines I have seen a strange undertone that seems to be asking what is an atheist like myself doing commenting on Jewish thinking in the first place.  So here goes…my best effort at talking about these issues as I blog away.

Begin at the beginning. When I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, the words that may indeed harken the beginning of the end of life, the words “YOU HAVE CANCER” it has a sobering effect on the way one chooses to look at the world. In my professional life I was a Professor of Language and Literacy at a Midwestern state university. My professional interests gravitated toward the study of the teaching of writing so that middle school and secondary school teachers could better teach their students the skill of writing without effort. Blogging, then, seemed like the most natural thing I could do to both help me focus on the fact that I now have a disease that may contribute to my demise. Kubler-Ross was wrong in my case. I grieved over the possibility that my life was coming to an end but I quickly accepted that as a fact that may or may not be true. My job now was to come to grips with how I intended to live the remaining years (or months whatever the case may be) of my life.

As an atheist, I rejected the idea that there is a creator God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. My own observations of the world and my deepening understanding of Jewish religious texts, however, caused me not to reject my own Jewish roots. I am a Jew, I have a Jewish understanding of the world, of time and space, of ethics and morality. I simply don’t attribute any of this to a creator God. one that is angry, demanding and punishing. As a post-Shoah (or post Holocaust although Shoah is a better word choice) Jew, where 6 million of my nation perished at the hands of Germans in an unspeakably horrible genocide (perhaps religicide is a more apt descriptor) for no other reason than they were Jews in Europe, made the very concept of a benevolent and omniscient God improbable and the very idea than an omnipotent God would not put a stop to the horrors of the camps, gas-chambers and crematory ovens would make this God either a sadist or rather than omnipotent, simply impotent and unworthy of worship. The other possibility to consider is that there is no God to be omnipotent, omniscient or benevolent, a possibility I find more convincing than any that includes God or religion at the center of the a discourse.

While sick and waiting for testing to be completed to determine what course of treatment for my prostate cancer would be recommended, I decided that learning how to ‘think in Jewish’ would be a good way to think about the potential end of life. It was a clear choice. The Christian story makes absolutely no sense to me. The same can be said for the story of Islam although that one is easier to swallow perhaps because it was formed in the same region as the Jewish story while the Christian story, while originating in Palestine, is essentially a European take on the very idea of monotheism. That being said, I thought it best to stick with what I know and simply become better at understanding where and how the religion of my people developed. The story, especially when told in the light of the ultimate schism of Jewish and Christian thinking and the response of both to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, is fascinating. I do not intend to go into that schism here but the response of the triumphal Christians and the defeated Jews of the first three centuries CE paints a picture of quite different approaches to the self-same problem.

What I found as I studied and read more deeply was that the ethics of Judaism played a great role in the way I had been living my life for years. There was embedded in the literature constant reminders of obligations to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, for those less fortunate than we might be and there is always someone less fortunate than yourself no matter what your current situation might be. I don’t recall who said this but it is appropriate here. It goes something like this, “I cried out because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Sure I had cancer, but I still had hope and that hope lay in the hands of skilled physicians, men of science, who would do everything possible to make the remainder of my life one filled with the absolute joy of living. In the end, the men of science told me that surgery would cure my cancer and while there are some unpleasant side effects of the surgery, my life will not be disrupted to any great extent. I am now writing as a cancer survivor, one experiencing the unpleasant side effects and it is truly a small price to pay for many more years of life.

That being said, I decided to continue this blog because my personal struggle with ethics and evil in this world has become an important part of my life. Sure, it didn’t begin when I was diagnosed with cancer but that diagnosis brought it to the forefront of my being-in-the-world. That is why I continue to blog about my encounter with life in general and sometimes about health related issues that seems to arise as a result of my experience with cancer.

So no more Roman numerals and I’ll continue to make my thinking visible to me (and to you) on this blog.

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

This past Saturday while sitting in my Rabbi’s Library after Shabbat morning services I listened to a most disturbing proposition, that God allows tragedy in the world in order to create a vital need for God. At the same time one of the congregants proposed the grand idea that even though God knows the results of all actions, God allows us to have free will which includes the ability to act with evil intentions. Let me tackle the free will issue first and then I’ll try to address the former idea that God allows evil in order to create a place for God.

The issue of free will is an easy one for me. Either there is a God who is omniscient, all knowing, in which case there can be no free will simply because God knows every action one takes and therefore one’s life is pre-determined. All that exists under this construction is the illusion of free will; the human being acting freely without external constraints or conditions controlling one’s choices is but an illusion if the outcome is predestined. Claiming an omniscient God who surrenders the ability to determine the will of any or all human beings affording humanity free will is like having one’s cake and eating it too. The very concept is a contradiction in terms. Omniscience and free will cancel one another out. Either one has free will in which case there is no room for an omniscient God or one’s life and actions are predetermined by an omniscient creator God and there is no way out of the destiny one is created to complete.

For my part, I reject the very notion of omniscience and therefore reject the very idea that a creator God controls anything in my universe. I have free will and yet I choose to act with ethical intentions. I am not, however, surprised when others act with evil intentions. Free will provides one with a choice and sometimes that choice is rather difficult to make. But because I am able to act freely I must also embrace the very idea that the universe in which I live, for a brief time, is quite random and without teleological purpose. I live in an absurd universe, a universe of chance, of probabilities, of good, of evil, of risk, of reward, a universe without meaning except for the meaning that each individual contributes to the fabric of our intertwined lived-experiences.

The very idea that a God allows evil in order to create a place of God is obscene. If this is the image of the creator God of monotheism then that God is a sadist and unworthy of worship. That God allows bombs to be placed behind children and adults to create a desire for God’s protection in survivors and witnesses to the tragic outcome of a bombing as took place at the Boston Marathon is without honor, ethics or morals. A God that is so insecure that God requires tragedy to induce desire (I think fear is a better word here) makes that God unworthy of worship. A God that allows women and children to be destroyed and maimed by the actions of one predestined to plant such a bomb fails to follow his own edict that one has the obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; to violate one’s own commandments is to make one unworthy of worship. The very idea that God allows violence, war, pestilence and famine raises some interesting questions. First, If God is God and can stop the violence and doesn’t, then God is a sadist. If, secondly, God is God and cannot stop the violence then God is not omnipotent and is, therefore, unworthy of fear and trembling. Finally, if God is God and is simply indifferent to the violence then God is nothing but a passive deity unworthy of worship for God will not interfere with the ways of mankind. Violent acts, wars, and other acts of evil do not turn me toward God rather they act to turn me away from a creator God.

So what am I doing in Synagogue on Saturday morning. Yes, I am still an atheist but I am also a Jew and I enjoy the company of the congregation. There is a great deal of joy in the congregation and if the price I have to pay for the congregation is to sit for an hour and a half in prayer (I actually use the time to meditate rather than to pray) that is a small price to pay. As Emmanuel Levinas argued, even if there is no God, one is obligated to act as if there is.

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

There is indeed a problem with the whole idea of believing in something because one wants to rather than because the evidence pushes one in that direction.
Alastair Hannay, Introductory Essay to Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Believers often define faith as belief in something without evidence; a deeply felt attachment to an idea or principle that, when closely examined would simply fall apart. Some rely on a belief system to explain the unexplained (please note I did not use the term unexplainable simply because, given enough time, all things are explainable but some things today remain unexplained) often sticking to older, yet no longer credible, constructions (e.g., the creation of the universe in six days by a creator God no longer is credible in a universe now known to be billions of years old). Still others claim to have experienced personal miracles in their lives and can only attribute those miracles to the intervention of God or Jesus or some saint or another with no other empirical evidence other than personal experience to back up their claims. Many of these stem from arguments of incredulity which basically go like this: “I can’t think of any other reason for ‘this’ to be therefore it must be the hand of a creator God because nothing else explains whatever ‘this’ is.”

People of faith, especially those who conger a teleological purpose coupled with an eschatological end of times, seem to recognize that their core beliefs are mythological in nature but that all will be revealed when the messiah comes or returns depending on which eschatological story one takes as being the ‘truth.’ It seems that the messiah may appear in the very next moment of time or sometime in the distant future (while some believe in the imminent appearance of the messiah without the ability to attach to that appearance a definite time or place).

Here’s the rub; the very belief in a purpose to the universe, to the very earth we walk upon, to the core of existence is a belief system that may or may not be true. What if, for example, there were no purpose, that the universe, the earth, our very existence were merely the result of probabilities resulting from the physics of the big bang. If this is the case, claiming there must be a purpose to life, that life itself must be meaningful as conditioned by the imposition of meaning or purpose by a creator God, has no foundation. Claiming that there is a teleological purpose is nothing if not the incredulity of belief. It overlooks evidence.

If there is no intrinsic meaning for our very existence is it possible to create meaning or is all lost? If the very core of human life is meaningless, how does one not dispair? If one sees oneself bound to a chain of events stemming from the teleological, if one is, in this sense, bound to a core of sin and redemption where redemption is the reward for living itself, there is little available to the human being but a dispair arising from unfulfilled desire for redemption. If, on the other hand, one addresses life as being in the moment, that one is embedded in the flow of life itself, almost like standing in a river rushing downstream, then one is able to adjust to the vagaries that arise from the changing flow without teleological hope ruling the day. Sometimes the river runs slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes the water level is low and sometimes it is flooding, all events that are predictable yet randomly occurring. It is said that one can never stand in the same river twice. What one can do is experience the flow rather than focusing on how one may be redeemed from it.

To remove the teleological along with the idea of eschatological redemption conditioned on the appearance of the messiah does not, however remove response-ability from the equation of life. It does remove conditional response-ability bound up in sin and redemption freeing it from the dispair tied to desire. Once the burdens of fear based desire are removed one’s response-ability is simply an ethical response to the other [person], not one based in fear of punishment or desire for redemption but simply because it is the right thing to do. By acting for the welfare of the other one extends the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other while incorporating the uniqueness of the other into one’s on lived-experience. No need to condition the obligation to act as a response-able human being, to the contrary, one must act without reservation and without expectation for any reward or recognition or the act is not response-able, rather it is bound up in self interest and self preservation.

 

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

As I think about the common threads between Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida I am struck by the structural adherence to things particularly Jewish in nature. While there are many disagreements between these two French thinkers, there is an undertone that appears to be shared, each commenting on the work of the other that ties back to foundational Jewish morality. The foundational text that ties their thinking together is found in some form or another throughout the Torah and Tanakh paraphrased as follows: You are obligated to care for the widow; the orphan; and the stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt, strangers in a strange land.

From this text, Levinas works out a philosophy placing ethics as the first philosophy, before ontology and epistemology. For Levinas, each human being has the ethical responsibility to care for the welfare of the other (person) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. It is a duty of rememberance, of recalling one’s own sojurn as stranger in need, as well as a duty of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other (person). Based in the biblical cry of HININI (Here I AM!), the response provided by all those called directly by God from Adam to Abraham to Moses, Levinas suggests that the HININI is an announcement, one that tears into the fabric of complaciency, creating an opening, a proximate space, from which one can wait for the cry of the other and then respond to that cry.

Levinas universalizes the Torah, taking it out of the specifics of the story of the Israelite slavery experience in Egypt, making the obligation to care for the other conditional on the slavery experience placing it into a universal framework of ethical response-ability framed as a human and not merely a Jewish obligation. Anyone may make the announcement HININI without having to have lived through the experience of slavery, of being a stranger in a strange land. To the contrary, all one need do is announce and wait for the cry of the other. The Torah obligation is conditioned on an existential experience and appears to actively require one to seek out the widow, orphan and stranger; the obligation to do so rests on a personal experience of redemption; a movement from exteriority to exteriority, from group experience to the obligation to be of service for the exteriority of the other. The universal obligation travels a different path, from the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other without turning on the experience of being othered.

Derrida takes up much the same theme when he addresses such divergent ideas as what is meant by hospitality and giving of gifts. Derrida’s project takes up a thread similar to Levinas’ notions of reservations and expectations. For Derrida the host and/or the giver of gifts acts in such a way as to have no reservations about the act of hosting or giving and does so with no expectation for reciprocation. In short, the act of hospitality and the act of giving is an act of selfless interiority expressed as exteriority. Another way to think about this is to suggest that the act of hosting or the act of giving does not carry the burdensome question for the host or giver of ‘What’s in this transaction for me?’ The host or giver does not engage in a contractual relationship with his or her guests or gift receipients, rather, wherever possible, the act of hosting or giving should be wrapped in the weeds of anonymity so as not to falsely create an appearance of obligation.

Like Levinas, Derrida’s approach is a universal one but unlike Levinas, it is unlikely to be understood in terms of the specifically Jewish reference to either the HININI or to the conditional obligation to care for the widow, orphan or stranger. I, however, am not convinced that Levinas did not have at least some impact on Derrida’s thinking about the ethics of hosting or giving.

In the final analysis, both Levinas and Derrida argued for an ethics of responsibility, an ethics that is unconditional, without reservation, and without expectation of reciprocation. It is the very impossibility of this ethical demand that makes it so compelling.

 

The Impossibility of Response-Ability?

I have frequently written about the very idea of ethical response-ability; that the foundation of ethical behavior rests on the notion that I make myself available for the welfare of the other (person). In this sense, to be response-able requires the interiority of the self to turn outward to the exteriority of the other, to expose interiority to the existential world in a selfless manner without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. In the ideal world, the world in which ego plays no part, this form of ethical behavior would seem to come naturally. It is, however, a fact that we do not live in a Utopian society. Quite the contrary, the world in which we live is anything but ideal; it is a world in which everything depends on everything, where things are messy and outside of measurable probabilies, quite unpredictable.

Let’s say that you agree with the idea of ethical response-ability, that your intent is to live according to the principles of ethical response-ability and you make yourself available to the other by announcing “Here I AM!” thereby achieving a state of proximity. Now you wait for the call of the other, the cry of response to your “Here I AM!” which, in turn, obligates you to action. It is precisely here where the rubber meets the road. Just what happens when you receive the call, the cry of response? Imagine you are walking in a park near a lagoon when you see someone splashing about in the lagoon crying out for help. You just heard the cry of response to your ethical announcement obligating you to jump into action. Because we do not live in a Utopian world a certain calculus begins to churn in your head. Is there someone closer than I am that can help? I am dressed in my best clothes and on my way to an important meeting? Can I swim well enough to help the person in distress? Am I trained to help the person in distress? What if the person in distress is a criminal attempting to evade capture? Is there an alternative to swimming out to provide aid to the person in distress, a life saving ring, boat, or pole I can use to offer assistance?

Each of the questions above turns the very idea of ethical response-ability on its head. Each question begins with exteriority and turns inward toward the interiority of self rather than beginning with the interiority of self and turning outward to exteriority. The questions are all geared toward notions of ego and self-preservation rather than a selfless act of providing for the benefit of the other (in need) raising the question of whether or not ethical response-ability is, in fact, even possible in a world in which ego and self-preservation are valued over self-sacrifice.

Other questions are also raised in a world in which uncertainty is the norm. Let’s say you were walking by a lagoon and you saw a baby flailing in the water. Without your assistance that baby would surely die. You save the baby however twenty years later that baby takes an AK 47 with several 100 round magazines to a school and murders 50 second and third grade students along with ten of their teachers. Did you do act ethically in saving the baby or would the ethical thing be to allow that baby to drown thereby saving sixty lives? While this is a different question than earlier posed, the problem remains. Is ethical behavior on the part of the self dependent on future bad acts of the other? If this were the case, would any act of ethical response-ability be appropriate?

The point of this post is that in an uncertain world, the very idea of Utopian ethical response-ability may be impossible. On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason that one cannot aspire to the ideals contained within the very standards of response-ability.

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