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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.

 

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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.

Time as an Illusion: Thinking in Jewish 32

Nothing lasts forever say the old men in the shipyards
Turning trees into shrimp boats, hell I guess they ought to know
Guy Clark

Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most remember some
But don’t throw none away.
Townes VanZandt

Time as an Illusion: Thinking in Jewish 32

Time as an Illusion: Thinking in Jewish 32

The discussion last night at the parsha class concerned the Jewish concept of time, a concept that obligates us to make the best use of each and every second allotted to a productive life. This means that one is accountable for each of the 86,400 seconds in each 24 hour period. Quite a tall order one might think but upon careful consideration, perhaps not so difficult after all. There is a saying that one cannot step into the same river twice; while the river may be the same, the flow of water makes the river quite different that the one only moments before. The system is not circular, it doesn’t flow back onto itself or pour back into the headwaters of that river. To the contrary, the stream is a constant flow, ever changing while seeming to be quite the same. A life lived is much like a river. Existential time is immeasurably brief, a nano-second which is already gone. Our conscious hours leave behind traces of memory that, in turn, give us the illusion of a past while our plans and goals for what is to come provide the illusion of a future. But the only reality is the moment of existential time, a time that can neither be wasted nor saved; it can only be.

What is clear, however, is that the flow of existential time leaves us with the illusion of accomplishment or failure, or, perhaps, something in between. But that sense is but an accumulation of rapidly fading or quickly revised recollections, traces of a life lived that are neither the experience itself nor are they true representations of the lived-experience because they are always altered to represent the experience in the best light possible. Even events that are horrible, violent or otherwise utterly negative are, as one gets further away from the event itself, diluted, details fading away and when recalled tend to be recalled in the best light possible. Another thing that occurs with trace memory is that it is sometimes embellished to include things that did not occur in the event itself, thereby causing memory to be attuned to that which one chooses to recall rather than a true representation of the actual event itself.

That being said, the idea that one is obligated to make the best use of the time, even the briefest segment of the lived-experience, the immeasurable moment that is the absolute now, must mot be overlooked. To make the best use of the time allotted one must be fully engaged in positive activity. Engagement is much like the idea that athletes often speak of when they describe being in the zone. The zone represents an engagement that is 100% focused on the task at hand, so much so that one looses track of all other things such as time or food or sleep. While it is impossible to always be in the zone, it is the goal that counts. The full engagement is the goal, it is something to aim for. That does not discount those moments when the zone tends to be elusive. Like Townes said, “Forget most remember some  but don’t throw none away.”

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.

 

Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII

Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity.
Baruch Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII

Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII

Underlying Spinoza’s critique of religion is the simple truth that where human beings do not have clear answers for what appears to be mysterious their first response is to turn to mystical answers, hence the credulity of belief. It is far easier to explain the unexplainable by fantasy, stories that explain without evidence or basis in fact, than it is to seek rational explanations for that which appears to be unexplainable. Notice that I place emphasis on the word appears. I do so because appearances are deceiving. What yesterday was clearly outside the realm of understanding is today understood rationally. This fact cannot be overlooked as one faces the world as it appears to be.

Appearances are also hampered by existential time, that infinitely brief moment in which each separate, isolated individual encounters one’s very existence. Once the moment arrives it is always already gone, leaving behind a trace, a memory engram that is unreliable as time appears to pass on. In this sense, we always live our entire existence in the present moment, in this very moment, the moment that cannot be recognized as it is always already replaced by the next moment. The appearance of historical time, of temporality, is dependent on the trace left behind subject to recall; the remembrance of which is always already tempered by the human tendency to smooth over the rough spots and recall things as better than they were.

We now have two factors to consider. First, the rationality which exists in linear or temporal time and the existential moment of time in which lives are separately led. They merge in an accumulation of knowledge that is archived and made readily available for us to study in the form of books, papers, and documents left behind by both the living and the dead. A vast library of historical artifacts that have frozen ideas in time, that are available for reference, for learning from, for building upon is available to any who wish to take advantage of them. Through a rich and rewarding search of these records one may learn how ideas about the world are altered by rational thought applied to experimental exploration of phenomena found in the existential moment; how, in short, discovery alters the very appearance of the world in which we live.

When one denies this natural progression of knowledge, a progression based on curiosity and  what Feinman called “The Joy of Finding Things Out,” one is liable to be duped by the fanaticisms of those with with ancient stories that hardly pass the giggle test when placed against the reasoned and rational discoveries of science. Spinoza, writing in the mid 1600’s CE, at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, began his quest into the credulity of religion and religious thought with the understanding that mankind seeks answers, even answers that defy reason, where no other answers seem to be available. Spinoza favors rationality over irrational fear and the fickle nature of fortune. It seems that, even in the face of advances in scientific knowledge over the past 400 years, Spinoza’s critique still is a force to be reckoned with.

 

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

In 70 CE the Romans, during the First Jewish-Roman War, destroyed the Temple, the center of the sacrificial cult that, over time, became the rabbinical Judaism (as well as the Christianity) we know in today’s post-modern world. Because I am at least nominally Jewish, I don’t much care about the schism that separated Jews and Christians from one another other than as an historical fact. My concern is to understand just how Temple Judaism morphed into rabbinical Judaism and why.

Jacob Neusner makes an interesting case for that development in his exploration of the corpus of rabbinic texts that comprise the heart of rabbinic Judaism. He offers the context of historical events and the response of the redactors of the Mishnah, a code of religious obligations attributed to Judah ha Nasi (Judah the Prince) completed in 200 CE. Without going into too much detail about the form, structure or rhetorical tools used by the rabbis of the Mishnah, the core of Neusner’s argument is simply this: the rabbis, responding to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) where an independent Jewish state successfully expelled the Romans only to fall to Rome once again in 135 CE, organized the emerging rabbinic cult by creating a corpus of textual material that was designed to mirror the Temple Cult while creating an ahistorical context by which one became holy. The Mishnah itself paints a picture of sanctification that is set in a context of timelessness, a universal mirror of this very moment, the only moment that counts, by setting down permanent obligations for every aspect of life from farming to business transactions with the underlying intent to provide Jews with a framework for living a life deemed sanctified and holy without regard to the ebb and flow of historical events. The rules, the obligations, applied in good times and in times of tyrants, across all seasons of the year by providing an absolute framework for living come what may.

In the 130-year period dating from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and including the expulsion of and banishing from Jerusalem, the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the re-colonization of Israel by the Romans, the Mishnah took its final form. No longer able to find spiritual comfort in Jerusalem, the rabbis of the Mishnah responded by making Jerusalem live in the hearts and souls of Jews through the eschatology of the messiah to come, the anointed one who will restore everything to the way it is supposed to be including the restoration of the Temple cult in Jerusalem where burnt offerings to the creator God could, once again, serve to purify and cleanse the world of sin.

The logic of the Mishnah, therefore, is not to concentrate on events that occur and influence the way one defines the world one lives in. To the contrary, the logic of the Mishnah is to eschew existential time, to divorce obligations from the context of place and time by making the obligations of human conduct so routine as to become internalized and thereby transformed into an ethical, moral and holy life; a life guided by creating a holy place for the messiah, the anointed one, to appear.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, in short, created a world that spiritually was a simulacrum of the Temple cult, substituting behavioral obligations for animal sacrifice. Regular prayer and rabbis substituted for sacrifice and priests. Rules of conduct posited along with alternative possibilities demonstrated that the Law of the Mishnah was universal and timeless; that following the law was essential to the very existence of the world as well as the world to come, no matter what the externals of life might look like. It mattered not what governing authority was in power, what wars were being fought, what diseases were extant; Jewish life was lived both temporally and, even more importantly, spiritually by living the law.

Neusner’s argument sheds a great deal of light on how one reads Jewish textual material. By the simple act of considering the context in which the texts were written, what externals they were responding to, helps place their zeal into the proper perspective. I want to suggest that a similar crisis is facing rabbinic Judaism today, in the era post-Shoah (post-Holocaust). The genocide of six-million Jews at the hands of the Nazis coupled with the independence of the State of Israel places great strains on the very understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Time will tell just how this internal argument plays out. I’ll just keep on studying and reading and writing and, just perhaps, some clarity will emerge.

 

Always Already Being In The Material World

Always Already Being In The Material World

Always Already Being In The Material World

To borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger without necessarily committing to its meaning, being-in-the-world adequately represents the notion of the existential moment. If I could phrase it differently than Heidegger I would strip it of its ontological references while incorporating the notion of representing an illusory phantom of the trace of memory and a projection into the future. In Levinas’ terms, this is represented better by the notion of hypostasis, the question of the infinitely brief moment of existential time while merging the idea of the trace remembered and the future desired, both of which are measured by ever fading memory or ever more fantastic dreamt of futures. In brief, existential time is a simulacrum of the conjoining of past/future, while cleverly disguising both within a true sense of security of past events and a desired sense of future certainty. Nothing, however, exists outside of this very moment of existential time; all the rest is merely a ghost or a projection on a screen of hope; something like Plato’s images on the cave wall without the reference to forms.

Going beyond the ontic nature of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, Levinas focuses on the idea that hypostasis focuses on the interiority of solitude in which one experiences existential time; the trace of memory and those projections for the future are clearly personal, not able to be shared with any other human being. If left to its own resources, Heidegger insists, the self would be so consumed with its own interiority that it could not relate to the exterior world other than to evaluate the entirety of that world as objects of the self with being incorporated in the objective relationship with the objects, including the human objects, in the world. Levinas is critical of this position arguing that one can only understand being by and through the social interaction with the other, by responding to the call of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation; to make oneself present in the world in order to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. In this sense, being-in-the-world turns Heidegger on his head by proclaiming that ethics trumps ontology; that response-ability, the ability to respond to the call of the other from wherever it originates is a fundamental obligation of the ethical human being, denying the interiority of the self as more important than the self existing as a social being evidenced by its commitment to the exteriority of the world one encounters in this very moment of existential time.

I exist in this world in order to be of service to the other, to extend my hand whenever and wherever I hear the call of the other asking for help. Must I answer each and every call from the other? No, but I must answer the calls for which I am best equipped. For me, as a personal being existing in the world, I have two major callings. I will answer the call of anyone with a desire to stop drinking by extending my hand and offering the support I can and must offer. I do this because I am a recovering alcoholic with over two decades of not drinking. Recently, because of my diagnosis of prostate cancer I announced my presense to any and all who have the same or similar diagnosis; I will answer the call of anyone with prostate cancer by extending my hand and sharing my experience, strength and hope. The choice of these two ‘causes’ does not preclude my being responsible in other situations; it simply means that I have chosen to priortize my personal sense of responsibility in these two arenas at this very moment. It seems that I recognize my existence within the bounds of the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous and the community of men diagnosed with prostate cancer as well as those men who desire to end prostate cancer as the second leading killer of men in the United States.

 

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Yesterday I was listening to a video made by the Chabad Lubovich dealing with the long-time metaphysical question: Is the existential (material) world real? This question is embedded in the notion that there exists either a material world or a spiritual world, one or the other but not both. The claim being made by Yanki Tauber, the authority on the video, made an argument that was strangely postmodern in its methodology and scope but failed on the evidence relied upon to make the argument in the first place. That he relied on evidence that, at best, could be considered self-serving, helps make his case to those who already believe that the evidence is, at its core, true and must be accepted without question but it fails to convince those of us willing to question the validity of such evidence based on the idea that the assertions made are not warranted.

What do I mean by warranted assertability? The term is a construction first identified by the Pragmatist and philosopher of education, John Dewey. What Dewey argued was, in a nutshell, that many people make all kinds of assertions about what is or is not true. Think of all the assertions made about the recent debacle of the Mayan Apocalypse; so many assertions were made by so many people, all of which proved to be untrue. On the other hand, scientists and astrophysicists, when asked about the possibility of the world ending were in agreement that the Mayan Apocalypse was simply poppycock, that there was not one scintilla of verifiable evidence to support such a claim and were universal in their dismissal of those who made unwarranted assertions. For Dewey, the only valid assertions that are made are those in which verifiable evidence is rigorously examined to ferret out flaws and only when there is a general consensus about the veracity of that evidence; only then can one be said to make a warranted assertion. This not to say that warranted assertions are permanent solutions. New evidence requires new analysis. When it fits the prevailing model, it is included within that model as an extension but when it contradicts the prevailing model, that model must be reexamined in its entirety and a new model emerges from the new data.

Listening to Yanki Tauber, the first place he turned to was the book of Deuteronomy in which Moses, in his final sermon to the Israelites says, not once but twice, “There is nothing other than God.” If this statement is true, then the material world, according to Tauber, is a lie because there can be nothing else in the universe other than God. Yet, here we are. There can be no doubt that we live in a material world. What, then, is the material world? Is it a reflection of the spirituality of God in material form or is the material world here so that human beings may discover spirituality for themselves? A big mystery, yes? Tauber continues by referencing the writings of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Lubovich in the 18th century, proceeding to closely read several of the Alter Rebbe’s writings that address the problem of the existential world. I don’t want to engage in an analysis of Tauber’s continuing argument, one I found quite interesting; my quibble is with one piece of evidence that Tauber relies on to make his argument which, I believe, is an unwarranted assertion and, therefore, the entire argument fails.

That piece of evidence is contained in his first assertion, that there is nothing other than God. Here is the problem. Tauber, like all other Orthodox Jews, believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God whose authorship cannot be questioned. Using such a source as evidence, however, becomes problematic in the face of scholarship focusing on biblical authorship since the middle of the 18th century, beginning with Spinoza. Such scholarship includes linguistic analysis, literary analysis including the analysis of mythology preceding the collection of stories contained in the Five Books of Moses, analysis of contradictions contained within the text and comparison to recently discovered textual material such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, biblical text doesn’t necessarily line up with the archeological record of neighbors such as the ancient record of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Taken as a whole, it seems clear that the Torah was composed by men (Bloom suggests that it was composed by a woman in the court of King Solomon and/or King Rehoboam of Judah, his successor, he calls simply ‘J.’ While admitting to the speculative nature of his conclusions, his analysis falls clearly within the bounds of literary scholarship thereby carrying some weight). The Torah and the remainder of the authoritative Jewish Bible which includes the Prophets and other writings, was, on this view, redacted over time from the 10th century BCE to the end of the 4th century BCE. While the Torah remains the most important text for Jews, it is not the revelation that is claimed by the Rabbis of the Mishnah. As an article of faith, Orthodox Jews accept the first Mishnah found in the Pirkei Avot / The Ethics of the Fathers (the only book of Talmud that has no Gemara as commentary) which reads:

Moses received the Torah form God Who revealed Himself at Mount Sinai and conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders conveyed it to the Prophets; and the Prophets conveyed it to the Men of the Great Assembly…

These words were written by one member of the Great Assembly, Judah the Prince, who decided for the sake of continuity that the oral tradition or oral Torah should be written and accessible to all who come to study. What interest me is that the entire thought is self-serving, proclaiming that those in charge are rightfully in charge because of the sequence of conveyance from Sinai to the present day of the Torah, the Prophets, the other writings through and including the Mishnah and the commentary that follows. No, this is not evidence, rather it is self-indulgent language designed to eliminate the competition and is, therefore, unreliable.

All that being said, the mere fact that Tauber relies on a specific idea that there is nothing outside of God, does not reduce the remainder of his argument as he analyzes textual material that comments on the very idea of the existential world and the potential for the underlying reality. Tauber reads this material closely, pointing out both the development of the Alter Rebbe’s argument over time but also responds to the contradictions contained within that argument. This work, while still turning on the original text from Torah, is far more relevant and, in fact, far more postmodern that even Tauber realizes. Close reading and analysis of textual material, whether inside of a context or outside of the generally accepted context is exciting and certainly peaked my interest. In the end, Tauber draws spiritual conclusions (he is after all a rabbi) based on an existential pursuit of an ethical life; an idea that draws us closer to a spiritual life. God himself needs the material world so that his ethical demands be met by otherwise than God.

This analysis is not substantially different that the analysis that Levinas puts forth in Totality and Infinity and other works. Levinas insists that the existential world, the material world, the world in which we share as sentient beings, creates conditions wherein human beings seek an understanding of the Absolute Other, the ineffable infinity that is nothing but a mystery. That the Absolute Other is reflected in face-to-face connections with the uniqueness of the specific other (human being) if, and only if, that connection is mutually made without reservations and without expectation of reciprocation. It is in the embracing of the uniqueness of the other that one sees mirrored the face of the Absolute Other. This is another way of saying that the existential world holds the potential for understanding a simulacrum of the world of the Absolute Other (a spiritual world if you will)

The former is achieved using a methodology mirrored in Jewish Texts while the latter is achieved using the tools of Western philosophy. Since I understand the tools of philosophy I am attempting to explore the very intricate methodology Jewish thought. I believe that knowing both will make me a better thinker if only because I’ll have two distinct approaches to tackle the same problems.

With Apologies to Bob Wills–Time Changes Everything

Oh you can change the name of an old song
Rearrange it and make it swing
I thought nothing could stop me from loving you
But time changes everything

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Time Changes Everything

With Apologies to Bob Wills--Time Changes Everything

With Apologies to Bob Wills–Time Changes Everything

I grew up on music called Western Swing and the king of Western Swing was a band called Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I loved the sound of the fiddle and as an adult, learned to play at playing the fiddle. Popular tunes that were trademarks of the Texas Playboys like Faded Love and tunes that only those who loved the idea of a swing band that included fiddles like Rolly Polly and San Antonio Rose filled my record (yes vinyl) collection. Right now I have been playing the tune Time Changes Everything as a reminder that I am but five weeks out of surgery and cannot expect everything to be as it was prior to my radical prostatectomy.

This morning I awoke with an almost dry pad. I don’t think this is anything to write home about yet but it is clear that given enough time, the incontinence I have suffered since the removal of the Foley catheter will resolve itself. Phew, that is a relief.

The severe itching that I experienced from the steri-strips used to close the five small wounds is also beginning to resolve. That is also a great relief.

As things begin to resolve and side effects from the surgery diminish, the title of the song Time Changes Everything has been running through my thoughts. Look, I have what is known in some circles as an addictive personality. This means that I want what I want and I want it right now and I’ll do anything to get what I want. It has taken a number of years (22.5 to be precise) to retrain myself to develop patience (although my wife still thinks I am the most impatient person she knows.) Immediate satisfaction is no longer a requirement in my life. The phrase “This Too Shall Pass” taught me that even the greatest emotional or physical pain is not a forever pain, it will pass because Time Changes Everything.

I also learned that living in the moment, in the immeasurably brief moment of time that is always already past, is a powerful way to release negativity and embrace the positive contained within the moment of life. Measuring one’s breath during meditation is a way to engage in the simulacrum of that instant of time, the existential moment of the lived-experience.

I believe it was Edgar Allen Poe that said that life is a dream wrapped up in a dream, or something like that. What remains of the existential moment is a trace, a memory engram that seems to lose much of the negativity of the moment as it fades into distant remembrance. It is impossible to remember what physical pain feels like, rather, we recall that pain was present but not what it felt like. Time Changes Everything. The trace is not the event, is not the moment, is not existential reality. It is merely a recall of time past re-presented in its most positive light. Our remembrance of time past is much like a dream wrapped up in a dream…it is what allows us to survive to face just one more existential moment.

Yes, Time Changes Everything. In the Bob Wills song there is a verse that begins, “The time has passed and I have forgotten you, Mother Nature does wonderful things…” The simple words of the song, one speaking about a lost love, captures the very idea of existential time in terms of both hope and how the trace fades into acceptance the further removed from the moment of lived-experience it gets.

In Those Days . . . At This Time

. . . for the wonders you have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time.
Ve’al hanisim prayer recited on Chanukah

The Vagaries of Time and Place

The Vagaries of Time and Place

The idea among Jews that time is flexible, that holidays are consecrated to recall and to live in is fundamental. The closing six words of the blessing quoted above make this notion of time front and center in the mind of the congregant reciting these words. In this case, the prayer is recited thrice daily during the Chanukah season. This being right around the middle of Chanukah, I decided that a brief commentary is in order because the theme of this blog, In This Very Moment, is clearly echoed in the prayer.

The theme of In those days . . . At this time is one found in many Jewish ideas of celebration. During Passover we are told that we were present at Sinai when God presented Moses (and the Israelites) with the Torah. At festive occasions such as weddings or b’nai mitzvot we are asked to recite a blessing of thanks for allowing us to reach this festive season. During Chanukah we recite the blessing above. Each of these blessings causes us to recall that not only is there cause to be thankful for the events of the past but that each Jew individually was present at the time of the event being celebrated.

How can it be that I was present when the Maccabi army defeated the Greeks in 165 BCE? Physically impossible you say! I agree but that is far too literal an interpretation where the vagaries of time and place are considered. If, as I argue, one lives in the moment, the existential immeasurable moment of time that neither exists nor does not exist, if that instant is the whole of existence, that what is past is but an ever more idealized trace while the future is nothing more than an idealized wish, then the infinitely small slice of existential time has the potential for evoking a trace of long ago events as if one was present oneself. In short, I am able to conger up a trace of in those days as easily as I can conger a trace of at this time. I am not limited by linear time at this very moment of existence. Were I limited to linear time, the prayer would not make any sense nor would the idea that I personally remember the event hold any meaning.

One of the things that provides me with great solace as I continue to recover from my bout with prostate cancer is the very simple idea that I live in this very moment. Or, is it so simple after all? Look, this idea could lead to an unfettered solipsism, however, that fate is countered by the very fact that I am able to base my existence ontologically on the existence of the other, a prospect that is evidence enough for the totality of being. Interpersonal contact in the world allows me to live in this very moment while avoiding the trap of turning inward. That being said (and yes I know the argument is not developed here nor should it be developed fully here given the very nature of this writing) I can turn to the idea of time itself.

Existential time, the time of the lived experience, is infinitely brief. The moment it is recognized it is always already past. Existential time begins without memory and moves along a linear path to end without memory. Birth and death set the limits of existential time. Existential time, while shared with others, is limited to each individual. It is singular in nature, pluralized as one acts as an agent in the world. This pluralization, however, is but the sharing of existential timelines and not a merger of those timelines.

Two additional timelines can be identified as well. The first is a shared community timeline. Based on the idea that mutual interests create community, the community timeline consists of texts, stories and ritual behavior that binds people together for a purpose. These communities generally exist prior to one joining up and exist long after one leaves the community for whatever reason. These shared communities tend to exert a pressure to conform to the texts, stories and rituals of that community. At no time, however, can the community as an entity be said to have an existential timeline it can call its own. Its history is that of the history of individual members of the community and can be told only through the archives of the community itself, its texts and rituals.

The last timeline that can be recognized is the archival (historical) timeline. Let me cite an example. As I write this blog entry I am writing in the moment. In fact, I present you with first draft writing that is not unlike a stream of consciousness. I am writing in existential time in order to leave behind a trace of my overall thinking. That trace is the blog entry as it exists in archival time. The document you are reading at this very moment was produced and archived by me in another moment, and what is left is this trace document. The document now exists on its own two feet, severed from the author yet belonging to the author as a remembrance, an artifact or archive of thought.

In a community, many of the archival documents can be examined and interpreted in order to form a history of the community, a trace of the experiences of the group membership rather than a true accounting of the events occurring in existential time. As one reads these interpretations in existential time, one can be returned to the moment of existence that created the original archival memory.

On this argument, time and place are vaguely connected by traces of archival time which are then connected to community time. Both of these are shared timelines that stem from the timelines of lived experiences in existential time.

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