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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.

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

The Vaguaries of Community

The Vagaries of Community

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community

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

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

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

The Chabad as Community

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

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

Alcoholics Anonymous as Community

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

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

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

Ethnicity and Race

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

Questions that Remain Open

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

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.

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.”

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.

 

Response to the Demands We Do Not Create: Thinking In Jewish XXIX

I do not see reality as morally indifferent: reality, as Dewey saw, makes demands on us. Values may be created by human beings and human cultures, but I see them as made in response to demands that we do not create. (emphasis in original)
Hillary Putnam, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life 

Response to the Demands We Do Not Create: Thinking In Jewish XXIX

Response to the Demands We Do Not Create: Thinking In Jewish XXIX

Hillary Putnam here makes an interesting distinction between human values, a subjective notion conditioned on the culture in which one lives, and moral decisions as a response to demands extant and separated from the values of cultural heritage. Yet he also argues that the attempt to discover the metaphysical essence of a thing, an emotion, or even of God is hopeless, not because it is difficult but because it is absurd. Rather than be limited by metaphysical questions that have no answer, one must adopt a sense of wonder, a sense that asks no philosophical questions rather it stands apart from rules and systems that philosophers and theologians build to justify the very essence of all kinds of stuff.

Putnam’s distinction follows from the work of Franz Rosenzweig and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

The absurdity of metaphysics is, accordingly, not something that Rosenzweig argues for, as Wittgenstein argues that one or another metaphysical explanation of how it is possible to follow a rule, or possible to refer to things, collapses into absurdity when carefully probed, but rather something that he tries to make us feel by ironic redescription. (emphasis in original)
Hillary Putnam, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life

It seems to me that the distinction Putnam is making is one in which values/ethics are either born of metaphysics in which teleological attributes must be attached or from a rather impersonal, statistically pure realm of probability in which one will necessarily attach a level of absurdity to the whole affair. Either the demands we do not create are created with a purpose or those demands are created as the outcome of probabilities. In either case, the demands created are outside of the control of individual human beings, small groups of human beings, or whole societies or cultures of human beings. If created with a teleological purpose, then it is likely to be created by some form or another of a creator God; if, on the other hand, creation has no purpose, one can and, indeed, must simply turn away from the very idea of a creator God relying on the notion that the world we see today is the result not of a purposeful creator but the random actions of probabilities with no central purpose involved.

As I was sitting in Synagogue this morning (yes, this atheist Jew practices some rituals because I find them meditative, relaxing and it provides me with a sense of community that cannot be found elsewhere) I was reflecting on how to claim Judaism for myself without claiming the teleological sense of a creator God creating the universe and mankind with a purpose, one hidden from mankind for sure, but a purpose nevertheless. I find it quite interesting that on the one hand, Rabbi Mendel talks about not being able to describe God and on the other hand he can talk about the Torah as a book of instructions for life, even those instructions we cannot understand because we cannot understand the mind or essence of God himself.

Like Wittgenstein, I wondered how it is possible to follow rules that collapse into absurdity when carefully probed. While some of the rules make sense, many collapse on their face because they defy explanation. These are the rules that must be accepted at face value or not at all because they cannot stand up to investigation or analysis. Trying to understand the essence of these rules, those that defy explanation, is precisely what Wittgenstein means when he argues that they collapse into absurdity.

On the other hand, it can be successfully argued that when one attempts to analyze such rules rather than simply living the rules as a apart of a wonder filled life, one need not attempt deep analysis of rules or structures at all. One simply lives the life described and that is the end of that. No analysis needed.

I am not at that point. If something appears absurd on its face I choose to think of it as absurd. So how do I justify my attending Sabbath morning services while still professing an atheist stance? The very simple answer to that question rests on the very idea that even if there is no God, even if there is no purpose to the universe, even if the universe is an absurd random number generator run by probabilities, one still has the obligation to act as if there is a creator God. I can separate the idea of teleology, a metaphysical notion, from the idea of response-able ethical actions born of the essential formula that Rabbi Hillel once shared with a man asking him to describe the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, “What is hurtful to you do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” This atheist Jew studies and partakes as if there is a God while holding on to the very idea that teleology is dead on arrival.

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.

 

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

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

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

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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