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No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V

From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V

From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V

From where I sit any number of inconsistencies jump out at me with regard to the ineffable God. This feeling was reinforced last night as I listened carefully to Rabbi Mendel discuss the ten plagues that God delivered upon Egypt as Moses asked Pharaoh to. “Let my people go.” The argument went as follows. The plagues are divided into three distinct segments. The first three plagues announce that, “I am God.” The second three announce that, “I am God and I am right here.” And finally the last four announce that, “Not only am I God and that I am here but I am both the only God there is and I am all powerful.” Interesting, but the argument proceeds a bit further by making the claim that these plagues that were brought down upon Egypt were not for the benefit of the Egyptians as a means to demonstrate the power of God but were, in fact, for the benefit of the Israelites as they required signs and wonders in order to be able to serve God upon their release from Egypt and their time in the desert..

Two important questions arise. First, if God is really God why does God have to create signs and wonders in order to prove God’s own existence? Secondly, why does the all powerful God require plagues, symbols of punishment and displeasure, rather than acts of loving kindness to prove God’s existence? Rabbi Mendel’s response to these two questions, the first posed by me and the second actually from another participant, although I was also thinking along those lines as well, is that God created the physical world as the lowest place on the ladder of eternity so that God could have a world in which the inhabitants could discover the spiritual nature of eternity and God. This answer did not seem satisfactory to me. He also argued that it is not for us human beings to question the mind of God because we can never know what God might be thinking. Also unsatisfactory.

I would like to take a metaphorical stab at the problem of the ten plagues, one that doesn’t require God to prove it is God, rather, one that strongly suggests that there are fundamental ethical obligations that are learned from the very interesting grouping of the plagues and their intended audience. Let me first look at the problem of the plagues and the Egyptians. On the surface, the plagues are intended to soften the Pharaoh’s spirit, to weaken him much like a prize fighter seeks to weaken his opponent in preparation for the knockout punch. If you compare each plague to a round in a boxing match this interpretation makes sense. Each plague brings on greater and greater devastation on Egypt, thereby weakening Pharaoh’s resolve. In the early rounds, Pharaoh’s priests and magicians are able to fight back, to do the same things that were being brought on by God but as the fight progressed, the priests and magicians were rendered moot because they could no longer respond to the devastating blows of each plague. The Egyptian resolve is finally broken by the knockout blow of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn in the tenth and final round.

From the perspective of the Israelites, they are not yet Jews, the intended audience, there is an entirely different picture.   At first, the Israelites are able to witness the Egyptian priests and magicians do the very same thing as Moses is doing through the intercession of God. The announcement that, “I am God,” appears to be no different than the Egyptian claims to eternity. Blow for blow the Egyptians are able to counter the magic tricks of God and thereby tend to weaken the spirit of the Israelites. By the time the next three plagues are over, the announcement that, “I am God and I am here,” carries a bit more weight because the Egyptians are weakening and are unable to match the plagues. The Israelites can now cheer for their God without having to think about the Egyptian gods having power over their God; at this stage, the Israelites were unable to appreciate the singularity of deity, the idea of a single God, the monism of eternity. At the conclusion of the next three plagues, when God announces, “Not only am I God and not only am I here, but there is no God other than me and I am all powerful,” that the Israelites begin to recognize the power of God. It took the final plague, the slaying of the first born to release them to the desert, to wander for 40 years.

One of the major themes running through the Torah is the fundamental obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The story of the ten plagues emphasizes the fact that the plagues were brought on the Egyptian population and not on the Israelites. Talk about being a stranger in a strange land, the Israelites were singled out as being different from the Egyptians; their uniqueness (as well as the uniqueness of the Egyptians) was, in fact, the question at hand. It is a perfect metaphor for the very idea of uniqueness, only in this case the uniqueness leads to a lack of communication, to a total lack of understanding between Pharaoh and Moses. It is as if they were talking past each other rather than seeking a platform of understanding. Moses approached Pharaoh with an agenda that was not to be shaken, “Let my people go,” he shouted. Pharaoh responded by making the lives of the Israelites even harsher even while the Israelites were free of the devastation rendered upon the Egyptians.

From where I sit, the later commandment to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, when seen in the light of the notion that Israel was the audience for the plagues, to soften them up to accept the burden that Hillary Putnam, writing on Levinas, calls the fundamental ethical obligation to make oneself available to the other, to care for the other without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation; to reach out to the Infinite, the Absolute Other, through the relationship the self has with the other (human being). The plagues offer the metaphor for being the stranger in the strange land, in the land of Egypt; that because you know what it is to be a stranger, to be an other, the fundamental ethical obligation is easier to grasp, to understand, than if you were never a stranger yourself. On this view, God has no need to prove its existence, in fact, there really is no need for there to be a God at all. Rather, the mere repetition of the metaphorical story returns Jews to Egypt each and every year, at the Passover Seder, a ritual tradition where the story of the exodus is repeated and we are told that we (not they) were slaves in the land of Egypt and we (not they) were freed to wander the desert for 40 years, and we (not they) have the sacred obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Even if there is no God, we have an obligation to act as if there is, for only then will we accept the burden of the fundamental ethical obligation and embrace the uniqueness of the stranger in our midst.

The burden of learning to think in Jewish is, it seems, exciting and frustrating. I am grateful for my teacher, a man who really makes me think differently that I have ever thought before; another thing to add to my gratitude list.

Learning to “Think in Jewish”


Infant (Photo Credit: Roger Passman)

Later this morning my wife and I are going to an open house at the Chabad of Elgin and Hoffman Estates. The rabbi and his wife are celebrating the birth of their new daughter with the community they are building. I am looking forward to this event.

So what is an atheist Jew doing spending time with a Hasidic rabbi and his family? Funny you should ask. In this post I’ll try to explain, if not for you, for myself. Two reasons jump out to me. The first is that Rabbi Mendel is a meaningful example of living the fundamental ethical obligation, living a life of service without reservation. Secondly, and this is quite a selfish reason, I will be studying Jewish texts with Rabbi Mendel in order to better learn how to “think in Jewish.” Let me elaborate.

The Fundamental Ethical Obligation

About six months ago, Rabbi Mendel and his wife and infant son packed up and left Ohio for Elgin, Illinois. He was commanded to leave his father’s home, much like Abraham was commanded to leave his father’s home, and go to a land where he would build a Jewish community. With only a few dollars to his name and a donation of a house and some land upon which to build, he and his family set out on this great adventure. Arriving in Elgin, Rabbi Mendel announced to anyone who would listen, Here I Am! without knowing anyone there, establishing a proximate space and he waited. His announcement is made (it is an announcement made in this very moment without interruption) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation, yet people hear it and they come.

I met Rabbi Mendel about a month ago. I explained to him that I do not believe in god, that I was raised Jewish but I rejected the religious aspect of my life. While I still acknowledge my Jewishness, I do not chose to perform the tasks required of the religion. I explained that my interest was to learn to “Think in Jewish.” I already know how to “think in Greek” the logical discourse that the West took from Athens and made its own but because of the influence of Emmanuel Levinas and his ability to synthesize thinking in Jewish and thinking in Greek, I wanted to develop a competence in “Thinking in Jewish.”

I responded, reciprocated if you will, to Rabbi Mendel’s open invitation and, in spite of the fact that I did not absolutely fit his Hasidic mold, I was embraced. That’s right, my difference was and is embraced by this man from Ohio who left his father’s house and set out, like Abraham, to find his own way. The fundamental ethical obligation to be responsible for the welfare of the other sets up the obligation to embrace the other as one finds him or her; to embrace difference without reservation. Certainly, this obligation is part of the lived-experience of Rabbi Mendel. It provides me with a living model of the ethical experience, one that reaches well beyond the theoretical.

Thinking in Jewish

In graduate school I was trained to think in a logical, deliberate manner, to think in the language of philosophers, to think in Greek. During my academic career that thinking served me well. I published academic papers, wrote a book that was published, presented academic papers internationally and influenced the lives of many of my undergraduate and graduate students as well as the lives of many of my middle school students before I entered post-secondary education.

Then I discovered Levinas’s work which led me to deconstruction and a different way of thinking. Somewhere along the line I decided that if I were to become competent as a complete thinker, I needed to learn to “Think in Jewish” as well as Greek. I tried reading Jewish texts without a teacher and found that, while there is a logic to the approach, that logic is not completely clear to me. Like deconstruction, a method that concentrates on language use, the sages of the Talmud uncover meaning through concentrating on language, sometimes on single words and sometimes on single letters within words. How words are pronounced also creeps into the logic of the Talmud (Hebrew and Aramaic being vowel-less written languages making pronounceation a matter of interpretation).

Without a competent teacher, one may uncover the methodology for reading these texts but it is a difficult chore. For quite selfish reasons, therefore, I sought out a competent Talmudic scholar to help me understand how to “Think in Jewish.” When I told Rabbi Mendel of my reason for wanting to “Think in Jewish” he stood ready to help me in my studies.

So there you have it. A true model for the ethical life I know in theory and someone, because of his commitment to what I call the fundamental ethical obligation (thanks to Hillary Putnam), is willing to help me learn how to “Think in Jewish.” What more could one ask for except to be able to celebrate a new life on this beautiful Sunday morning.

Here is not an Indifferent Place

Here, for example, is not an indifferent place.
Jacques Derrida


Reflection (Photo credit: martinak15)

Happy Thanksgiving to anyone reading this piece. Yes, it is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. For some it is a day without work unless, of course, you count the interaction with relatives work. For others, Thanksgiving is a day for reflection set aside to contemplate all of the things for which one is grateful; it matters little whether one is grateful to a deity, a gaggle of deities, or that one eschews religious or theistic connections to find a place for gratitude. It is not necessary to be grateful to something rather one is grateful for something. As a modifier, grateful stands on its own two feet without the necessity for an object to which one is grateful. I am grateful for something is as clever a use of the modifier as being grateful to something or another is. The distinction between “for” and “to” is one worth exploring; it is not indifferent nor is it neutral, rather it is a distinction that marks the boundary between ethical responsibility and social compliance.

Let me announce two things for which I am grateful: First, I am grateful for my wife (tomorrow we celebrate 26 years of marriage) without whom I would not be the man I have become. Secondly, I am grateful for my diagnosis of cancer without which I would not have had to explore theoretical ethical obligations with the object of discovering practical applications for otherwise theoretical platitudes. I suspect these two items on my list of gratitude are deeply connected. Without Susan, I might have continued to live a life of wandering from pillar to post “with no direction home, a complete unknown” and no focus. I became a teacher because she opened the door to teaching as a real possibility and that, in turn, opened the door to an examined life in which thinking about things and discovering ideas, both old and new, was engaging and, even more importantly, fun. But all that exploration was just that, exploration, until I heard the words “You have cancer.”

There is little else that focuses one on one’s own mortality than facing a life-threatening disease. In my case, that focus turned to that which I know, that which I learned from Emmanuel Levinas, that which Hillary Putnam calls the fundamental ethical obligation in order to find a practical application, one that would allow for the deeper practice of an ethical life. The fundamental ethical obligation is the obligation to be available for the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Substantially different from Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship primarily because the I-Thou requires reciprocation, Levinas’s ethical obligation proposes that one announce one’s presence to the other, thereby creating a proximity, a nearness without the barrier of space or time, while, simultaneously, waiting for a response that may never come. This is a responsibility for and is, therefore, quite unlike Buber’s responsibility to, the other.

On this Thanksgiving Day, it occurred to me that writing this blog is not an indifferent act, rather it is one of announcement, of “Here I Am!” made without reservation and without any expectation of reciprocation. I invite others to join in this conversation through comments but I cannot expect people to accept that invitation. It is quite enough to make the announcement, create a proximate place, and then wait, to sit quietly and listen to the absolute silence of the almost infinite universe.

So Happy Thanksgiving…Take some time to reflect on what you are grateful for! You may find unexpected surprises buried underneath the rubble of the lived-experience. I certainly did!

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