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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.

 

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.

 

What a Week

What a week this has been and it is only Wednesday. It feels like I have been in and out of doctors’ offices every day for the past two weeks but this past seven days has been quite a trip. Since I had that urinary tract infection, which appears to be resolved, I have had some crazy numbers related to kidney function, so much so that I saw a kidney specialist a few days ago. He told me straight up that, while my kidney function appeared to be improving, I still have chronic kidney disease. When I tried to pin him down about what that broad description actually meant he simply said, “Let’s wait for the test results.” so I had to pee in a very large cup and had blood drawn. It is now a waiting game to find out what needs to be done to make this better…if anything.

To top that, I woke up on Saturday with a huge pain in my abdomen, a sharp, knife-like, stabbing pain that began in the center of my guts just below the diaphragm radiating out to the left and right. The pain persists, sometimes intense, sometimes mild and even sometimes gone; it is almost like the pain comes and goes in waves. Once again, I have to wait and see what the blood work looks like before my primary care doc will even think about what to do next. Medicine is a waiting game, meanwhile, I still am in pain. The good news there is that the pain is not getting any worse.

So I am engaged in a great waiting game, a game in which I am literally out of control. All I can do is wait. For me, this means that I have to think about the worst possible diagnosis, accept that diagnosis and then take whatever actions are needed to help with the cure. Once I accept the worst possible outcome, I am freed from the anxiety of that very possibility allowing me to effectively weigh my options once they are presented to me. In this particular case, I am thinking that the worst possible outcome is death stemming from a massive breakdown of my internal organs. While I do not know the specifics of the breakdown, I know that there is a reasonable possibility that things inside don’t look so good. I accept that possibility while I wait for the doctors to offer me options for treatment. Whatever speculations I make now are fear based and not based on evidence. Because they are fear based, there is no rational reason to pay any attention to my own speculations other than to accept the worst possible outcome. Now I am ready to move on.

In the next seven to ten days I should know more and know what my treatment options are. Then I have some decisions to make. Until then, I think I’ll head out to Starbucks and enjoy a cup of really good coffee.

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.

 

Infusions, Doctors and Life Generally

Infusions, Doctors and Life Generally

Infusions, Doctors and Life Generally

As I was sitting in the very comfortable reclining chair getting hooked up for my sixth infusion of antibiotics to deal with the  resistant echoli strain that has seen fit to invade my body, I was struck by the idea that since my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and recovery period, I have slowed down. Now slowing down is a good thing. It began when I took off my watch forcing me to be less concerned with time in general. While the act of refusal to recognize time as a constraint was difficult at first, it has become a blessing. To not feel the urgency of time makes the time I have more precious; something akin to a gift from myself to myself. At the same time, I have not lost my appetite for punctuality. This may seem a contradiction but I think it is not. When everything is run by the clock then punctuality is an obsession but when I take the time to just take in what is there, punctuality becomes an ethical act; an act of respect for the other whether the other is driven by the clock or not.

So sitting in that chair, talking to Cynthia, the nurse administering the antibiotic, I noticed all of the surroundings, the pictures on the wall, the clock with the broken second hand, the smell and taste of the antibiotic as it drips into my veins. In the moment of that half hour of dripping solutions I was at one with the universe.

Since taking off the watch six or so months ago the world seems to spin at a slower pace. Of course it isn’t the case but the fact that I take the time to notice things I didn’t have the time to notice before is a bonus that was totally unexpected. I hear the voices of doctors as they try to figure out what is going on with me and find the urgency of one doc countered by the patience of another as they look at the results of the data. One doc looks at a number and nearly panics while the other looking at the same numbers takes the approach of waiting to see how the whole picture develops before striking out with a treatment plan. I think that one should never treat a number, rather one should look at the whole picture and treat the cause of the abnormal data that emerges over time. Jumping in without all the facts is as dangerous as denial of the emerging data. While one cannot be absolutely certain when incomplete data is present, one cannot allow oneself to be driven by the presence of a single abnormal number either. That too is an insight I learned after taking off my watch and allowed myself the luxury of observation.

As an aside, I found it interesting that even with the PICC line inserted I had to be stuck to draw blood in my internist’s office. What a waste of a good PICC line. When in the infusion center blood was also drawn and the same blood numbers will be analyzed. Why twice? Could it be profits are involved?

 

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action...Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

Once the foundation of analysis was laid out by the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds they turned to the problem of holiness, of what is spiritually clean and unclean and how the lines of demarcation were drawn to insure that the actions of the community would, when properly practiced, form a holy space on earth. The sages rationalized from their own insistance that God created the entire universe with a divine purpose; that nothing happened without the purposeful intervention of a just and fair God for whom the purpose of creation is known. Human beings, in the sages minds, served as the ultimate teleological rationale for creation but that was merely speculation because nothing could penetrate the actual mind of God. They were also faced with the problem that rendered it all but impossible to understand the communal punishments as nothing other than the workings of a just God; for them the very thought of an unjust, capricious God was outside the realm of the possible. Their task, therefore, was to create a world in which the separation of the profane from the sacred could be achieved, if not in total at the very least as a conscious effort to mirror God’s heaven on earth. Their solution was to make clear distinctions of space, time and action (in terms of prohibitions) that turned teleology into theology.

These categories are made most clear in Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Mishnah and Talmuds dealing with the laws of the Sabbath. By separating space into public, private and neutral (karmelis) the sages made it clear that the space surrounding man was made for different purposes and that these purposes carried with them a divine spark that must not be violated. The public space equates to profane space, the place where work is permitted while private space (defined generally as the place where one eats his bread) equates to spiritual or sacred space separated from that public or profane space by a set of laws that make clear how one is to celebrate the sacred space as holy. Once armed with the distinction of space as public or private (karmelis presented a different problem and is defined as neither public or private but neutral) the sages begin by offering arguments as to what can and cannot be transferred from public to private or private to public space on the Sabbath. The fundamental rule to be followed maintains that the household, the private space, is sacred therefore not subject to invasion from the profane space of the outside public world. Nor should the stuff that represents what is holy be transferred to the public world on the Sabbath. The absolute separation of space requires diligence on one day of each week, mirroring the culmination of God’s work in creation; in fact, the entirety of Jewish theology turns on the very idea that creation is relived in the sense that on six days there is disorder and chaos while on the seventh day sacred order is restored. The teleological idea of creation is thereby converted into the theological insistence that creation is the guiding miracle and that all others pale in comparison.

Separation of space is nothing if not the first step in the separation that guides how one thinks about the profane and sacred. The idea that time must also be separated into profane and holy is the second leg of this three legged stool. During the time between sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday time stands still in the sense that the Sabbath is a day in which nothing happens that is not designated as holy prior to the advent of the Sabbath. No ‘work’ is to be done that benefits the worker. No utensil is to be used that is not properly designated for use on the Sabbath. This does not mean, for example, that one cannot keep food warm on the Sabbath so long as the flame keeping the food warm was started prior to sundown of Friday and not tended all day Saturday. If the fire had to be tended then a violation of the Sabbath occurs because the tender of the flame benefits from that action. During the sacred or holy time of Sabbath two criteria must be met when deciding whether or not the act is allowed. First, does the action (work) have a lasting impact when the act itself is finished. In short, is something being accomplished or are the results of the action taken merely transitory? Secondly, does the act benefit the individual actor or the larger community as a whole? If it does it is prohibited during the time designated as sacred and if not then the act is permissible. There are many arcane laws that seem to be arbitrary but when placed under the microscope of separation of space and time appear as consistent.

Finally, the separation of profane and sacred turns on the prohibited acts and the intentional violation of such actions in terms of atonement required and/or the communal consequences of mass violation of separation of profane and holy that befall the entire house of Israel. Here is where the teleological meets the theological head on. Contextually the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds are struggling with the consequences of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the abrupt, painful shift from the Temple cult of atonement sacrifices to the synagogue as a simulacrum of the sacrificial atonement through prayer. Because the Temple was destroyed, a great tragedy is imposed on the Jewish people by a just God (the other alternative is outside the possible) due to their profane actions, actions that angered their just God. It is ever more important after such a tragic consequence to become even more rigorous in as to how one practices one’s beliefs. Stringent laws apply to even the most mundane activities in order to assure that some time in the future God’s purpose will be revealed through the coming of the Messiah. Yet, all of the laws boil down to a set of principles that separate the profane from the sacred in such a way as to keep the distinction clear in the minds of the people practicing the acts of separation itself.

It is precisely here where the two Judaisms diverge. Rabbinic Judaism focused on the intentions of human beings to keep the law that led to the separation of sacred and holy from the profane. Christianity, on the other hand, placed all responsibility for separating the holy from the profane in the hands of the Messiah, the sin-eater, the person-God and all that was needed was a belief in the efficacy of this Messiah and all would be well with the world. Neither of these Judaisms could escape the stranglehold of the teleological idea of purpose nor the eschatological notion of the end of times when the teleological is fulfilled. The primary difference turns on how one defines the theological response. Rabbinic Judaism places the responsibility for atonement in the hands of human beings while Christianity places the very idea of forgiveness in the hands of their identified Messiah. In either case, the underlying assumption turns on the belief in the very idea that creation is purposeful, that there is a definite end to history as we know it and that the God in control is just and fair. To this I would argue quite the opposite. Creation is a random event that progresses (not in any linear sense rather in the sense that there is an appearance of progress) randomly to the universe we are privy to at this very moment. As to God’s justice, the evidence is simply not there and it is not good enough to not be able to contemplate the possibility of any other alternative.

While I am beginning to understand the rationale, that understanding is mitigated by a post-modern ethic that rejects teleological and eschatological responses to tragedy. The demands of separation of profane and holy are meaningless in the face of the randomness of the universe and, if there is a God at all, the capriciousness of that impotent God spreading tragedy, war and hatred across the globe. One need not separate the sacred from the profane, withdraw from the world or otherwise disappear into a quagmire of priestly regulations to live a moral or ethical life. All that is required is the ability to live in this very moment and announce to the world that “Here I Am!” expressing a readiness to be response-able for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

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.

 

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