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Archive for the tag “Jacques Derrida”

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

What does he pray? Rav Zutra bar Toviyah said in the name of Rav: May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger, and that My mercy overcome My sterner attributes, and that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of judgment.
Talmud Bavli, Berachot (Blessings), 7a

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

The snippet of Talmud above comes from the tractate dealing with blessings, the law of blessings, when they should be said, how they should be said, where one can perform them and so forth.In this brief encounter with the Gemara (the rabbinic commentary on the earlier Mishnah), Rabbi Zutra bar Toviyah informs us, not in his words, but in the words of another sage, Rav, that Rav prayed for mercy in three distinct places, to control his own anger, to overcome his sterner behaviors, and that he be able to show mercy to his children when needed. He goes on to consider the very idea of mercy as being beyond the boundary of judgment or reason. Embedded in this brief encounter with Rav Zutra and Rav himself is one of the foundations of Jewish ethics, the attribute of mercy or, perhaps, translated as compassion for the other.

I find it interesting that the translators of the Aramaic text chose to use an upper case ‘M’ in My. Perhaps this is to emphasize the fact that Rav was not asking to understand God’s will for him in this instance, Jews rarely do this, rather he was praying to control his own willful behavior; to restrain his natural propensities toward anger and stern action and not to have God intervene to change his nature. In this act of translation (or interpretation) the translator understood that, especially in the time when the Talmud was being constructed, the sages understood that interpretations of laws (and, perhaps, the behavior of living human beings) was not governed by what goes on in heaven, rather the duty to interpret the law and to engage in willful behavior, was in the hands of living human beings almost as if there were no God in the heavens at all. By praying to control his own relationship to the concept of mercy or compassion, Rav was acting consistently with the attitudes of the sages of the Talmud. But I digress…

The notion of compassion or mercy is also an important aspect of the very idea of responsibility in an ethical sense. I have written about this idea many times but it still bears repeating: The primary ethical obligation is to make oneself available to become responsible for the welfare of the other [parson] without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. In is monograph, Hospitality, Jacques Derrida focuses on the very idea of reciprocation through the eyes of a host. Emmanuel Levinas, in almost all of his writing, both philosophical and his Jewish commentaries, focuses on the idea of offering up the self without reservation for the welfare and benefit of the other. When Rav prays for his own mercy, the overcoming of personal negative attributes, what he is also praying for is to become available to the other, to become aware of other people around him in order that he be better able to become response-able.

Rav is not praying for reason or judgment, rather, he is praying for unthinking restraint in order that he can ‘see’ the other, to become available emotionally and not rationally. He is not abandoning reason, rather he is putting reason in its proper place by acknowledging that reason has little place in his personal relationships with others. He recognizes that this is a personal journey, one in which there is no intervention from a higher power, an intervening God. Rav is announcing in his prayer Hinani (Here I am!). Here I stand, naked, waiting for the call of the other to engage. No judgment here, only raw emotion waiting to become. When the call comes, Rav wishes to show mercy before anger, mercy before strictness, and mercy before his children.  Rav is praying to become response-able. So am I.

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Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

As readers already know I am a secular Jew. I am also a Jewish atheist. This set of facts, perhaps, presents a difficult question of trying to connect these two similar but separate positions. How can this aporia be resolved; how is an understood connection to a Jewish continuum be reconciled with a secular position of atheism, a rational rejection of the existence of God? Is it possible that the two are not self-exclusionary, one canceling the other? In fact, I believe they are compatible, even necessary in today’s hyper-atomistic, self-centered, selfish world.

Let me begin with the idea that in spite of being a secular Jewish American I am directly connected to a lineage that dates back perhaps 14 millennia; a lineage of written texts that tell the story of a particular people arising from the stories of the Middle East. Texts, with origins in mythology, beginning with the Torah and carried on as a tradition of teaching and learning through the rest of the Tanakh, Mishnah, the two Talmuds and commentaries that followed to the present day. While I have a deep interest in understanding the historical relationship of text to text as well as an interest in an account of who may or may not have committed those texts to writing thereby preserving them for generations to come, in the final analysis it simply doesn’t matter about the historicity of the texts themselves or the authorship of those texts. While I find much to disagree with in the textual message, like the very idea that an all powerful God would be so insecure as to require curses for disobedience, when one carefully explores the texts themselves as total entities rather than as catch phrases, there is often a significant underlying ethical truth revealed.

One might ask, for example, if there is any ‘truth’ to Shakespeare’s character of Shylock or MacBeth, or Lear any more than there is any ‘truth’ in the biblical Moses, King David or Job. Let’s for a moment consider that all six characters mentioned are fictional. Does this mean that the characters themselves do not exist? I believe it can safely be argued that all six exist in the here and now while the question as to whether or not they were historical figures is irrelevant. They exist because they can easily be accessed because their words have been preserved in the continuity of text. Each of the characters may be accessed and the lessons they have to offer may be learned irregardless of whether or not I profess faith or belief, whether or not I believe in a creator deity or question if William Shakespeare actually was the author of the body of work attributed to him. Those questions, it seems, are irrelevant to the ethics embedded in the stories, in the available human lessons that may be learned. In thinking about the textual connection as a viable condition for understanding I am able to turn faith into wonder.

In this sense, wonder provides a unique freedom to accept some but not all of the written word. It means that I am able to read a text critically and completely; to not be satisfied with slogans cherry-picked from the text without placing those slogans into a rich context of the whole text from which the slogans were stripped. There is much in Jewish textual material that I find abhorrant at worst and naive at best. Some of the text I find arbitrary while some simply cannot stand up to the scrutiny of a natural world. Yet there are stories in the vastness and complexity of Jewish textual material that illustrate important ethical lessons. The fact that some of the texts are deserving of rejection does not mean that much is not worthy of consideration. It is interesting to consider, for example, that just among the named sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the two Talmuds, there are more people richly contributing to the texts that all of the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome combined. There is a rich scholarly heritage attached to the library of Jewish textual documents that serve the greater purpose of providing continuity from generation to generation across millennia

While I rationally reject the existence of God (as Bertrand Russell once quipped about this very subject, “Not enough evidence!”) and see little purpose in following an arbitrary set of commandments that are supposed to insure that I live an ethical life based on the fear of reprisal from an impassioned God, I do not reject the continuity provided across more generations than I can ever hope to count, a continuity bound together by an ever increasing volume of textual response to problems of the day. Being a secular Jewish atheist is completely in accord with the continuity of text, of the words spoken by my grandfather’s grandfather as far back as human memory cares to travel. I read these texts from a sense of wonder rather than from a sense of faith or belief and the wonder allows me to connect to the living characters, the men and women that were we to be able to meet across space and time would have something in common to talk about.

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

If there is a gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure.
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (emphasis in original)

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

Giving of gifts is one of those taken-for-granteds that most of us never think about the implications or consequences of gifting. What if, however, giving of gifts were an expression of ethical behavior? What if gifting were a selfless act of response-ability? Ethical response-ability requires one to become available, to announce one’s presence, one’s availability to be of service to the other. Furthermore, it requires one to become available without any expectation of reciprocation on the part of the other. Ethical response-ability is a one-way street, it is the giving of the self for the welfare of the other after announcing availability and waiting for the cry of the other. Ethical response-ability is initiated by the self but only so far as to announce availability. There it stops, waiting in proximate space for the cry of the other to interrupt the proximate space, tearing the fabric of complacency by requiring a response. Then and only then must the proximate self act for the welfare of the other. Ethical response-ability is not in the business of offering assistance when or where it is not wanted. It only responds it does not initiate.

When I give a gift, when I am the giver, what are my expectations? Do I give the gift freely without expectations of reciprocation or does my gift signal the fact that I expect something in return? If I am giving in order to get, if, in other words, I have clear expectations of reciprocation, then it is difficult to classify my gift as a gift; it is more akin to a bribe, inducement or incentive. When a gift is given in order to secure cooperation on the other end, clearly the gift initiates a circle of giving and receiving that can only be classified as self-serving. While one may call this gifting, because it requires action by the other in order to complete the circle, it may better be classified as a quasi-contract spilling out into the realm of economics rather than ethics. Think about how many times you have looked at a holiday list of giving and decided not to send a gift to someone because they didn’t send you a gift last year or the year before. This kind of gifting, I’ll send you a gift if you’ll send me one of equal or greater value, fails the test of ethical behavior. Think about how many times you have given a gift to someone with the thought, “If I give this gift I’ll surely get back far more in return?”

If, on the other hand, my expectations are such that I have none, that I have given a gift without any expectation of reciprocation, then my gift may fall into the category of ethical response-ability. It is rare that one can give a gift without any expectations. If I give a donation to my local symphony orchestra they will give me a set of gifts in return. This gift, while altruistic, comes with reciprocation built into the contract. Even if I give this gift anonymously, so that my name is not listed in the program giving the impression that I want nothing in return, not even recognition, the gift came with baggage that can only be classed as reciprocation and is, therefore, not a gift but a contract; I’ll give you this and you’ll give me that in return.

Random acts of kindness, acts that require no reciprocation, such as holding the door open for a stranger, come close to the true sense of a gift but often fail when there is an inner (or outer) set of doors and the stranger then holds the door open for you. No, the only true gift is the one that announces “Here I AM!” and then waits for the cry of the other so that one can act response-ably for the benefit of the other. The very idea of giving a gift is impossible except when one selflessly makes oneself available to be of service to another in need.

Trace as a Mark of Future and Past which is Neither: Thinking In Jewish VI

Trace as a Mark of Future and Past which is Neither: Thinking In Jewish VI

Trace as a Mark of Future and Past which is Neither: Thinking In Jewish VI

Being exists in existential time, neither in the past or in the future but in the now of the moment. What then appears as linear time is the leavings of the trace, that which defers to memory or to a projected future that may or may not occur. Freud thought of the trace as a reserve to protect against making dangerous investments (decisions) in the moment of existence. For Derrida, the idea of the trace is inseparable from the artifact of writing, that which records the moment by selecting what is to be remembered. The now, the moment of existential time is preserved through the primacy of writing which is inseparable from the idea of differance, a neologism representing the idea of the recorded trace that can only be found in the written word.

The trace produces a simulacrum of preserved moments, a recorded memory that, standing apart from the author, is subject to the signification brought to the page by the reader. While the text appears to be clear, there is no absolute identity or meaning contained within the words on the page. While an extracted meaning constructed by any given reader may be different than that of any other reader, no single reading nullifies the preserved text. Nothing is added or subtracted from the text; merely the contagion of differance (there it is again) is brought to bear on the text. Meaning does not reside in the signifier, rather meaning is only found in relationship to other things, perhaps another text, to a conversation, to a critique, to a piece of art. In this sense, there is no origin of any text, no original meaning; the very idea of meaning is open to radical interpretation.

What is called into question is the very idea of space and time. The text, once committed to paper (or some other relatively permanent medium), is an artifact suspended in space and time. It exists only as a record, as words on a page, pages on a shelf, until such time as one chooses to read the words contained therein. Whether the words were written yesterday or thousands of years ago, the text remains an artifact until it is unearthed and read. Only then are the boundaries of space and time breached and exposed to this very moment in time, the moment of existential time, of being itself. Coming into contact with being, the text is then articulated by a reader, given meaning relevant to that reader and leaving a trace in the very existence of that reader before it is returned to the cobwebs of obscurity, to be taken up at some other time by a different reader (even the same reader re-reading a text is a different reader.)

Let me offer some practical implications as I am beginning to formulate them:

  • The Talmud argues that the Torah is complete as it is written, that not one word, not one letter, may be added or subtracted from the text. In this sense, the Torah is an artifact of the revelation at Sinai, read and re-read in ritual cycles.
  • That being the case, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of commentaries have been written (and spoken) interpreting the meaning contained within the Torah itself, especially where the Torah itself is unclear as to meaning
  • That these implications are largely in keeping with a deconstructive reading of the Torah and that no deconstructive reading is any more valid than any other, providing their opening premis is valid and according to all available evidence, in short, a warranted assertion as to meaning is not an anything goes assertion.

I write this as I am waiting for Rabbi Mendel to arrive so we can study more together. I think these are questions I must put to him to see where my own thinking diverges or merges with his. Oh boy, this is fun.

The Hegemony of the Homogeneous

The monlingualism imposed by the other operates by relying upon…a sovereignty whose essence is always colonial, which tends, repressively and irrepressibly to reduce language to the One, that is, to the hegemony of the homogeneous.

Jacques Derrida, The Monlingualism of the Other

The Hegemony of the Homogeneous

The Hegemony of the Homogeneous

Let me suppose that Derrida is concerned with much the same thing that Levinas bemoans, the reduction of the self into the same. It is this very hegemony, this sovereign reduction, that creates the conditions for the blind acceptance of the many taken-for-granted ideas and feelings that promote an apathy that, in turn, leads to notions of self-protection and the exclusion of the other from the social order. While Derrida is concentrating on the language imposed by a governing authority, say the English only laws that infect several States of the United States, language is only a jumping off point, one that is, in fact, repressive and an irrepressive reduction.

Other places where the governing authority plays the hegemonic game of excluding those for whom belonging is placed in question are the repressive immigration laws that are cropping up in states like Arizona; laws that the defeated Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, called models for America. Aimed at excluding any undocumented foreign national, these laws repressively restrict access to the body politic acting as a lever to define who belongs and who must be eliminated at any cost.

English only and a rampant and repressive xenophobia are but two examples of the overt attempt to homogenize an outwardly diverse America. It is an attempt at embracing an ideal rather than allowing the self to embrace the diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other, thereby validating the uniqueness of the self. By proclaiming the exclusion of the other, the governing authority defines that which is acceptable and that which is not; it is defining the qualifications for belonging at the expense of large slices of the population.

Let me personalize this idea. I am a member of a unique group of males in the United States in the fact that I have prostate cancer. Let us say, for example, that the State of Illinois where I live were to pass a law establishing that all men with prostate cancer must report to a camp where they will be isolated from the rest of the population and where they may receive treatment provided by the state aimed at reducing the effects of the cancer but not working toward a cure. Far fetched? Perhaps, but precisely the same thing was done to lepers, isolating them in colonies far away from the rest of the population so as to exclude them from participation in the affairs of the body politic.

There is no reason to believe, given the right set of circumstances, that this could not happen to any one of us for any reason. Those conditions were clearly fulfilled in Germany as argued by Zygmunt Bauman in his brilliant book Modernity and the Holocaust. It is this very drive to isolate and exclude that is a product of the amoral, perhaps immoral, function of bureaucracy in a modern democratic society.

The postmodern response to the drive to hegemonic reduction is to encourage that human beings do two things. First, unpack the taken-for-granteds that stand in the way of embracing the absolute uniqueness of the other, to understand that uniqueness as a positive force for building bridges of accommodation between the self and the other. Secondly, to not tolerate attempts toward hegemonic reduction simply because it is the easier path to survival of the self; surely this is the path toward self-destruction, or in the words of Bob Dylan, “The loser now will be later to win.” Times change, allegiances change, governments change and definitions of belonging promulgated by governing authorities change as well. No one is safe unless we all are safe; safety does not reside in a modern democracy run by bureaucrats nor does it reside in a state of chaos where governing authority is absent and brute force prevails, nor does it reside in autocratic dictatorships. Safety is a product of breaking down the walls of fear and hate by learning to create face-to-face encounters with those for whom fear is most felt. Embrace the diversity of your neighbor as you embrace the dignity of your own uniqueness and perhaps humanity finally has a chance to survive its own prejudices.

Identification and Identity: An Aporia of Modernity

In its common concept, autobiographical anamnesis presupposes ‘identification.’ And precisely not identity. No, an identity is never given, received, or attained; only the interminable and indefinitely phantasmatic process of identification endures.

Jacques Derrida, The Monolingualism of the Other

Identification and Identity: One Aporia of Modernity

Identification and Identity: An Aporia of Modernity

I could, I suppose, identify myself as a cancer survivor, yet it is far too early in the game to make such a definitive claim. For me to really think of myself as a survivor, I must wait a minimum of five years but, perhaps, ten years would be better. Additionally, I could identify myself as a professor (retired of course), teacher, husband, father, American, Jewishish, scholar, author, thinker, critic, world traveler, artist, or any number of other things that make up my overall self. None of these would, alone, ring true and all together they cannot provide an adequate description of my identity, of who I am as a human being.

I could hyphenate, say that I am a Jewish-American, but that fails to encompass the idea that I am, at the same time, a Jewish-Atheist. Are the two compatible? To be Jewish and an atheist implies cultural values and religious values that perhaps are contradictory; yet, upon a closer examination, belief is not an integral part of Jewishness, rather actions, doing before understanding, are the foundation of what it means to be Jewish. Can I claim to be Jewish if I do not keep any commandments, not a single one? Can I claim to be Jewish without belief in revelation and the God who revealed its commandments at Sinai? Yet, I am clearly culturally Jewish, meaning that I identify with and cast my lot with the Jewish people. I am also fond of Jewish cuisine, especially the cuisine of the Jews of Eastern Europe. I live for Passover in order to eat matzo until the five-pounds are gone. I no longer check the race box on forms as “white” because I discovered immigration documents listing my grandparents race as Hebrew when they entered this country. I consider myself acculturated and not assimilated much in the same way that W. E. B. DuBois argued for the notion of acculturation as opposed to assimilation. I choose the personal identification as Jewish even as that identification continues to evolve as I dive more deeply into Jewish thought as I learn to think in Jewish.

I could spend time making certain that my academic credentials are well known, an act I might think about as arrogant outside the walls of the academy. While I earned a doctorate in language and literacy, I only use the title to which I am entitled when I think it might just serve as an advantage in a conversation. I could also spend time flaunting my photographs to enhance my own identity as an artist or make a big deal about the publications I authored to enhance the identity of scholar. In short, I could fragment myself, be a chameleon, showing only the identity that is expected of me in any given social situation or I could simply work to remain whole, presenting myself without the strings of an identity imposed from the outside world.

Identity is wrapped in a package of taken-for-granteds, of external definitions that we simply accept without unpacking their meaning. Identification, on the other hand, is the process of the self unpacking what one would otherwise take-for-granted. Let me explain. I am writing this piece in English, the language I speak, but is that language my own? My parents and grandparents spoke English but they also spoke Yiddish, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. My grandfathers, more so than my grandmothers, also understood biblical Hebrew. I too, can read and understand much of prayer book Hebrew but I wouldn’t dare to assume that I am fluent in any other language than English. English is the lens through which I see the world. It provides me with a way of thinking that excludes other linguistic contexts, yet I am also connected to Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, languages I have exposure to but no claim to. English is a package of taken-for-granteds for me, even given the fact that I spent much of my adult life exploring and unpacking the foundations and structures that make English what it is. My identity is imposed on me through the ubiquity of the English language yet my self identification is a product of my unpacking those taken-for-granteds that wound me, that tear at the fabric of identity leaving gaping holes that need to be filled.

Identity is imposed from the outside, sometimes by career choice, by religion, skin color, shape of eyes, height, weight, and so on. Identification, on the other hand, cannot be imposed but is, rather, the difficult and endless commitment to unpacking the taken-for-granteds that are imposed from external sources in order to craft a self that accepts being-in-the-world without embracing the negative values of imposition. Identity is the reduction of the self into the same while identification is developed through ethical relationships with the other in which one embraces the absolute uniqueness of the other without reservation. The aporia lies in the truth that we both accept the taken-for-granteds imposed upon us by our role or by others while, at the same time, we work to unpack that acceptance.

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjugation…Today politics knows no value (and, consequently, no nonvalue) other than life, and until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism – which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle – will remain stubbornly with us.

Giorgio Agamben

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

For the past few days I wrote about things that have no apparent connection to my prostate cancer battle. This is attributable to two factors. First, my highly successful robotic radical prostatectomy along with the fact that there was no metastasis to either the lymph nodes or the bone makes any further therapy moot unless, of course, the cancer returns. Secondly, the bout with prostate cancer allowed me to focus on things that I find important, to reflect on my life past and my life connecting me to the absolute infinity of death. It is the latter I wish to concentrate on for the time being. Of course, there are side-effects to the surgery that are troublesome and I’ll surely write about those; for now, I want to concentrate on the ethics of the fundamental ethical obligation and the implications attached to following a life connected to being of service for others.

So today, I take up the banner of ethics and ‘bare life.’ First, I think it wise to define the notion of ‘bare life’ in Agamben’s terms. In modern democracies, human beings are no longer considered the object of political power, rather, they become the subject of that political power. The sovereign, the governing authority, establishes rules for belonging to and being excluded from the body politic. While these are two extremes on a continuum (there are degrees of exclusion), it is important that one understands that even in nuanced layers of belonging, a form of marginalization, the one excluded by decree is absolutely marginalized, there is no nuance about it. To be excluded by decree is not unique to the Jews of Nazi Germany; right here in the United States groups are and have been historically excluded from the body politic. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was a phrase that ruled Westward expansion in the 19th century. Slaves, excluded by law, were nuanced for political purposes becoming three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the census, thereby adding political power to slave holding states. Even today, political arguments abound about what to do with undocumented foreign nationals in the United States. Proposals range from deportation to amnesty as a road to citizenship and the debate is heated, often turning ugly.

It is easy to think one is safe when belonging is taken for granted but everything can turn based on a political decree. Jacques Derrida, in The Monlingualism of the Other, makes a bold claim when he writes, “I only have one language: it is not mine.” Born to a Jewish family in French occupied Algeria, Derrida speaks French as his first language. He is, in fact, not monolingual because he also speaks English, yet his first language is the one he feels most comfortable with. In the book he writes about the fragility of citizenship embedded in his own experience of going to school one day as a French citizen; upon returning home, however, he no longer was a Frenchman, rather he was a Jew in Vichy France with no rights or obligations to the state. Full and complete exclusion by decree; no longer able to go to school, participate in activities with other children he was friendly with; the devastation of the bare life of exclusion by fiat is difficult. Then, as suddenly as he was deprived of his status as a French citizen, that citizenship was reinstated without fanfare, rather, by the decree of the governing authority to which Derrida now owed allegiance. Derrida questions what it really means to be a citizen, how citizenship is earned and, because it is so fragile, how it is not easily defined.

In modern democracies the governing authority surrenders much of its power to the bureaucracy upon which it depends to administer the legitimate and illegitimate decrees and laws of the state. Without the bureaucracy, the state simply cannot function. Yet it is this very apparatus, fully removed from the sunshine of accountability that the forces of exclusion operate without regard to those who are marginalized or fully excluded from society. The bureaucracy is amoral, functioning without ethical values, being accountable, from the lowest clerk to the highest official, only to the level of supervision one grade ahead of one’s station. This practice makes bureaucratic decisions that are geared at protecting the job rather than protecting the social order. The amoral begins here, subject to nothing more than the drive for efficiency and economy. Wrong-headed decisions are difficult to overturn thereby allowing the process of continuing down a road to self-destruction.

This brief essay presents an outline of the failings of the late modern democracies. Yet, unlike the angst of the existentialists, who preached the idea of personal responsibility, of integrity if you will, because the world is absurd, some post-modernists, especially Levinas, sees hope in the very notion of responsibility. Levinas’s fundamental ethical obligation is an act of responsibility and integrity involving the self to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. This dyad, the face-to-face that is required of the self and the other, is the foundation of ethics without ontology, morals without having to address notions of being. The fact that I exist is proof enough that I exist. The fact that the material world exists and that I can interact with the objects of the material world is proof enough for the existence of the material world. The fact that there is an Absolute Infinity that I will, of necessity, transition into is proof enough that there is an unknowable eternity awaiting me, an Absolute Other that I can only approximate by and through my social relationships with the other in this world.

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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