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The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

Therefore man was created singly in the world, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, it counts as if he destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved a full world.
The Mishnah

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

On the surface, the Mishnah demands that human life is a precious commodity; each and every life, Jewish and Gentile, is of significant import. From this springs the very idea that every human being is responsible for the life of every other human being, what Levinas described as an ethical imperative. The Jewish idea of the soul, nefesh in Hebrew, is grounded in the centrality of the individual living among others who are simultaneously of central importance. It is a concept grounded in the here and now unlike Christian or Muslim concepts that ground the soul in the eternal afterlife. No, the Jewish idea of the soul may be described as being present rather than being anticipatory. There is a concept that blood is the nefesh, leading to the very idea that the soul is only viable in the living bodily experience of existential being. This very idea is captured in the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, watching out for the soul. Under Jewish law, nearly every law may be broken on the Sabbath if life or death are involved.

Jews, with some minor exceptions, are not fond of martyrdom. A mere three Mosaic laws are worth dying for: idolatry, illicit sexual intercourse and bloodshed. Better to give up your own life or the life of the other than transgress these three commandments. Each of these prohibitions have their own problematic, specifically in terms of defining exactly what is meant by each term but the thrust of the prohibition is stark and compelling. Jews choose life rather than death. But the strength of the pikuach nefesh is its inherent flexibility when human life is at stake. At its core, the pikuach nefesh refuses to worship martyrdom and ignores the promise of some unknown reward or punishment in the afterlife by clinging to the flesh and blood of life itself.

There is a second meaning  in the Mishnah quoted above, that of the responsibility for “saving one soul, it counts as if he saved the full world.” As I indicated earlier, Emmanuel Levinas understood that ethics comprised the first philosophy, more important than all other philosophical questions; that all ethics boils down to a single principle that one is personally responsible for the welfare of the other [person] without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. This fundamental idea is deeply embedded in the textual historicity of Judaism. It is found in Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In Abraham’s argument with God regarding the destruction of Sodom and the finding of righteous men in the city. In Mordechi’s and Esther’s intrigue to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people. There are many more examples that a short post will not allow. The underlying principle here is that every soul, every nefesh, is a full and complete world and that every other nefesh is complete and different from all others. As a secular Jew I claim this legacy in the sense that each of us, each and every one of us, is a singular, unrepeatable, irreplaceable piece of mankind, one singular part of a whole. Once gone, that life is gone forever. It, therefore, every one of us is responsible for every other one of us.

 

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May an Omniscient God Give Up Knowledge or Having Your Cake and Eating it Too – Thinking in Jewish 36

Omniscient: 1: Having infinite awareness, understanding and insight. 2: Possessed of universal or complete knowledge.
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Private Library Edition

The Lord annuls the counsel of nations; he foils the plans of peoples. But the lord’s purpose stands forever; his plans are through all generations.
Taken from Psalm 33 in the Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem

May an Omniscient God Give Up Knowledge or Having Your Cake and Eating it Too - Thinking in Jewish 36

May an Omniscient God Give Up Knowledge or Having Your Cake and Eating it Too – Thinking in Jewish 36

There are many who argue that an omniscient God relinquishes to mankind free will, that mankind is faced with choices that pit good against evil and that humans are free to choose the path upon which they trudge, whether that path be the path of righteousness or the path of depravity. If this is the case, why do so many pray to understand God’s will for them so often? If one believes that God has a particular will in mind that, if known, would lead to doing right, can one then claim that God granted one free will? If that were the case, one gets to have his cake and eat it too, an impossibility. While those who banter about the idea that God relinquishes some of his knowledge, the knowledge of the outcome of human choice must climb an impossible mountain to squirm through the very idea that omniscience can be relinquished or even a small part of omniscience might be given over to the idea of free human choice. In the end, the argument always fails because, by definition, omniscience is the possession of complete and universal knowledge. The only way the argument succeeds is to strip God of one of God’s attributes completely, make him all powerful and benevolent but not omniscient. If this were the case, however, then God would not even know the outcome of God’s exercise of omnipotent power. Could this be? I highly doubt it.

For me the problem is quite simple. Either God is omniscient or God is not. If God is then it follows that all outcomes are known from the beginning to the end of all time and all human beings have is an illusion of free will. The choice is already predestined; determined long before the choice was made. If God is not omniscient it follows that human beings truly have free will but they have no need for God. What is the use for a God that cannot know the outcome of God’s own actions? The simple truth is that one cannot have his cake and eat it too. One may have one or the other but not both. If you cleve to an omniscient God then free will is out of the question. The fact that God knows both the choices and outcomes of those choices is proof enough that free will could not exist. There is no way around that. If that is the case, then knowing what God’s will is for an individual is of little consequence; the path is already set and is irrevocable. One must conform with one’s own predestination because it is predestined by being known in the mind of an omniscient God. On the other hand, if one chooses to accept the idea of free will, of choice, one must do so without regard to the existence or non-existence of God. The question of God becomes irrelevant. Free will trumps God’s omniscience thereby rendering the all-knowing God unable to predict the future, a God that is certainly not worthy of serious consideration. It seems to me that omnipotence without omniscience would produce a God who might be jealous, fearful, punishing, a God capable of creating great loss and great harm just because God is capable of doing so (think of Job or the Shoah, one a likely fictive story to illustrate that God is capricious and arbitrary and the other of a contemporary horror resulting in the wanton murder of six-million Jews in Europe). This God is much like a spoiled child kicking and screaming because she doesn’t get her way.

Here’s the rub. If one believes that the omniscient God exists, then thinking about one’s actions, taking responsibility for those actions, is both unnecessary and unwarranted. Since one has no control over choices, one does not carry the burden of choice at all, one also doesn’t carry the burden of responsibility. One does what one does because the almighty one has already set those actions in stone. On the other hand, if one truly has free will, then one must carry the burden of ethical responsibility, to do the next right thing, to do the mundane and to do the exciting. Without the deity to interfere with choice one is free to act as one wishes, for good or evil, but the responsibility always is in the forefront of each and every decision. It can be no other way.

Of course, if this is the case, then it is far more problematic to live a Godly life if the deck is already stacked against the very idea of free will than it is to live an ethical life outside of the watchful eye of a deity. If I am responsible for my actions, good or evil, then I must shoulder the rewards and punishments associated with the very choices I make. What I realize is that the choices I make are not rewarded by an outside force called God, rather, the rewards and punishments are imposed by the body politic or, even more importantly, as an internal guidepost in which the self regulates the self. So I announce to the world calling me to action, “Here I AM!” raw and ready to accept the responsibility for my actions no matter what the consequences. At that moment, I also acknowledge my obligation to be response-able for the other [person] without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. I don’t require a God to accept the ethical imperative of responsibility, in fact, that God may even be a hinderance to my seeking ethical exteriority.

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Somewhere between the end of the biblical codification, the redacting of those Jewish texts deemed important enough to be included in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the rabbinical writings of the Mishnah, the Tosafot and the two Talmuds (Jerusalem and Babylonian) something happened to a Jewish understanding of the place of women. It seems the rabbinic sages were fiercely misogynistic, so much so that they turned a once open and, while never equal, respectful tradition of honoring women into a gender divided world, a world dominated by men so such an extent that women were often ridiculed in the Talmudic texts. I am not arguing that women were always treated equally in the Torah or the other codified writings, far from it. What I am arguing, however, is that women were often singled out as models of behavior, of sensual and sexual equals of their male counterparts, of leaders of the children of Israel and of examples of ethical and moral protectors of continuity for Jews.

One such story singles out Miriam, Moses’ sister. When the Pharaoh, the one who knew not of Joseph, issued a decree that all Hebrew male children were to be put to death, Amram, Miriam’s father, divorced Yocheved his wife. Miriam went to him telling him that he is worse than even Pharaoh because he is killing all future generations in his line. Amram went back to Yocheved, withdrawing his divorce, his get, and promptly sired Moses who would, of course, become the leader and emancipator of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. In this story, Miriam is the hero not her father; Miriam argues for his return, shames him as she should and convinces him to return to his wife, her mother, not as an act of personal gain but one that insures continuity of the people who would become Jews in a short time to come.

When the Israelites cross the dry bed of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea was a horrid mistranslation of the Hebrew) and then see the sea collapse over the whole army of the Egyptians, it is Miriam who sings and dances with the entire congregation of women in front of all the men. They are rejoicing that God has not only released them from harsh slavery but that they were for sure free of the Egyptians now and forevermore. It is not until the women singing and dancing and playing timbals on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds have finished that the men in the congregation are allowed to join them and sing the same song.

It is Ruth, the Moabite, who proclaims, “Whither thou goest I will go. Your God is My God…” and so on. A conversion for sure illustrating an important point. Being a Jew is not a matter of blood lines, of chromosomes or of genealogy, rather, it is a matter of choice. While I was born into a Jewish family, to a Jewish mother thereby making me a Jew according to Jewish law, I rejected the whole idea of religion in my early teens. This rejection continued until I was in my mid fifties when I made the choice to study Jewish texts to learn about that which I rejected. My Jewish education up to that point was what one rabbi referred to as a 3rd grade education. When I discovered Ruth somewhere along the way I understood that I had a choice, to be or not to be Jewish. It was the Moabite, Ruth, who convinced me to make the choice to recognize and acknowledge my Jewishness. It matters little whether Ruth was an actual person, whether she existed as “Ruth” or was hewn from an author’s experience as a fictive truth. When I read her words in the text I am listening to the words of someone recorded to be a Jew by Choice and that clearly reflects my own pathway. I didn’t get this sense from any other male character in the Tanakh. No it took a convert to convince me to make the choice to acknowledge my birthright.

Then there is Sarah laughing at God when he promises her that in her 90th year she will produce a son and that from his loins a nation will be born. This 90 year old matriarch hears God’s words and laughs out loud essentially calling God out. She gives birth to Isaac (translated as he who laughs) to commemorate her own experience. Was there an historical Sarah? Who cares? It makes no difference because I believe fiction to be quite real. Characters come alive on the written page whether or not they ever existed. In fact, they exist between the covers of a book and in the mind of the reader and that is quite good enough. Abraham, on the other hand, comes off as one lacking courage on many levels. First, when sojourning to Egypt (an interesting precursor to Jacob’s relocating to Egypt at the end of the first book of Moses (Genesis), Abraham is so frightened that his beautiful wife, Sarah, would be prized by Pharaoh that he passes her off as his sister, a cowardly act for sure. One is also left to wonder exactly what Sarah would have done had Abraham told her of his intention to obey God’s word and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abe, it seems, was too much of a coward to share this news with his wife.

There are so many examples of strong women in the Bible, too numerous to mention in this post. Yet all this disappears when the sages of the Mishnah through the two Talmuds lend their creative minds to the problem of gender. In those texts, women were relegated to a second class position. Their place was in the home, in the kitchen and pumping out babies. The sages were concerned, not with celebration and dancing, but with modesty and obedience. The doctors of these rabbinic writings redefined the role of women and their place within the entire structural makeup of the Jewish world for nearly two thousand years. While there are some exceptions to the rules applied by the sages, women were relegated into second-class status. To this day in the orthodox cults of Judaism, women are required to sit separately from men in synagogue, are required to cover their hair, dress modestly and cleve to their men. In the reform and conservative movements, however, women have regained the voice they had in the Tanakh, lost in the “oral Torah” and regained as these movements opened their doors to women as equals. I must admit, the synagogue with strong voices of both men and women is preferable to the separation required by those who fail to see the disparity between the “written” and “oral” Torahs when women are portrayed. Texts must be read critically, even texts that have somehow been declared as sacred if one is to understand the whole story.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Harold Bloom and the Torah’s Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom and the Torah's Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom and the Torah’s Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom is an American Literary Critic, a scholar of Shakespeare and a professor of English Literature. Among his scholarly projects is a strand of religious criticism that includes The Book of J, that can be summarized as follows:

In The Book of J, he and David Rosenberg (who translated the Biblical texts) portrayed one of the posited ancient documents that formed the basis of the first five books of the bible as the work of a great literary artist who had no intention of composing a dogmatically religious work. They further envisaged this anonymous writer as a woman attached to the court of the successors of the Israelite kings David and Solomon — a piece of speculation which drew much attention. Later, Bloom said that the speculations didn’t go far enough, and perhaps he should have identified J with the Biblical Bathsheba. (from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Bloom#Religious_criticism, March 28, 2013)

Ever since Spinoza published his Theologico-Political Treatise in 1670, a work in which he questioned inconsistencies in the biblical texts, European scholars began to uncover specifics of biblical authorship. Five classes of authorship surfaced based on any number of factors including stylistic language use to, in some cases, the naming of God. Grouped as E, P, D, R and J. E refers to passages using the plural name for God, Elohim. P refers to the priestly class author thought to be responsible for much of the book of Leviticus and the last part of Exodus. D, refers to the author of the book of Deuteronomy. R references the redactor of the five books of Moses into a single reasonably coherent narrative. Finally, J refers to the author referencing God as YHVH (mistranslated as Jehovah by 19th century CE German Christian biblical scholars).

The redactor of the Torah, the R author, makes his presence known after the remnant of Israelites return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile to rebuild Solomon’s Temple. The R author weaves together a generally coherent story, fitting in pieces of the other authors, sometimes seamlessly and other times awkwardly, thereby making the Torah the central document of Jewish historiography. Just one of Bloom’s examples helps us understand the task of the redactor. When we first meet Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, he is introduced by the J author as Abram which, according to Bloom translates as “exalted father.” Later in the narrative, God tells Abram that he shall no longer be called Abram, rather his name shall now be Abraham. Bloom tells us, along with other biblical scholars, that Abraham is introduced by the P author and translates as “father of a host of nations.” The redactor’s task was to take two disperate story lines and weave them together into a single and believable story.

Bloom argues that the bulk of the Torah, especially the narrative stories (as separated from the priestly legalisms mostly found in Leviticus) may be attributed to a brilliant author of the stature of Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy and further argues that J was likely an aristocratic woman living in the time of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple) in the 10th Century BCE. He makes this bold claim based on the use of language and the characters emphasized in her writings. Bloom makes the point that J was not interested in priests, rites of sacrifice or temple cults, rather her emphasis was on heros, great people, men and women, who collectively were the soul of the Israelites. That her stories do not show up in the writings of P written some six-hundred years later during the time of the Second Temple and are repeated without much accuracy or passion by the D author shows a reluctance of the redactor (likely the scribe Ezra) to emphasize the strength of J’s authorship, cannot hide the force of the metaphor of the patriarchs, the story of Joseph, and the heroism of Moses as they mirror that of David and Solomon of her own time.

Bloom argues that J was the first author of the Torah, that her stories contain powerful irony and characterizations. Abram and Sarai, Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, Tamar and Moses all appear as real and flawed human beings. God himself takes on a role that is also distinctly one of a God in crisis, always wanting to do the right thing but, just as the humans he presides over, cannot help but expose his own flaws.

By the time of Ezra and the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 72 CE, the power of J’s authorship was watered down by the E, P and D authors as well as the redactor’s need to present a post exilic metaphor of utopian perfection. Bloom’s artful analysis brings the richness of J back to life and, unless you cannot give up the ghost of the revelation at Sinai, makes one think carefully about the way one must and should read Torah in the present day. Bloom’s book is an ethical journey through a speculative fictional reading of the Torah, one that makes perfect sense in helping one to understand the many contradictions explicitly contained within the text of the Torah itself. It is a must read.

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The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

From Adam’s exile from paradise (exile), Noah’s redemption of the world (redemption), the exodus from Egypt (redemption), the first revelation at Sinai (redemption), the smashing of the tablets as Moses saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf (exile), the second revelation at Sinai (tentative redemption), the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (exile), the return of the remnant of exiles from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple (redemption), the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (exile), Jewish historiography has been a constant story of exile and redemption. After the last exile, that of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the final crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE, Jewish practice fell into the hands of a small sect of sages who authored the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the two Talmuds. The interesting thing about these documents according to Jacob Neusner, is that in response to the Roman exile, the Rabbis chose to remake the whole of the Jewish experience into one in which they created a world of extant redemption existing outside of the time and vagaries of  the temporal world. The sages created an ideal world, a world that mirrored that which they expected a final redemption to look like, not a world in which the Jewish people were marginalized, persecuted and ridiculed by the gentiles surrounding them. In short, the rabbis created a utopian vision of redemption that could only be achieved by communal action.

For the rabbis of the fundamental texts of Rabbinic Judaism redemption was not an individual, personal act. One cannot be saved from exile as an individual, rather, the whole Jewish community, wherever they might be, could only be redeemed from exile through the group effort of each and every individual following the law to the letter. The more people following the laws of Moses and the rabbinical deciders the closer one comes to redemption; the sooner the messiah arrives to return things to the state of paradise from which Adam was initially exiled. Redemption, then, comes at a cost, the cost of blindly following a set of arcane rules and regulations, many of which cannot be understood at a rational level and, to complicate things even more, better than half cannot even be carried out because they refer to Temple practices, animal sacrifices, priestly cleanliness (or suitability to carry out priestly duties), and other laws regarding the unique practices of the Temple sacrificial cult. This model served the Jewish people quite well until the middle of the 17th century CE when Jewish mysticism began to emerge.

According to Gershom Scholem, Jewish mysticism sprang from a religious revival among Jews so that by the mid 1600’s a shift in the idea of redemption moved ever closer to the idea that once the messiah arrived, individual salvation was indeed possible and would precede any kind of group redemption that was the ultimate goal of the arrival of the messiah. This idea was vigorously opposed by those rabbis representing the status quo but that didn’t stop messianic cults from popping up. The most successful of these cults followed the life of Sabbitai Zevi, a Sephardic rabbi who preached some unique interpretations of the law and, through his disciples, notably one Nathan of Gaza, claimed to be the messiah. Even after Zevi was forced into apostasy by Sultan Mehmed IV when he was offered the choice between death and conversion to Islam in which Zevi chose conversion, the movement remained strong until the mid 19th century CE. Scholem contends that the Sabbatean movement was the precursor of the modern movement of Reform Judaism.

Through the last two thousand years, Judaism flourished in an atmosphere of utopian expectations. The historiography of Judaism stresses the communal responsibility to obey commandments and if that is done then all will go well. It tells a story of perfection spoiled, of exile, of redemption, of exile, of redemption and exile over and over again. Living in exile today, Jews around the world just celebrated two nights of a holiday of redemption from exile yet even within the story of the Exodus are buried smaller stories of exile and redemption, of failure to follow the laws and commandments and being forgiven as a group. The Passover Seder ends with the utopian words, Next Year in Jerusalem; not the Jerusalem that exists today, rather the Jerusalem that will exist once the Temple is rebuilt and Jews can once again offer burnt offerings to the God of Israel. I am not sure that is a world I would choose to inhabit.

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