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Archive for the tag “postmodern ethics”

Christians Against Coffee: What Will They Think of Next?

Christians Against Coffee: What Will They Think of Next?

Christians Against Coffee: What Will They Think of Next?

Yesterday the Huffington Post reported on a story in which an evangelical minister, David Barton, railed against Christians buying Starbucks coffee based on the sole idea that Starbucks spends some of their profits to support the civil rights of all people in the United States of America. In particular, this preacher was upset because Starbucks, according to him, refuses to support traditional marriage. Well, we all know what traditional (code for biblical) marriage means. After all, polygamy was the norm back in the day. So does this preacher support plural marriage? Or is he just against gay marriage? In either case, he is on the wrong side of the fence. To claim that a cup of coffee offends that which he represents as God is simply laughable on its face. Is it any wonder that this kind of preaching is unappealing to so many.

I don’t know about you, but I am personally offended by those who insist that their religious beliefs are superior to all other belief systems. While on my way home from Phoenix, we drove right by what is claimed as the largest cross in North America just to the East of Amarillo, Texas. For a small offering (not the cost of admission) one can drive off the road to a museum and chapel to engage in the praise of this monstrous cross by the side of the road. With between 39 and 41 million non-Christians (around 18% of the total population) in the United States and only about 40% of the total population of the United States claiming to be either evangelical or ‘born again’ Christians, one wonders just to whom the gigantic cross is playing.

As an atheist, I find there to be no evidence for the existence of a god or gods while I do find ample evidence that there is no god or gods floating around the universe. I have little difficulty writing about this rational decision yet I also do not wish to denigrate any who chose to adopt any particular mythology for their own personal comfort. I am not on a conversion rant. In fact, if there were ever credible evidence (not bible quotes or other self-serving writing) to the contrary, I would be rationally forced to accept the proposition that there is a god or gods that somehow run the universe for their own desires. All I am arguing is that the available evidence does not support such a proposition. What I find so offensive about true believers is their insistance that they have the true and correct answers and there must be no deviation from the rules they establish. There is a great line in a song I heard while on vacation that goes something like this…I met a preacher willing to explain the world according to him in return for my personal check. It is true-belief that is unwilling or unable to be open to the possibility of being altogether wrong; demanding that one believe as they or be burned at the stake or blown up while riding on a public bus.

What I am ranting against, I suppose, is the hypocrisy of true-belief, the hypocrisy born of ignorance fostered by turning a deaf ear to anything but that to which one is committed. It becomes unauthentic the very moment one chooses to act to force others to attend to the same beliefs to which the true-believer is committed for the benefit of the true-believer. Never mind that those forced to conform find the very act of conformity offensive. In the end, what do crosses and coffee have in common? Perhaps forced conformity is the bugaboo from which there is no recovery.

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Priase the Lord…A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Priase the Lord...A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Priase the Lord…A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Leaving Alamogordo, New Mexico Friday morning, I set my gps for Joplin, Missouri and set my rain alarm app for push notifications. Our dog, Simin, developed a severe infection on his right-front leg requiring constant care throughout the day. Our plan for returning home was to spend around three nights on the road, stop off and see a few sights that we wanted to visit and arrive home on Monday. Those plans were shattered when Simin was diagnosed with this ugly infection. A friend’s daughter was kind enough to stay at the house to nurse Simin until we returned from our trip. But back to the point of this post.

Driving through Oklahoma City, the rain activity was picking up with storms tracking on either side of I-40. We drove on, with the bulk of the rain and storm activity either behind us or to either side. Pushing through Tulsa and on to Joplin, we arrived in Joplin tired and hungry. As we arrived the tornado warning sirens were blasting. We parked under the canopy to register but, rather than register, we were herded into the central hallway of the hotel and told that because we were under a tornado warning it would be best to stay in the hallway until the danger passed. They take tornados quite seriously in Joplin, Missouri, especially since the category five tornado that destroyed much of the town only a few years before. Once the danger passed we checked in, went next door to the hotel where there was a 24/7 Waffle House (hardly my first choice) for a light dinner and then back to the hotel where we went to bed.

From Joplin, we had about a 550 mile drive back home. With that in mind, I set my alarm for 6:00 AM so we could leave the hotel and be on the road by around 7:00 AM. At around 6:30 AM we were walking in the hallway toward the complimentary breakfast (which was, of course, included in the room rate) when a tiny, woman with a shock of tightly curled white hair greeted us. “Mornin’,” she said. “Quite a storm last night. But we’re okay…Praise the Lord.” That set me to ponder exactly what she meant when she so flippantly praised the lord. Was she praising the lord selfishly for her personal safety. If this were the case, then her praise is immoral, based only on her personal needs and desires and to hell with everyone else. If, on the other hand, she was praising the lord for the storms, including the tornado in Oklahoma City which killed at least five people according to the news that morning, then her praise for the lord was also immoral when one considers the fact that the storm was deadly as well as destructive to property. It begs the question, what did the people of Oklahoma City do to deserve this devine punishment of multiple tornados even as they were cleaning up from the Moore category five tornado which struck only a few days ago.

Either way, praise for survival when others lost their lives or praise for the occurrence of the tornado itself, the praiser is caught in a trap of immoral praise. Either the god to whom praise is offered is mean and capricious, offering a killer storm to some while saving others from wanton destruction or the praiser herself is acting from selfish relief that she wasn’t harmed by this god for whom she has apparently released her praise on purely selfish terms. It seems that one who insists on praising the lord does so without regard to the consequences suffered by others from the very act of destruction from which one is spared. This is an immoral, unethical act because it is self-centered, contained within the outcome of the self without regard for the outcome of the other. Shame on the woman in the hallway for her selfish response to the tragedy suffered by Oklahoma City residents.

A proper response to such tragic loss and one’s personal escape from the personal impact of that loss is not that of praise, for praise cuts a two-edged path. To the contrary, a proper response would be to consider one’s safety in terms of probability, a statistical calculation having little to do with one’s imaginary friend in the sky. When considering one’s own safety, one might also consider just what one is able to do for those who actually suffered devastating loss. In addition, one could consider one’s own contribution to the climate change that is bringing devastating weather events like category five tornados and super hurricanes to this small, rather insignificant blue ball orbiting a star which, in turn, orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and work to reverse the harm to the planet we call home that we ourselves caused. Praise the Lord but Pass the Ammunition was a slogan that arose from the trenches of WWI. In the final analysis, it may be applicable here.  Go ahead and praise the lord if you must; in the end, it is what you personally do to influence the outcome that counts.

On a final note, an old Jew was praying by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, something he did for the past forty years of his life. He was asked what he was praying for to which he replied, “I pray for peace, for an end to hunger, for the Messiah to come.” The questioner then asked, “Does it help?” To which the old Jew replied, “It’s like talking to a wall.”

Responsibility for Earth…It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth...It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth…It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth...It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth…It Is The Only Home We Have!

I spent the day yesterday in the wilderness of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Western Colorado. Set in the Western Rockies, quite near the San Juan Range, the Black Canyon is a magnificent example of untouched wilderness (except that the Gunnison River runs with less force and less water than ever because of dams up river). Driving just the day before, through the center of the Rocky Mountains, through the Vail Pass on I-70, I cringed at several examples of strip mining that simply level magnificent mountains by stripping away the whole mountain to find the small deposits of ore that bring the mining company a profit. I couldn’t help but think about the film Treasure of Sierra Madre when the gold mine ran out and the old miner insisted that before they left the mountain the three partners put the mountain back to its pristine condition. The whole idea was that the mountain was good to them so they had the responsibility to be good to the mountain. That responsibility meant that greed could not out strip the ethical action was forgotten; to the contrary, it was paramount in the mind of at least one of the partners and the others saw the wisdom in the action.

Comparing the beauty found in nature against the strip mining operations that pillage the natural beauty of the land for profit is something we all should do. The question is simply this: Does earning a profit outweigh the ethical responsibility to destroy the very land we must live on and with? I suggest that making a reasonable profit, one that is based not on greed but on an ethical responsibility to preserve the beauty of nature. In addition, the ethical responsibility extends to people in the sense that there is an important responsibility to those from whose labor served to produce those profits. In short, there is no excuse for strip mining a mountain to oblivion, paying miners low wages, and earning obscene profits other than greed.

The image in the upper right was shot at an overlook at the Black Canyon’s South Rim. The canyon, carved over a 2-million year period, is a pristine wilderness preserved for people around the United States and the world. Once one leaves the confines of the National Park, however, the land no longer pristine or preserved. Fenced in pastures, rusting cars in yards, dammed rivers and streams, broken down barns, buildings and equipment all serve to remind one of the importance of the preservation of wilderness as a reminder of our responsibility to do no harm to the world we live in. Just because one can strip mine or clear-cut forests or despoil the oceans or spew pollutants into the atmosphere doesn’t mean we should. In fact, the shortsighted pollution of the only place we call home is without honor or morality.

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

A second F-5 tornado strikes Moore, Oklahoma in the past few years and a representative from Moore responds with calls to prayer. The image on the right was shot along I-70 in Western Colorado around the same time this tragedy occurred. I was standing along an access road to a Costco store in the middle of Colorado gypsum country, in fact, the town in which the Costco was located was named Gypsum, in bright sunlight as the clouds gathered to the south producing rain. The storms were perhaps a mile away moving toward us. While in the mountains they didn’t reach the intensity of the Moore event, when we were driving through them on I-70 it was mighty scary. I suppose making images that tell a story is one way to connect to the tragedy suffered by those in Moore, there is little that one can do except to take action to reverse the man made climate change that is now clearly causing more tragic weather events.

The representative from Moore, in asking people for their prayers, did not express anger for the second and now precedented storm, that’s right, not unprecedented but precedented because this is not the first occurrence of such a storm in Moore. No, his response was to fall upon the mercy of his friend in the sky to help the townsfolk whose lives were either lost or disrupted from the after effects of the storm. My response is somewhat different. Over the past 20 or so years, significant weather changes manifest in a more powerful tornado seasons, more powerful hurricanes, drought, melting of polar ice-caps and so on. One thing I have noticed living in the greater Chicago area is that we seem to be having shorter Winters but when snow falls it seems to fall in buckets.

I think that one must recognize the part we all play in global climate change and vow to do something about reversing the problem. While I will not be around to see the effects of either further and more difficult climate change or the absolute reversal of climate change (I turn 70 in two weeks time), my grandchildren will. Yes, tornadoes are dangerous and the devastation they cause tragic but prayers to an imaginary friend in the sky do nothing to address the difficult, expensive solutions that human beings must take if we expect to occupy this planet for much longer. What is needed are not prayers but action. The first action must be to contribute provide aid and assistance to those who suffered this tragic event; that is merely the beginning and is more palliative than affirmative. The affirmative solutions do not come from denial that climate change does not exist; after all denial is not just a river in Africa, rather, affirmative solutions come from recognition that climate change is man made and that we must attack the problem with as much vigor as we prosecute the wars we ostensibly fight for the defense of freedom. Pray if you must, if you think it will help, if it brings you comfort but when you finish praying take up the cause of reversing global climate change as if your life and the lives of your children and children’s children depend upon the actions you personally take…Because they do!

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses, Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”
Exodus 3:3-4 (Jewish Publication Society translation)

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

The appearance of the response to God of “Here I am” (hineni) is not the first time this word is used in the Torah, nor is it the last. Every time it is used, however, the implication is the same; the responder, in this case Moses, responds to God without reservation, with a sense of obligation born of a duty to service to the Absolute Other. This raises the question as to exactly what is this Absolute Other to which one senses an obligation to be of service? The answer to this question is not simple, but it is quite easily digested if one thinks of the Absolute Other as ineffable, indescribable in human terms. Emmanuel Levinas relates this Other to the boundless infinity which bookends human life; even life in general. The sense of obligation one recognizes with the utterance of hineni is, in truth, related not to the Other but to the other that one senses and engages as a representation of, a reification of the Other in the person of the other.

How is this possible? If one thinks of the absolute uniqueness of each and every human being that is, has been or ever will be then any encounter with the other mirrors, though does not quite reach the level of, an encounter with the Absolute Other. It is through the uniqueness of the other that one connects to the Other. This relationship, then, is the foundation of the fundamental ethical obligation that one has with regard to encounters with the other.

Like the biblical encounter with the Other, nothing occurs until the Other calls to the self. In our ethical interactions with the other, it is necessary to wait; to offer oneself to the other through a pronouncement of readiness and then waiting for the other to call out in need. Once the call is heard, a state of proximity between self and other exists in which the self answers the call without reservation and without expectation for reciprocation. In one’s relationship with the Other, one’s response must be without reservation or expectation for reciprocation as well. It is a fundamental human response to the call of the Other mirrored in the fundamental ethical response to the call of the other.

Ethics, in this sense, does not begin with moral action or with any expectation. Ethics begins with a single realization that I am, in truth, my brother’s keeper. I have a fundamental ethical obligation to act for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation; in doing so I create a simulacrum of the relationship between the Other and myself, a counterfeit, if you will, of the uniqueness of the very infinity from which I came to the very infinity of the very death to which I must necessarily go. Living in the world, encountering the uniqueness of the other, is as close as I am able to come to defining the Absolute Other. It is my human responsibility for the other which trumps the intervention of the infinitely unknown Other as a palpable connection to my own humanity; it is the responsible life that forms my definition of the Other.

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.

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.

 

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

I have written about time as an illusion; that all that exists is the very moment which is always already gone. Time, in this sense, is the always already present. While one creates traces of memory as one passes through this very moment and one has the ability to project into the future, to create a future that may or may not be, the fact remains that existential time is only this very moment. Now, there are surely other ways to explain time and one is particularly Jewish.

Generally, time in Jewish thought is based on the idea of seven, seven days, seven weeks, seven years, seven groups of seven years. In each of these cycles, the seventh part is a sabbath, a day of rest governed by strict rules for what can and cannot be done during that day, year, or jubilee year. These cycles are the cycles of life with the foundation of them all resting on the creation myth where God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the human being’s desire to become God-like, it follows that we should act as God acted. The seven-week cycle, the counting of the Omer, is spelled out in the Torah as is the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. The Sabbatical and Jubilee year  place a great burden on the people in that the fields cannot be worked, no food is produced so the only available food is that which is stored for future use. Poor planning and the people starve while good planning keep the people well fed during these periods of fallow.

Additionally, there is a rhythm to the seasons. Celebrations, holidays occur at specific times during the year: Springtime celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah; Fall celebrates the harvest as well as the process of amends and redemption focused in the spirit of the High Holidays; Winter brings the celebration of the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. In between, but measured by the calendar falling in their appropriate times.

Measured together, the cycles of daily life to the annual cycles of holidays high and low, time in the Jewish perspective is focused backwards. We celebrate the historicity of the people who have called themselves Jews since the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with a long historical record flowing backward toward Abraham, the patriarch who was ordered to leave his home by the creator God and follow all the instructions and he would be the father of a great nation. Going further back in time we look to Noah and before that Adam (roughly translated as man) and Chavah (Eve). It matters little to the celebrations fixed in time whether or not there was an historical Adam and Chavah, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Judah (the reason we are called Jews), or any other figure represented in scriptural texts. The fact that they appear in stories meant to provide lessons for living an ethical life makes them real. The fact that generations before me, for at least 2500 years, perhaps longer, looked to these figures and these holidays as representations of living a Godly life confirms the value of the mythology.

The cyclical nature of Jewish time and the singularity of existential time must be reconciled. The nature of Jewish time, in this sense, may be seen as a community trace of memory, a utopian trace  for sure, allowing members of the community to constantly and consistently look back across Jewish history that, at each repetition, provides new and fresh insights in the flow of life. The illusion of time creates room for cycles that build understanding through the textual references that constantly are studied and re-read.

Close to every Jewish life one finds a strong connection to study and texts. That those texts that are often read ritually is not important, that they can and must be read critically is. Reading these texts at the appointed times, another cycle present in Jewish time, helps one explore the foundations in the text which is quite different that merely reading the texts as a ritually appropriate act. While I am not a religious Jew, I find great connections to the texts of my ancestors, to the melodies of prayer, of the sing-song rhythms of reading and studying the texts with a melamed, a teacher, deeply attached to the text allowing that text to come to life. Texts and time are intimately connected.

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

The Vaguaries of Community

The Vagaries of Community

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community

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

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

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

The Chabad as Community

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

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

Alcoholics Anonymous as Community

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

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

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

Ethnicity and Race

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

Questions that Remain Open

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

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.

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