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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.

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

In the Torah portion for the first weekend in May are both blessings and curses, blessings for obeying the commandments of God and curses for failing to obey those same commandments. The blessings are rather benign, like causing the rain to fall (during the rainy season), while the curses are obscene ranging from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to mothers consuming their own children. Commentaries on Torah struggle to make sense of all of this and still maintain the fiction of a loving and benevolent God. On the one hand, the commentaries focus on the blessings and curses as community or societal in their implementation arguing that any individual judgement is reserved for the world to come when the soul returns to the realm of the Absolute Other, a world beyond all understanding in this world. Others argue that the blessings and curses are attached to individual actions and that one cannot judge for another whether one is being blessed or cursed. How, for example, can one call a wealthy man blessed if he lives his life in fear of the loss of his wealth or a poor man cursed if he lives a self-satisfied life of family and friends.

In either case, the argument suggests that there are three levels of obedience in this world. The first is naive obedience, obedience without understanding because it is what one is supposed to do. The second level is obedience because the very act of obedience is satisfying to one’s ego, a selfish act of obedience backed by long hours of study and understanding. Finally, there is the selfless act of obedience, an act that when undertaken, is less physical and more spiritual, almost like the very idea of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. This phasing argument posits that one follows commandments not only because they are commanded by God, although that is a good enough reason, but, rather, because they are indeed carried out for the benefit of the actor outside of the realm of the Godly. In short, obeying the commandments of God are good for you rather than good for God.

The argument goes on to provide for the caveat for performing mitzvot (commandments) that if there were no God then performance would be a wasted effort, that only because there is a God, one who issues commandments in the first instance, that one is obligated to follow them. But wait…if this were true, if there truly was a creator God demanding that one follow this particular set of rules, then how does one account for the simple fact that many and varied faiths, both monotheistic, polytheistic and non-theistic (which is different than atheistic) religions and value systems have a large body of rules to follow, rules that, in the final analysis, separate believers from non-believers of a particular prescriptive faith? I would argue that the polyglot of religious beliefs that at some level or another require strict adherence to a set of rules are all constrained by the same problematic, that they and they alone possess the ultimate “Truth” which, in turn, eliminates all other competing faith based systems as either untrue, irrelevant or both. On its face, this is an argument from exclusivity, one that fails to consider competing alternatives as valid. It is also an argument that turns inward, using its own writings as proofs rather than analyzing writings from competing systems if only for the purpose of elimination.

The argument also presupposes the total exclusion of atheism, the rejection of a creator God based on extant evidence, suggesting that atheists have no moral compass upon which to base an ethical or moral life, that without the threat of punishment or the compensation of reward in some world or another to come there is no reason to behave toward one’s fellow-man (or animals for that matter) with compassion. Without the underlying threat of reward or punishment one would be free to pursue one’s basest nature without a second thought. Conscience would not exist and even if it did it would not have any impact on one’s behavior because the only life that matteres is the life we are living. This argument is, at best, a stretch. Some of the most ethical people I know are atheists as are some of the most vile while some of the most vile members of society are staunch members of one or another religious organization as are some of the most ethical. It seems to matter little whether one believes in a creator God or not as to how one chooses to live one’s life. Ethics are not a matter of fear of punishment or reward. To the contrary, living an ethical life is a conscious choice, one governed by the desire for social justice and fair play. Without that sense of compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves there is no ethic that reasonably can be called ethical.

Time as an Illusion: Thinking in Jewish 32

Nothing lasts forever say the old men in the shipyards
Turning trees into shrimp boats, hell I guess they ought to know
Guy Clark

Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most remember some
But don’t throw none away.
Townes VanZandt

Time as an Illusion: Thinking in Jewish 32

Time as an Illusion: Thinking in Jewish 32

The discussion last night at the parsha class concerned the Jewish concept of time, a concept that obligates us to make the best use of each and every second allotted to a productive life. This means that one is accountable for each of the 86,400 seconds in each 24 hour period. Quite a tall order one might think but upon careful consideration, perhaps not so difficult after all. There is a saying that one cannot step into the same river twice; while the river may be the same, the flow of water makes the river quite different that the one only moments before. The system is not circular, it doesn’t flow back onto itself or pour back into the headwaters of that river. To the contrary, the stream is a constant flow, ever changing while seeming to be quite the same. A life lived is much like a river. Existential time is immeasurably brief, a nano-second which is already gone. Our conscious hours leave behind traces of memory that, in turn, give us the illusion of a past while our plans and goals for what is to come provide the illusion of a future. But the only reality is the moment of existential time, a time that can neither be wasted nor saved; it can only be.

What is clear, however, is that the flow of existential time leaves us with the illusion of accomplishment or failure, or, perhaps, something in between. But that sense is but an accumulation of rapidly fading or quickly revised recollections, traces of a life lived that are neither the experience itself nor are they true representations of the lived-experience because they are always altered to represent the experience in the best light possible. Even events that are horrible, violent or otherwise utterly negative are, as one gets further away from the event itself, diluted, details fading away and when recalled tend to be recalled in the best light possible. Another thing that occurs with trace memory is that it is sometimes embellished to include things that did not occur in the event itself, thereby causing memory to be attuned to that which one chooses to recall rather than a true representation of the actual event itself.

That being said, the idea that one is obligated to make the best use of the time, even the briefest segment of the lived-experience, the immeasurable moment that is the absolute now, must mot be overlooked. To make the best use of the time allotted one must be fully engaged in positive activity. Engagement is much like the idea that athletes often speak of when they describe being in the zone. The zone represents an engagement that is 100% focused on the task at hand, so much so that one looses track of all other things such as time or food or sleep. While it is impossible to always be in the zone, it is the goal that counts. The full engagement is the goal, it is something to aim for. That does not discount those moments when the zone tends to be elusive. Like Townes said, “Forget most remember some  but don’t throw none away.”

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

This past Saturday while sitting in my Rabbi’s Library after Shabbat morning services I listened to a most disturbing proposition, that God allows tragedy in the world in order to create a vital need for God. At the same time one of the congregants proposed the grand idea that even though God knows the results of all actions, God allows us to have free will which includes the ability to act with evil intentions. Let me tackle the free will issue first and then I’ll try to address the former idea that God allows evil in order to create a place for God.

The issue of free will is an easy one for me. Either there is a God who is omniscient, all knowing, in which case there can be no free will simply because God knows every action one takes and therefore one’s life is pre-determined. All that exists under this construction is the illusion of free will; the human being acting freely without external constraints or conditions controlling one’s choices is but an illusion if the outcome is predestined. Claiming an omniscient God who surrenders the ability to determine the will of any or all human beings affording humanity free will is like having one’s cake and eating it too. The very concept is a contradiction in terms. Omniscience and free will cancel one another out. Either one has free will in which case there is no room for an omniscient God or one’s life and actions are predetermined by an omniscient creator God and there is no way out of the destiny one is created to complete.

For my part, I reject the very notion of omniscience and therefore reject the very idea that a creator God controls anything in my universe. I have free will and yet I choose to act with ethical intentions. I am not, however, surprised when others act with evil intentions. Free will provides one with a choice and sometimes that choice is rather difficult to make. But because I am able to act freely I must also embrace the very idea that the universe in which I live, for a brief time, is quite random and without teleological purpose. I live in an absurd universe, a universe of chance, of probabilities, of good, of evil, of risk, of reward, a universe without meaning except for the meaning that each individual contributes to the fabric of our intertwined lived-experiences.

The very idea that a God allows evil in order to create a place of God is obscene. If this is the image of the creator God of monotheism then that God is a sadist and unworthy of worship. That God allows bombs to be placed behind children and adults to create a desire for God’s protection in survivors and witnesses to the tragic outcome of a bombing as took place at the Boston Marathon is without honor, ethics or morals. A God that is so insecure that God requires tragedy to induce desire (I think fear is a better word here) makes that God unworthy of worship. A God that allows women and children to be destroyed and maimed by the actions of one predestined to plant such a bomb fails to follow his own edict that one has the obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; to violate one’s own commandments is to make one unworthy of worship. The very idea that God allows violence, war, pestilence and famine raises some interesting questions. First, If God is God and can stop the violence and doesn’t, then God is a sadist. If, secondly, God is God and cannot stop the violence then God is not omnipotent and is, therefore, unworthy of fear and trembling. Finally, if God is God and is simply indifferent to the violence then God is nothing but a passive deity unworthy of worship for God will not interfere with the ways of mankind. Violent acts, wars, and other acts of evil do not turn me toward God rather they act to turn me away from a creator God.

So what am I doing in Synagogue on Saturday morning. Yes, I am still an atheist but I am also a Jew and I enjoy the company of the congregation. There is a great deal of joy in the congregation and if the price I have to pay for the congregation is to sit for an hour and a half in prayer (I actually use the time to meditate rather than to pray) that is a small price to pay. As Emmanuel Levinas argued, even if there is no God, one is obligated to act as if there is.

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

There is indeed a problem with the whole idea of believing in something because one wants to rather than because the evidence pushes one in that direction.
Alastair Hannay, Introductory Essay to Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Believers often define faith as belief in something without evidence; a deeply felt attachment to an idea or principle that, when closely examined would simply fall apart. Some rely on a belief system to explain the unexplained (please note I did not use the term unexplainable simply because, given enough time, all things are explainable but some things today remain unexplained) often sticking to older, yet no longer credible, constructions (e.g., the creation of the universe in six days by a creator God no longer is credible in a universe now known to be billions of years old). Still others claim to have experienced personal miracles in their lives and can only attribute those miracles to the intervention of God or Jesus or some saint or another with no other empirical evidence other than personal experience to back up their claims. Many of these stem from arguments of incredulity which basically go like this: “I can’t think of any other reason for ‘this’ to be therefore it must be the hand of a creator God because nothing else explains whatever ‘this’ is.”

People of faith, especially those who conger a teleological purpose coupled with an eschatological end of times, seem to recognize that their core beliefs are mythological in nature but that all will be revealed when the messiah comes or returns depending on which eschatological story one takes as being the ‘truth.’ It seems that the messiah may appear in the very next moment of time or sometime in the distant future (while some believe in the imminent appearance of the messiah without the ability to attach to that appearance a definite time or place).

Here’s the rub; the very belief in a purpose to the universe, to the very earth we walk upon, to the core of existence is a belief system that may or may not be true. What if, for example, there were no purpose, that the universe, the earth, our very existence were merely the result of probabilities resulting from the physics of the big bang. If this is the case, claiming there must be a purpose to life, that life itself must be meaningful as conditioned by the imposition of meaning or purpose by a creator God, has no foundation. Claiming that there is a teleological purpose is nothing if not the incredulity of belief. It overlooks evidence.

If there is no intrinsic meaning for our very existence is it possible to create meaning or is all lost? If the very core of human life is meaningless, how does one not dispair? If one sees oneself bound to a chain of events stemming from the teleological, if one is, in this sense, bound to a core of sin and redemption where redemption is the reward for living itself, there is little available to the human being but a dispair arising from unfulfilled desire for redemption. If, on the other hand, one addresses life as being in the moment, that one is embedded in the flow of life itself, almost like standing in a river rushing downstream, then one is able to adjust to the vagaries that arise from the changing flow without teleological hope ruling the day. Sometimes the river runs slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes the water level is low and sometimes it is flooding, all events that are predictable yet randomly occurring. It is said that one can never stand in the same river twice. What one can do is experience the flow rather than focusing on how one may be redeemed from it.

To remove the teleological along with the idea of eschatological redemption conditioned on the appearance of the messiah does not, however remove response-ability from the equation of life. It does remove conditional response-ability bound up in sin and redemption freeing it from the dispair tied to desire. Once the burdens of fear based desire are removed one’s response-ability is simply an ethical response to the other [person], not one based in fear of punishment or desire for redemption but simply because it is the right thing to do. By acting for the welfare of the other one extends the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other while incorporating the uniqueness of the other into one’s on lived-experience. No need to condition the obligation to act as a response-able human being, to the contrary, one must act without reservation and without expectation for any reward or recognition or the act is not response-able, rather it is bound up in self interest and self preservation.

 

What a Week

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

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

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

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

Private Ryan’s Question

Private Ryan's Question

Private Ryan’s Question

Just the other day I saw again the movie Saving Private Ryan. Near the end of the film Captain Miller, dying from a gunshot wound, tells Private Ryan, “Earn it.” At the end of the film we are returned to the beginning where the old man and his family are visiting the military cemetery above the beaches at Normandy. The old man turns out to be Private Ryan. Kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’m a good man; that I’ve lived a good life.” While this question tugs at the emotions of the audience, I believe we are left with more questions than answers at the close of this film.

It would seem that Private Ryan carried a great deal of guilt for having survived when his savior dies. The question he asks is rhetorical, requiring no answer, unless, of course, Private Ryan’s life was anything but good. The fact that he had to ask this question of his wife, a person who would likely not tell him the truth if his life had been less than good, makes the question all the more absurd. One knows whether one has lived an ethical life, a life in which one fulfills one’s obligation to the other before thinking of oneself. One knows whether his or her life was earned rather than given simply by the measure of regret one has as time passes.

As I look back on my own life I am satisfied with my contributions to the world in which I live. I have no regrets and were I to drop dead in this very moment I would traverse into the unknown happy, joyous and free. This is not to say that I would do everything exactly the same if I were given the chance to do things over again; to the contrary, each mistake proved to be a tool for change. I learned, sometimes the hard way, that doing the same thing over and over expecting different results did not work for me. Learn from the mistakes, do things differently and one need not ask the question that Private Ryan asked in the end. He would simply know the answer so the question would be left unasked.

In war, as in life in general, events are random yet predictable through applied probabilities. If something can happen it will happen, we just don’t know when or to whom. One can calculate the odds in war as to how many people will die as a result of battles waged as well as how many will survive. While the probabilities do not say exactly which people will live and which will die, in the end the numbers are accurate. The fact that Captain Miller dies and Private Ryan lives to return to Normandy those many years later is a result of randomness and does not suggest any purpose in the two instances, rather, it confirms the very nature of the odds of survival. It is something like this quote from “Nuke” LaLoosh. “This [baseball] is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

The point is, if you have to ask whether or not you have lived a good life, if you are a good person, chances are the answer is no. Private Ryan asked the wrong question and the audience is left without a resolution.

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.

 

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