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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.

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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.

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.

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Impossibility of Response-Ability?

I have frequently written about the very idea of ethical response-ability; that the foundation of ethical behavior rests on the notion that I make myself available for the welfare of the other (person). In this sense, to be response-able requires the interiority of the self to turn outward to the exteriority of the other, to expose interiority to the existential world in a selfless manner without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. In the ideal world, the world in which ego plays no part, this form of ethical behavior would seem to come naturally. It is, however, a fact that we do not live in a Utopian society. Quite the contrary, the world in which we live is anything but ideal; it is a world in which everything depends on everything, where things are messy and outside of measurable probabilies, quite unpredictable.

Let’s say that you agree with the idea of ethical response-ability, that your intent is to live according to the principles of ethical response-ability and you make yourself available to the other by announcing “Here I AM!” thereby achieving a state of proximity. Now you wait for the call of the other, the cry of response to your “Here I AM!” which, in turn, obligates you to action. It is precisely here where the rubber meets the road. Just what happens when you receive the call, the cry of response? Imagine you are walking in a park near a lagoon when you see someone splashing about in the lagoon crying out for help. You just heard the cry of response to your ethical announcement obligating you to jump into action. Because we do not live in a Utopian world a certain calculus begins to churn in your head. Is there someone closer than I am that can help? I am dressed in my best clothes and on my way to an important meeting? Can I swim well enough to help the person in distress? Am I trained to help the person in distress? What if the person in distress is a criminal attempting to evade capture? Is there an alternative to swimming out to provide aid to the person in distress, a life saving ring, boat, or pole I can use to offer assistance?

Each of the questions above turns the very idea of ethical response-ability on its head. Each question begins with exteriority and turns inward toward the interiority of self rather than beginning with the interiority of self and turning outward to exteriority. The questions are all geared toward notions of ego and self-preservation rather than a selfless act of providing for the benefit of the other (in need) raising the question of whether or not ethical response-ability is, in fact, even possible in a world in which ego and self-preservation are valued over self-sacrifice.

Other questions are also raised in a world in which uncertainty is the norm. Let’s say you were walking by a lagoon and you saw a baby flailing in the water. Without your assistance that baby would surely die. You save the baby however twenty years later that baby takes an AK 47 with several 100 round magazines to a school and murders 50 second and third grade students along with ten of their teachers. Did you do act ethically in saving the baby or would the ethical thing be to allow that baby to drown thereby saving sixty lives? While this is a different question than earlier posed, the problem remains. Is ethical behavior on the part of the self dependent on future bad acts of the other? If this were the case, would any act of ethical response-ability be appropriate?

The point of this post is that in an uncertain world, the very idea of Utopian ethical response-ability may be impossible. On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason that one cannot aspire to the ideals contained within the very standards of response-ability.

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

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

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

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

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

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

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

Turning Tables: Waiting in Proximate Space

Turning Tables: Waiting in Proximate Space

Turning Tables: Waiting in Proximate Space

I am writing this while sitting in the waiting room of the Valley Ambulatory Surgery Center while my wife undergoes a surgical procedure on her right knee. What is unusual about this is that I am on the other end of the surgery, the person who waits. My own medical history contains many surgical procedures, almost all related to arthritis, where I was the patient and she was relegated to waiting for the results. This particular moment, therefore, is quite different for me and I can only imagine how it is for her.

Waiting, in this sense, is the core of the ethical in the sense that I am now making myself available as I await the call of the other, in this case, the call of my wife as she awakens from her drug induced slumber. Here I am, in proximate space, having made myself available, assuming the response-ability to be of service in her time of need.

As I wait for the call I am reduced to an observer, a singular point from which I wait. This reduction, however, does not make me into the same, into that which becomes normative. Waiting in proximate space is a unique, albeit, selfish space in which I have clear choices. On the one hand, I could dwell on what is taking so long, why isn’t this thing done, or, on the other hand, I can sit in this very moment letting the flow of time wash over me like a flowing river. I choose the latter. I choose to write rather than dwell on the negative aspects of time. Negativity helps no one, to the contrary, it freezes one in a cube of stress.

The very act of writing propels me to interiority, a space that is private yet made public by the very fact that I post this writing for the public to read. The interiority of writing is where I begin to see what I think, to build on an idea and to test its limits. It is the place where knowledge is constructed. It is the place of proximity, a productive waiting for the call of the other to pierce the fabric of the ethical, to tear apart the difference between the self and the other while preparing to bind the self to the other in service to the cry of the other. Writing prepares one for the existential experience of an ethical life.

So here I sit, waiting for the call, waiting for the surgeon to tell me what a grand job he did, waiting for the nurse to allow me to ease into the twilight of Susan’s recovery.

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 1-14

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz was fond of exclaiming just after awakening, loud enough for everyone in his dwelling place to hear, “Wake my friends, a guest you have never before seen has arrived. Once gone you will never see him again. “ His students asked, “Who is this guest, Rabbi?” Dov Ber replied, “Why today, of course!” In fact, Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz had it almost right; he just was counting too long a time period. The guest he might have considered would be this very moment, a period of time so infinitely brief that it cannot be measured without stopping time itself and the very moment it arrives it is always already gone, disappearing into a trace, a remembered moment.

What is remembered is but a simulacrum of the moment, what is the remembered past is but a mere string of traces left behind by this very moment, glossed over by a varnish that enhances the good and diminishes the pain. In this sense, the lived experience, the existential life, is guided by the simulacra of this very moment compressed into an interpretation of a life lived; a remembered past serves as the guidepost for the wished for future.

Time is experienced by the self as a linear extension of moments strung together moving progressively along a thread of experience. Time is an experience of the interior self extended into the exterior or material world presenting the self with a significant problem, that of intercourse with the other, with other absolutely unique selves existing in the world. Without the bother of the other to contend with, the self would be content to be only for itself. Presented with the other, however, the selfish act of being only for oneself is impossible. The very idea of turning totally inward to the interiority of the self is to withdraw from all social contact. While there are times when one normally withdraws, times of physical or emotional pain for example, the thought of remaining totally withdrawn is outside the very nature of the human being to seek social contact.

Intercourse with the absolutely unique other is a sort of practice for the encounter with the Absolute Other, the infinite awaiting each and every human being. There is no escape, no substitution for this encounter with the Other; the only question is when. Yet, given the encounter with the infinitely brief moment in which the lived experience is fully engaged, the infinite passes by almost unnoticed, leaving but the ever-fading trace behind as a reminder of the existential journey.

The encounter with the other requires one to be response-able, to respond to the call of the other while demanding of the self to be absolutely available, to become proximate while waiting for the call of the other. Being response-able is a choice one makes, an ethical choice to be ready to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or without the expectation of reciprocation. The proximate choice, the placing oneself in the position of ethical response to the cry of the other involves waiting for the call. In this sense the ethical choice appears to be passive. In fact, making the ethical response-able choice is actively renewed in this very moment, over and over, while waiting in the proximate space for the call that may never arrive to come. Like Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz, the moment of choice to revel in the moment of response-ability is now because to overlook the opportunity is to lose it forever. Like Rabbi Hillel, there is no better time than this very moment to make the ethical choice to announce to the world “Here I Am!” and wait for the response. Life in this very moment requires each self to act for the welfare and benefit of the other without demanding anything of the other in return.

Always Already Being In The Material World

Always Already Being In The Material World

Always Already Being In The Material World

To borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger without necessarily committing to its meaning, being-in-the-world adequately represents the notion of the existential moment. If I could phrase it differently than Heidegger I would strip it of its ontological references while incorporating the notion of representing an illusory phantom of the trace of memory and a projection into the future. In Levinas’ terms, this is represented better by the notion of hypostasis, the question of the infinitely brief moment of existential time while merging the idea of the trace remembered and the future desired, both of which are measured by ever fading memory or ever more fantastic dreamt of futures. In brief, existential time is a simulacrum of the conjoining of past/future, while cleverly disguising both within a true sense of security of past events and a desired sense of future certainty. Nothing, however, exists outside of this very moment of existential time; all the rest is merely a ghost or a projection on a screen of hope; something like Plato’s images on the cave wall without the reference to forms.

Going beyond the ontic nature of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, Levinas focuses on the idea that hypostasis focuses on the interiority of solitude in which one experiences existential time; the trace of memory and those projections for the future are clearly personal, not able to be shared with any other human being. If left to its own resources, Heidegger insists, the self would be so consumed with its own interiority that it could not relate to the exterior world other than to evaluate the entirety of that world as objects of the self with being incorporated in the objective relationship with the objects, including the human objects, in the world. Levinas is critical of this position arguing that one can only understand being by and through the social interaction with the other, by responding to the call of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation; to make oneself present in the world in order to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. In this sense, being-in-the-world turns Heidegger on his head by proclaiming that ethics trumps ontology; that response-ability, the ability to respond to the call of the other from wherever it originates is a fundamental obligation of the ethical human being, denying the interiority of the self as more important than the self existing as a social being evidenced by its commitment to the exteriority of the world one encounters in this very moment of existential time.

I exist in this world in order to be of service to the other, to extend my hand whenever and wherever I hear the call of the other asking for help. Must I answer each and every call from the other? No, but I must answer the calls for which I am best equipped. For me, as a personal being existing in the world, I have two major callings. I will answer the call of anyone with a desire to stop drinking by extending my hand and offering the support I can and must offer. I do this because I am a recovering alcoholic with over two decades of not drinking. Recently, because of my diagnosis of prostate cancer I announced my presense to any and all who have the same or similar diagnosis; I will answer the call of anyone with prostate cancer by extending my hand and sharing my experience, strength and hope. The choice of these two ‘causes’ does not preclude my being responsible in other situations; it simply means that I have chosen to priortize my personal sense of responsibility in these two arenas at this very moment. It seems that I recognize my existence within the bounds of the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous and the community of men diagnosed with prostate cancer as well as those men who desire to end prostate cancer as the second leading killer of men in the United States.

 

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