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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.”

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Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

It all falls on what counts as evidence. In my Western way of thinking, evidence cannot be accepted on faith alone. In fact, faith and what counts as evidence are contradictions. In my approach, evidence must be both reliable and verifiable; it must originate in fact and it must be replicable in multiple contexts. Faith, on the other hand, accepts as fact that which is often absurdly beyond the knowledge, what is knowable, and what is verifiable outside of the limitations of faith itself. Faith, then, presents fundamental problems to rationality. Here is where I am struggling to break from the mold of the Greeks and integrate Jerusalem into my thought process. I am finding it more difficult that I had imagined because much of what I am reading and learning relies on faith based evidence and not on reliable and verifiable evidence.

Let me cite a simple example. Yesterday I was reading a commentary on the current parsha (weekly Torah portion open for study for the week and read in synagogue on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings) that, among other teachings focuses on the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) by God. In the Torah there is a single line that reads as follows: “And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea and the sea returned to its strength.” (Exodus 14:27)  The commentary I read focused only on the four words (one Hebrew word) in the English translation, “returned to its strength.” The first part of the commentary focused on the vocalization of the Hebrew word that could have two pronunciations depending on which vowels are used in vocalizing the word (Hebrew is a language written with no vowels; vowels are added as an afterthought in more modern times in order to simplify correct pronunciation but the Torah is written with no vowels at all). In one vocalization the word means “returned to its strength” while another vocalization of the same letter combination means “returned to normal.” So with no vowels to guide a translator, a choice was made to translate using the phrase, “returned to its strength.” In recent translations made within the past 50 years, the English translation reads “returned to normal” or “returned to its normal state” while leaving the Hebrew of the Tanakh (the Bible) unchanged.

Using the older translation, “returned to its strength” posed a problem for sages of the Talmud and for commentators on the Torah itself. The phrase as translated makes no sense. Pronouncing the Hebrew  in the accepted manner makes no sense. But since every word in Torah is transmitted to Moses by God, and the pronunciation itself must have been, therefore, taught to the Jewish people by Moses himself, the pronunciation must be accepted as the correct pronunciation as well. Occam’s Razor posits that the simplest solution to a problem is generally regarded as the best solution. In this case, accepting a pronunciation that makes little sense over a pronunciation and vocalization that makes clear the language being used doesn’t comply with the principle of Occam’s Razor. Newer translations correct this problem yet there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of pages of commentary stretching over 3,000 years that have to deal with the problem of what appears to be a mispronunciation of the Hebrew of the Torah; a Hebrew that is sans vowels.

To this commentary, the Lubavitcher Rebbe complicates the problem even more. While admitting to the vocalization problem, the Rebbe focuses on the accepted version and tries to explain it. In order to do this, he must jump through at least three hoops and still can only sound convincing to those who accept the Torah as sacrosanct, as infallible, as the word of God transmitted to Moses, through Joshua, to the Judges, Prophets, Sages of the Mishnah, the Sages of the Gemara, to the rabbis and then to the people. The first hoop the Rebbe must traverse is why God would choose such a word to convey a simple idea that once a miracle is over the natural world could return to some kind of normalcy. To this the Rebbe goes through a complex argument that boils down to the fact that the parting of the Sea of Reeds took two miracles, the first was the parting of the sea and the second was the restoration of the sea to normal. The second miracle was made necessary to confirm the fact that the Sea of Reeds was created with the potential for the first miracle and once the condition of that miracle was met and the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land, that without the second miracle the sea would have ceased to exist for ever and all times. God, therefore, needed to restore the sea with miracle number two. This is one reason that the language seems awkward, to make this very point.

Then the Rebbe admits that this is not a completely satisfactory answer to the problem posed by two vocalizations; by two possible meanings. Rather than look for the simplest solution, the Rebbe argues that in order to understand God one must give up the idea that time for God is the same as time for human beings. For us, time is linear but for God time doesn’t exist as God can travel backwards in time, forwards in time and simply be in the present simultaneously. Therefore, one must think of miracles as coming in two varieties. One form of miracle disrupts the flow of the natural world while the other restores the natural world from the discord of the first variety of miracles. This is likened to a conditional contract where the contract would be null and void if the condition for executing the contract is never met. Once the condition is met, the contract is fulfilled (a miracle occurs) but unless the miracle to restore is undertaken the world will be forever altered by the scar left by the first miracle.

There is more but I think you get my point. The evidence the Rebbe relies on is based in the faith that the Torah was given to Moses by God and transmitted across a long line of prophets and sages to the rabbis and then to the people. I find this form of evidence failing to meet either the standard of reliability or validity. The evidence used here requires one to create complex scenarios in order to explain that which cannot be verified and is, therefore, unreliable and cannot be repeated except as a story and is therefore not valid. In order to make sense of this faith based evidence, complicated arguments must trump the simpler answer. None of this analysis, none of this exegesis would be necessary if the vocalization of the Hebrew word itself made sense in the context of the sentence. Occam’s Razor pushes one toward the solution the the sea was returned to its normal state, a state in which the world is restored. Of course, that still leaves us with the problem of the existence of miracles in the first place but that, too, is a function of reliable and valid evidence and will be saved for a different post perhaps.

With Apologies to Bob Wills–Time Changes Everything

Oh you can change the name of an old song
Rearrange it and make it swing
I thought nothing could stop me from loving you
But time changes everything

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Time Changes Everything

With Apologies to Bob Wills--Time Changes Everything

With Apologies to Bob Wills–Time Changes Everything

I grew up on music called Western Swing and the king of Western Swing was a band called Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I loved the sound of the fiddle and as an adult, learned to play at playing the fiddle. Popular tunes that were trademarks of the Texas Playboys like Faded Love and tunes that only those who loved the idea of a swing band that included fiddles like Rolly Polly and San Antonio Rose filled my record (yes vinyl) collection. Right now I have been playing the tune Time Changes Everything as a reminder that I am but five weeks out of surgery and cannot expect everything to be as it was prior to my radical prostatectomy.

This morning I awoke with an almost dry pad. I don’t think this is anything to write home about yet but it is clear that given enough time, the incontinence I have suffered since the removal of the Foley catheter will resolve itself. Phew, that is a relief.

The severe itching that I experienced from the steri-strips used to close the five small wounds is also beginning to resolve. That is also a great relief.

As things begin to resolve and side effects from the surgery diminish, the title of the song Time Changes Everything has been running through my thoughts. Look, I have what is known in some circles as an addictive personality. This means that I want what I want and I want it right now and I’ll do anything to get what I want. It has taken a number of years (22.5 to be precise) to retrain myself to develop patience (although my wife still thinks I am the most impatient person she knows.) Immediate satisfaction is no longer a requirement in my life. The phrase “This Too Shall Pass” taught me that even the greatest emotional or physical pain is not a forever pain, it will pass because Time Changes Everything.

I also learned that living in the moment, in the immeasurably brief moment of time that is always already past, is a powerful way to release negativity and embrace the positive contained within the moment of life. Measuring one’s breath during meditation is a way to engage in the simulacrum of that instant of time, the existential moment of the lived-experience.

I believe it was Edgar Allen Poe that said that life is a dream wrapped up in a dream, or something like that. What remains of the existential moment is a trace, a memory engram that seems to lose much of the negativity of the moment as it fades into distant remembrance. It is impossible to remember what physical pain feels like, rather, we recall that pain was present but not what it felt like. Time Changes Everything. The trace is not the event, is not the moment, is not existential reality. It is merely a recall of time past re-presented in its most positive light. Our remembrance of time past is much like a dream wrapped up in a dream…it is what allows us to survive to face just one more existential moment.

Yes, Time Changes Everything. In the Bob Wills song there is a verse that begins, “The time has passed and I have forgotten you, Mother Nature does wonderful things…” The simple words of the song, one speaking about a lost love, captures the very idea of existential time in terms of both hope and how the trace fades into acceptance the further removed from the moment of lived-experience it gets.

Thinking About the Other (Person)

On November 14, 2006, I wrote in my journal:

The trace is othered when the trace places the solitude of the self in contact with the knowledge of the other. The other does violence to the solitude of the self in the sense that the other creates a break, a tear in the condition of solitude, the only experience of the trace. The tear disrupts the hegemony of the self by offering up a knowledge that there is something external to the trace which is otherwise a self-contained existent.

Thinking About the Other (Person)

Thinking About the Other (Person)

The notion that the trace is a remembrance isolated, belonging only to the self, that is capable of being torn from the self by the appearance of the other is an important way of thinking of the difference between the encapsulation of the self in isolation and the efference of the self experiencing the other as other.

I cannot share the trace I have constructed from this very moment with any other human being. My trace belongs exclusively to me. To share trace as a record of a lived-experience is quite impossible for two important reasons. First, because trace is something akin to embedded memory and because memory is an unreliable source for recalling a past event in a lived-experience, whatever I share can only be something of a partial exposure of that lived experience. Memory tends to disgorge that which is unpleasant, uncomfortable, or is damaging to one’s projected image. Time softens memory so that we forget that which was forgettable and enhance that which can be recalled safely. Secondly, even if one could share a trace as a true recording, the time it would take to retell would be equal to the time it took to record the trace in the first instance. Reliving a lifetime would take a lifetime to retell.

Once the other tears the hegemony of the self by making itself present to the self, once the self becomes aware of the other as a fully formed existent, the potential for shared experience is open and on the table. This does not, however, include the idea that a shared trace is possible. No, even when two or more people experience the very same event, when they witness something, their individual perspective will not accommodate a shared trace. The event will be viewed from different perceptual points, even when the witnesses are standing right next to one another. Next to is not the same as the position of the self. In addition, cultural and linguistic differences will cause each self watching an event to see the event through a lens of cultural and linguistic taken-for-granteds that, while appearing to the individual as perfectly normal, will appear to the other as unusual, different, out of touch.

The truth of being-in-the-world is that we are all self and we are all other! The distinction is that each self is uniquely different from every other and each other is uniquely different from each isolated self. This, then, leaves open two distinct possibilities: first, that the self reduce the other to the same, that the self create categories or cubby-holes to effectively isolate the other as a stereotype, of belonging to a particular class (e.g., teachers, union members, thieves, blacks, Jews, Mexicans, and so on) in which a conversation about, say, teachers begins with “all” as in all teachers are (fill in the blank). Secondly, one may choose to look at the other as unique and embrace the differences that each and every other encountered brings to the social encounter. Rather than lumping into a hegemonic category, this approach embraces the diversity each of us brings to the encounter allowing one to take away something positive rather than encapsulate one’s taken-for-granteds about any single group as an excuse for hate, rage and violence.

So what, if anything, does this have to do with the fact that this blog is about my surviving prostate cancer in this very moment? Simply this, I have cancer but I am not governed by the fact that I contracted this disease. Oh at times I am absolutely required to respond to something or other because of the disease but I am not ruled by nor do I identify myself as only a cancer patient. Quite the contrary. I am more than my disease. In fact, I am made of many facets, each of which are part of my lived-experience. Only one small part of that lived-experience has anything to do with my personal struggle with disease. So, yes, sometimes I ramble on about things that interest me because it provides an opportunity for me to present myself to the other in such a way as to embrace the Levinasian fundamental ethical obligation without reservation. As a self I announce my responsibility through any number of means and then I wait to hear the demand of the other.

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