Category Archives: Judaism

Deducible you

Leafy says that the Biblical commandment to welcome the stranger includes welcoming the stranger in people we know or even love.

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That of other people we can deduce from who we believe they are is not them, but a part of ourselves. It is when our expectations are defied that we encounter otherness most starkly.

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Politics is about creating alliances between people with common interests. What is unique is politically useless: it lacks the numbers to make its will felt. Only liberal politics protects uniqueness by viewing the protection of uniqueness a common interest and building large alliances around none-of-the-above.

Those who dread what is unique in themselves and others will insist that the personal is political, and see to it that it remains only political.

“Transgressive realism”

Reading the introduction of Jean Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence, I came across this:

With this critique, Jean Wahl, at least I would argue, anticipates an important dimension of contemporary Continental thought, which has recently been quite daringly called by an anglo- saxon observer, “transgressive realism”: that our contact with reality at its most real dissolves our preconceived categories and gives itself on its own terms, that truth as novelty is not only possible, though understood as such only ex post facto, but is in fact the most valuable and even paradigmatic kind of truth, defining our human experience. The fundamental realities determinative of human experience and hence philosophical questioning — the face of the other, the idol, the icon, the flesh, the event… and also divine revelation, freedom, life, love, evil, and so forth — exceed the horizon of transcending- immanence and give more than what it, on its own terms, allows, thereby exposing that its own conditions are not found in itself and opening from there onto more essential terrain.

“Transgressive realism” jumped out at me as the perfect term for a crucially important idea that I’ve never seen named. I followed the footnote to the paper, Lee Braver’s “A brief history of continental realism” and hit pay dirt. Returning to Wahl, I find myself reading through Braver’s framework, which, of course, is a sign of a well-designed concept.

Braver presents three views of realism, 1) Active Subject (knowledge is made out out of our own human subjective structures, and attempting to purge knowledge of these subjective forms is impossible), 2) Objective Idealism (reality is radically knowable, through a historical process by which reality’s true inner-nature is incorporated into understanding), and 3) Transgressive Realism, which Braver describes as “a middle path between realism and anti-realism which tries to combine their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumena), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories…”

Not only is there an outside, as Hegel denies, but we can encounter it, as Kant denies; these encounters are in fact far more important than what we can come up with on our own. The most important ideas are those that genuinely surprise us, not in the superficial sense of discovering which one out of a determinate set of options is correct, as the Kantian model allows, but by violating our most fundamental beliefs and rupturing our basic categories.

This concept is fundamental to my own professional life (studying people in order to re-understand them and the worlds they inhabit, in order induce innovations through perspective shift), to my political ideal (liberalism, the conviction that all people should be treated as real beings and not instances of other people’s categories, because each person packs the potential to disrupt the very categories we use to think them) and my deepest religious convictions (the most reliable door to God is through the surprising things other people can show you and teach you, which can shock and transfigure us and our worlds.)

Though I am Jewish — no, because I am Jewish — I will never stop admiring Jesus for combining into a single commandment the Ve’ahavta (“and you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength”) with the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. Incredible!

Divine trigger

Other minds are our most accessible source of divine alterity, of the accessibly alien, but for this very reason our most intrusive source of dread.

The accessibly alien is a thin dark ring of potential-understanding separating the bright spark of understanding from the infinite expanse of blindness beyond understanding, which some people call “absurd”, others call “mystery”, and others call “nothing”.

As long as we discuss common objects, the things standing around us illuminated by our common understandings. we seem alike. We come from the same place, we want similar things, and we live together peacefully as neighbors.

But when we try to share what is nearest to us with our nearest neighbor the divine alterity shows. As distance diminishes, our innerness — the source of illumination that gives our knowledge meaning — burns with intolerable blinding intensity, and the light it radiates turns strange, hinting in a way that cannot be doubted how much deeper, wider, denser, inexhaustible and incomprehensible reality is, and how thin and partial even the most thorough knowledge is. Too much is exposed. Perplexity engulfs us, and anxiety floods in.

Our stomachs drop, our chests tighten and burn, acid rises in the backs of our throats. Our alarms go off, and the talk will be made to stop. Only the most trusting love and disciplined faith will pull us across the estrangement. This is what it takes to raise two divine sparks.

To many of us this dread seems a mortal threat. And we are right in a sense.

Transcendence, love and offense

Transcendence is what gives all things authentic value, positive and negative.

Positively, when we value anything, and especially when we love someone, what we authentically value is precisely the reality beyond the “given”, that is, beyond what we think and what we immediately experience.

If we only love the idea of someone or if we only love the experience of being with someone, while rejecting whatever of them (or more accurately “whoever of them”) defies our will, surprises our comprehension, breaks our categorical schemas and evades our experience, we value only what is immanent to our selves: an inner refraction of self that has little to do with the real entity valued. To authentically value , to love, we must must want most of all precisely what is defiant, surprising, perplexing and hidden.

To want only what we can hope to possess is to lust; to be content with what we have is to merely like, and no amount or intensity of lusting or liking adds up to love. (To put it in Newspeak, love is not double-plus-like. Love is not the extreme point on the liking continuum, but something qualitatively and, in truth, infinitely different.)

Conversely, authentic negative value — authentic offense — is our natural and spontaneous response when another person interacts with us as if we are essentially no more than what we are to them. They reduce us without remainder to what they believe us to be, and to how they experience us. In doing this, they deny our transcendent reality. This is the universal essence of offense.

When a social order is roughly equal, it is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to oppress another with such treatment. A person can either shun the would-be oppressor, or make their reality felt by speaking out or refusing to comply with expectations. But in conditions of inequality, threat or dependence can compel a person to perform the part of the self a more powerful person imagines. This is where offense gives over to warranted hostility.

The fashionable conventional wisdom, which has been drilled into the heads of the young, gets it all backwards. Ask the average casually passionate progressivist what is wrong with racism or sexism you’ll get an answer to the effect of “racism and sexism produce or reinforce inequality and oppression.” But the truth of the matter is that inequality is bad because it allows people to get away with forcing other people to tolerate, if not actively self-suppress, self-deny and perform the role the powerful demand of them. And part of that performance is asserting the truth the powerful impose.

Curriculum

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite this scattered in my curriculum or quite this solid in my own philosophy. Mostly I am jumping around trying to connect my philosophy of design with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. I want to try to organize the leads and strands, so I can keep track of it (or maybe just note my intentions, in case I later want to map out what turned out to go somewhere, versus a dead-end or a road not taken).

Most material-turn thinkers seem to find the metaphysics of A. N. Whitehead to be compatible and supportive of their work, so I definitely want to dig further into his thinking, most likely continuing to use Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead as a guide.

Stenger and many others refer to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, so when I spotted an episode on them in the completely fantastic podcast “Philosophize This!” (so fantastic, in fact, that I joined Patreon, just to help fund it) I decided to listen. So far, I’m finding their last collaboration What Is Philosophy? to be very close to my views on what philosophy is/ought to be and do. I anticipate finishing this one, before tackling Stengers.

I’m also bumping into Gregory Bateson quite a bit these days. I ran into a reference to him in The Design Philosophy Reader (would also like to finish this this summer, or at least this year, since I’ve decided to root my own philosophy in the bizarre and intensely uncomfortable experiences that permeate a life of strategic human-centered design) — and again in an article on futures literacy, which I plan to finish reading this week.

Last weekend I finished an intriguing paper Latour wrote (translated by Graham Harman — more on him later) on Souriau, which convinced me that I will have to read The Different Modes of Existence soon, which might help me actually understand Latour’s own magnum opus An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.

Regarding Harman, I’ll probably make myself read his introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology, if only to eliminate OOO as a possible area of study. OOO is the one material-turn philosophy that seems almost preposterously wrong-headed, and it is also the hottest philosophical movement in the world right now, embraced by many brilliant people — so what am I supposed to do with that? As I’ve said before, philosophy is a schooling in humiliation, and my reaction to OOO — especially its self-evident foolishness — shows signs that I am failing to understand it. I continue to cautiously reject OOO until I can pin down precisely where it is failing, or until I convert and realize it was right all along. (Until then, however, I believe OOO’s entire trajectory is determined by a fundamental moral confusion endemic to the progressivist regions of today’s popular philosophy, namely, a passionate belief in selfless altruism. I deny not only that it is possible, but that selfless altruism is even a good unattainable ideal. I think the notion of selfless altruism is a result of a conceptual failure and pursuit of the ideal has disastrous moral consequences: it produces an incapacity to develop real relationships with real others, an incapacity to find genuine value in one’s life, and most of all an incurable moral irritability saturated with ressentiment. OOO wants us to try to leave our persons behind in order imagine our(not)selves into the undetectedly withdrawn life of noumena, like inhabitants of Calvino’s imaginary city of Baucis.

Vastly better, in my opinion, generally but especially for the purposes of human-centered design, is postphenomenology. I’ve read part of Robert Rosenberger’s collection Postphenomenological Investigations (Langsdorf’s essay is what reignited my interest in Whitehead as the material-turn metaphysician of choice) and I definitely need to finish it. I’ve already read Verbeek’s What Things Do. I’ll likely read Moralizing Technology next, and then start reading the works of Don Idhe (the founder of postphenomenology) from latest to when he turned his attention to human-technology relationships.

And, speaking of Verbeek — His attacks on Jaspers’s views on technology got me interested in Jaspers work, and strangely, led me into an existential detour earlier this year. I still intend to read (at least) his three-volume Philosophy (which I got scanned and OCRed, so I can read it on my iPad.) Also, Jaspers concept of the Axial Age, has intersected with an obsessive intuition I’m harboring that “we have come to the end of this kind of vision of Heaven”, and might now be starting to move beyond the 2,500-year-old understanding of religion which is so predominant and ubiquitous that we find it difficult to imagine that religion could be anything else. Not to propagate posts in this post-post moment, but I am interested in what post-Axial religious praxis can look like (which would include material-turn ontology set in a panentheistic metaphysics) and I’ve even managed to find a book on it, which, I, alas, also must read, and which threatens to barge in at the front of my reading queue. And of course there’s a whole world of Process Theology out there, based on Whitehead’s thought, which might, for all I know, already be exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve read one book on Jewish process theology, which did not connect with me much, but I don’t think it exhausted the possibilities.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I’d love to turn the work into a publicly-acknowledged post-grad academic degree of some kind, but what department in what university would ever award it?

Divine ecology

I have been looking for a “way in” into environmentalism. Intellectually, I know it matters tremendously, but I haven’t felt its importance on a tacit moral “why” level that makes its importance immediate and self-evident. I know this is a philosophical failure — something in my worldview (what Judaism would call levavkha, heart) is preventing a reality from being as real to me as it ought to be (“hardness of heart” toward toward the Earth, and physical reality, in general) — so I have been poking around looking for new angles for conceiving and perceiving our situation.

This passage from Gregory Bateson speaks to me:

Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.

Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,” you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

You and I are so deeply acculturated to the idea of “self” and organization and species that it is hard to believe that man might view his relations with the environment in any other way than the way which I have rather unfairly blamed upon the nineteenth-century evolutionists. So I must say a few words about the history of all this.

Anthropologically, it would seem from what we know of the early material, that man in society took clues from the natural world around him and applied those clues in a sort of metaphoric way to the society in which he lived. That is, he identified with or empathized with the natural world around him and took that empathy as a guide for his own social organization and his own theories of his own psychology. This was what is called “totemism.”

In a way, it was all nonsense, but it made more sense than most of what we do today, because the natural world around us really has this general systemic structure and therefore is an appropriate source of metaphor to enable man to understand himself in his social organization.

The next step, seemingly, was to reverse the process and to take clues from himself and apply these to the natural world around him. This was “animism,” extending the notion of personality or mind to mountains, rivers, forests, and such things. This was still not a bad idea in many ways. But the next step was to separate the notion of mind from the natural world, and then you get the notion of gods.

But when you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you.

Struggle may be good for your soul up to the moment when to win the battle is easy. When you have an effective enough technology so that you can really act upon your epistemological errors and can create havoc in the world in which you live, then the error is lethal. Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in.

Reading this, I am understanding that I have morally deemphasized and neglected one of the dimensions of the threefold present, the present “here”. As with present I (in spirit) and present now (in eternity), present here (in apeiron) is a dimension of reality that is us, while infinitely exceeds us (which, I’ve been told is a theological concept called “panentheism“) within which we are responsible participants.

I’m fresh off this insight, so only time will tell what it does to me and my sense of the world. It feels like a breakthrough.

 

Adonai Echad

If you have lived your life without a center, imagining other places that where you are, rehashing the past, fretting about the future, judging from from everyone else’s expectations and opinions but your own… absolutely, you must (re-)find your center, (re-)establish yourself in the now, learn (re-)learn to live in the threefold present.

It is a basic condition of spiritual life.

For those who have never had it, the experience of discovering I-here-now is miraculous. It is a miracle on the order of witnessing the genesis of the universe from nothingness. And the happiness and benevolence that floods in put one in a paradoxical state of gratitude toward a past to which one can never again choose.

Believing that a world-transfiguring rebirth is what religion is for is inevitable and nearly irresistible. It is self-evidently all-important, in a way that cannot, and indeed, should not, be doubted.

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Despite its apparent self-evident universality, this kind of work is not the universal, eternal goal of all religious work.

It is hard to imagine from a perspective of needing centering that finding one’s center is not every person’s primary spiritual problem, and it is not the dominant problem of every epoch.

Some people, and some times, have precisely the opposite problem, living only in the present, as if the threefold present is all that exists. They live solely in the here-and-now, pursuing only what they perceive as important, viewing life only from their own crystal-clear perspective, heedless of the future, contemptuous of the past, and giving little thought to the myriad centers existing around their own centrality.

For people in this condition, finding the beyond — the reality of reality beyond the periphery of one’s own experience is the one thing most needful.

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Due to an uncanny convergence of events, I’ve been meditating on this theme for a couple of weeks, and I’m going to speculate somewhat recklessly from what I think is a Jewish perspective.

Finding one’s center in the threefold present and learning to participate in life from this center — “I am here being” — corresponds to God as YHWH.

Learning to live from this center toward the myriad other centers (all of whom live from centers of their own) out into myriad overlapping peripheries corresponds to God as Elohim (whose name is plural).

Understanding that YHWH and Elohim is one, and dedicating one’s life with the entirety of one’s heart, soul and strength to living from this reality toward this reality, as a responsible citizen of God, embracing more and more through collaboration with my fellows — that’s the religious ideal that guides me.

 

 

 

Raising sparks

I’ve learned to recognize significance in anxiety, in love, in anger — a significance which points to relationships to transcendent realities through which we have a relationship with transcendence per se, through understanding or wisdom. I am going to start looking for analogous (or anomalogous) significance in other experiences, responses and actions as well, especially ones related to beauty, splendor, duration, foundations and sovereignty.

Mathematician’s faith

From Isabelle Stengers’s Thinking With Whitehead (bold mine)

Thinking with Whitehead today therefore means accepting an adventure from which none of the words that serve as our reference points should emerge unscathed, but from which none will be disqualified or denounced as a vector of illusion. All are a part of the problem, whether they refer to the whys of human experience or to the hows of “objective reality.” If compromise solutions do not suffice, it is because they try to circumvent the problem instead of raising it; that is, they try to mitigate the contra­dictions and to make compatible that which defines itself as conflictual. Whitehead was a mathematician, and mathematicians are they who do not bow down before contradictions but transform them into an ingredi­ent of the problem. They are the ones who dare to “trust” in the possibil­ity of a solution that remains to be created. Without this “trust” in a pos­sible solution, mathematics would not exist.

This truth is the one William James called faith or belief, his only an­swer when confronted by those who have declared that life is not worth living, “the whole army of suicides (…) an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, fo llows the sun round the world and never terminates.” It has nothing in common with what I would call, to underline the difference, “to be confident,” that is, to continue, to carry on in the mode of “everything will work out fine.” The mathematician’s trust is inseparable from a commitment not to mu­tilate the problem in order to solve it and to take its demands fully into account. Yet it implies a certain deliberate amnesia with regard to the obviousness of obstacles, an active indetermination of what the terms of the problem “mean.” Transferred to philosophy, this indetermination means that what announced itself as a foundation, authorizing a position and providing its banner to a cause, will be transformed into a constraint, which the solution will have to respect but upon which it may, if neces­sary, confer a somewhat unexpected signification.

It is funny that Stengers calls this a mathematician’s trust and views it as a characteristic that can be transferred to philosophy. I see this faith as the essence of philosophy (I wrote “dialectical imagination” in the margin of the page) and the element of  intellectual creativity common to problem-solving in any field.

It is certainly crucial to design innovation, and it is finding conditions favorable to it — the right level of desperation (which translates to willingness to trust), the right collaborators (who share this faith), the right deadlines and pace — that separates great design projects from dull ones.

It is also the difference between tedious debates and true collaborative dialogue: Do both parties have faith that another conception of a problem can yield radically new solutions — and actively prefer pursuing this utterly inconceivable, imperceptible, utter nothingness of an impossibility in the face of the most extreme anxiety? Or do they demand exhaustive disproof of all existing hypotheses prior to submitting unwillingly to some futile search for who-knows-what by some mysterious method nobody seems able to explain much less codify? The latter attitude make philosophical friendship impossible (and for those few capable of philosophy, taking this stance, in fact, is to refuse friendship). I feel like I need to add this softening qualification: Luckily, many other forms of friendship exist besides philosophical friendship.

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I have wedded this “mathematician’s faith” (or dialectical imagination) with a religious faith that perceives infinite importance in the exercise (especially collaborative exercise) of dialectical imagination, for the sake of deepening relationship with that who cannot be conceptualized — of transcendence. I have a simple word for the instinct that drives of this collaborative exercise: love.

This latter faith, the faith that there is better, and that better is tied to our relationship with realities beyond our sphere of understanding, and that this relationship involves other people is why I call myself a religious person.

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It is clear that I have to understand Whitehead.

 

Mishkan skies

I’ve had an image in my head for awhile, and I decided to be lazy and produce it in Adobe Sketch just to get it out of my head and in front of my eyes. Adobe Sketch has this cool animation feature and I think I almost like this image more as a clip. I have another, less distinctly previsualized mishkan image in my head and maybe I’ll do something similar with that. I want it to be a grid of colored threads and metal strips. It really should be a textile piece. I am feeling drawn to printmaking right now, so it could end up a metallic ink block print of some kind. I need a print studio.

Respect: experiences, versus interpretations of experiences, versus…

I listen to other people speak of their experiences, and I also listen to their explanations of their experiences. The former is privileged knowledge: respect entails belief in the other’s testimony. The latter is not: our explanations for the experience belong to our own theories founded in our own philosophies. And here respect entails allowing each individual to hold their own beliefs on what caused the private experience.

Perhaps these two respects deserve different names.

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If you experience God speaking directly into your ear, I must respect your testimony or risk disrespecting you — but you must respect my interpretation of your testimony or risk disrespecting me.

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If my child throws a fit, I must believe she is experiencing real distress or I am failing as a parent — but I must interpret that distress and respond to it as an adult parent or I am failing in a different, perhaps worse way — a way that neglects the obligation of parents to teach their children to interpret their own emotions and to respond to them in a socially reasonable way.

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What should these differing forms of respect be called?

  1. The respecting of direct testimony of experience, taken on faith as true.
  2. The respecting of interpretation of experience, taken as one of a plurality of arguable truths.

There is a third respect I have not mentioned, one in which I might be deficient. This is respect for rigorous comparison of experiences (at least empirical, sharable experiences) and interpretations (at least interpretations that are strictly logical) and their consequences, which means abandoning one’s favored interpretations when another is shown to have more explanatory power. This would probably be called scientific respect. Or… (see below) positivistic respect…?

But, then, there is the respect for precisely those experiences that are least sharable and conclusions that are reasonable but not determined by any logic fed by empirical data, one that recognizes that relevance is a function of framing and that reality infinitely exceeds our perception, conception, comprehension and understanding, and when reality is beyond not only our grasp but even our our touch, it is indistinguishable from nothingness — not that dark nothingness that announces its present absence with a shadow, but that absent absence, the blind nothing that looks like the expected somethings, the reality that can stare directly into each of our pupils and breathe the air directly from our nostrils, unperceived, undetected, unsuspected.

Some assertions are experiential, some interpretive, some positivistic, and these deserve their own kind of respect, but some assertions are none of these and aim at what is beneath and beyond all of them together — and this commands an enforceable philosophical respect. Or is it religious respect?

Faith in faithfulness

Faith is the relationship we have with reality beyond what is present to our experience, the being that inspires our warmest love and coldest dread, the being upon which we depend for our very being, the being with the potential to shock us with its stark alienness or surprise us with inconceivable fullness. Life without faith is entirely pointless, and this is why reciprocation of faith — faithfulness — seems commanded by reality itself.

We should be faithful to the past and to the future, to what is behind what is nearest and concealed by distances, and to the people around me (human and nonhuman) I can learn from and teach and to the mysterious source of my own selfhood. In the stories we tell ourselves, we should adhere to the existence of these realities and not re-narrate them for the convenience of the moment, because only this gives our own selfhood persistence and coherence.

We maintain ourselves as ourselves both for ourselves and for those who love us, those who we love, those who we hope with be faithful to us. Covenant.

I believe this faith in faithfulness makes me religious. No?

Practical prayer

Sunday, I attended the funeral of a man I’d been praying for, but never met in person. Praying for him made his life, along with what I didn’t know of him more real to me. By hearing how he was eulogized and sensing the loss in the people around me, being there felt strangely analogous to finally meeting someone I’d heard a lot about. But now he was not here to meet, and I wished I’d known him. In this sense, I could feel his absence with his family and friends. It helped me participate in the mourning, beyond just attending the service. I believe I will remember this funeral long after I’ve forgotten the weeks around it.

This is one good practical reason to pray.

Humility as insight

Objective reality as we all (to some degree) know it is a product of myriad overlapping subjective realities as each of us know it; and each of these subjective realities is in turn a product of metaphysical reality none of us knows in any normal sense of knowledge.

If we are insufficiently alert our objectively-tempered subjective truth seems for all the world to be an imperfectly but adequately known objective reality that faithfully represents metaphysical reality.

The hardest thing for a human is not mistaking oneself for God. Most of us fail at this task and succumb to apotheosis.

Humility is a hard-won insight. Self-humiliation is a grotesque counterfeit.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve written this post before.)

You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

For the sake of one

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi led Torah study yesterday. She focused on “the first thing Abraham did after becoming a Jew”: argue — and with God, no less, which she characterized as an essentially Jewish act.

Then Adonai said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before Adonai.

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And Adonai answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?”

And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”

But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?”

And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.”

And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?”

And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.”

And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”

When Adonai had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.

My question was if this sequence didn’t imply an essentially liberal argument. She said, “first, you’ll need to define what you mean by ‘liberal’, and I found myself answering, almost as if the answer was being pulled from me: “For the sake of one.”

(The rabbi answered that in the ancient Jewish world, the closest thing to an individual was ten people, a minyan. There’s something in this idea, ten people as a fundamental unit, that I can feel is going to stay a live problem for me.)

After class several of us stayed in the room and talked. I pointed out a similarity between Abraham’s dialogue with Adonai and hostage negotiation as presented by George Kohlrieser in Hostage at the Table. 1) A hostage negotiator progresses in small steps, starting with any kind of response at all; 2) the goal is to move toward clarification of what truly matters to the hostage-taker, in order to find some way to appeal to it for the sake of a humane outcome; and 3) in the process to create an emotional bond and establish the negotiator as a “secure base”. It is interesting to see this newly established relationship between Adonai and Abraham starting with what can be viewed as a hostage negotiation creating a secure base of covenant.

It was a great Torah study.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh Jews were being gunned down by a right-wing antisemite who, after surrendering to police told them, “all these Jews need to die.”

Whitehead, Levinas, Schuon

Reading Whitehead’s Modes of Thought I’m reminded of Levinas’s dichotomy of totality versus infinity, and Schuon’s similar indefinite versus infinite. The former term (totality/indefinitude) is some particular conception of all possibilities, against which all particulars are defined; the latter term (infinity/infinite) is real possibility independent of any and every conception. According to Schuon, the indefinite (within a totality) simply repeats a finite entity interminably. The idea of time extending endlessly backwards and forwards is indefinite time, and should not be confused with infinite time, Eternity. That, at least, is what I took from him 15 years ago when I read Stations of Wisdom.

From within any particular conception the difference between totality/indefinitude and infinity is indistinguishable, and for casual practical purposes we treat them as identical. The difference between the two comes into view only when reality defies our conceptual repertoire by producing an inconceivable actuality that refuses to fit within possibilities anticipated by the totality in question and its indefinite possibilities.

We encounter infinity as such when we experience viscerally an incapacity to comprehend, and I will list three instances where this happens:

  1. When we encounter a natural phenomenon that cannot be understood in natural terms as we know it. If we confront the phenomenon as an anomaly to be understood by changing our understanding of nature as a whole, and we do come to understand it in new term, the before and after of our understanding hints at infinity.
  2. When we encounter another mind who attempts to convey concepts inconceivable within the terms of our current conceptual repertoire. These concepts are used to explain reality in alternative terms that conflict with our own, resulting in apparent factual disagreements, but the intensity of such conflicts betrays that more is at stake than epistemic differences. If we shift from disputing facts to attempting a plurality of understandings to compare, the parallax among worldviews opens a depth vision capable of penetrating further into infinitude.
  3. When religion works on us, and draws us from contemplating the indefinite into a living relationship with infinity, which permeates reality, and addresses us continuously.

I’ve travelled a long way from the passage that inspired this reflection:

Matter-of-fact is the notion of mere existence. But when we seek to grasp this notion, it distinguishes itself into the subordinate notions of various types of existence­ for example, fanciful or actual existences, and many other types. Thus the notion of existence involves the notion of an environment of existences and of types of existences. Any one instance of existence involves the notion of other existences, connected with it and yet beyond it. This notion of the environment introduces the notion of “more and less,” and of multiplicity.

In Taoism the infinite is Tao and the indefinite is “the ten thousand things”. I love thinking about people’s totalities as “everythings” and then imagining a totality of totalities as “ten thousand everythings”, each potentially forming a relationship with infinity, starting with forming relationships with one another and their shared realities. This is not intersubjectivity worship.