Category Archives: Judaism

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.

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.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

Pragmatist religion

It seems that in the 19th Century  “metaphysical need” for “metaphysical comfort” was more common than in the 20th Century, where the needs and comforts were anti-metaphysical.

This strikes me as an ontological analogue to the epistemological struggles (or were they actually also ontological struggles regarding the being of knowledge?), which concluded that if knowledge as we conceive it cannot exist, then knowledge itself is impossible, resulting in vulgar relativism.

If God as we conceived him and used him is no longer believable, then God is impossible: vulgar atheism.

objectivism : relativism :: idolatry : atheism

pragmatism :: religion

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So many colons.

Religions-behind-religions

Behind the symbolic forms of any person’s “religion” is something much deeper, a religion-behind-the-religion which cannot be spoken about in any direct way but which can be effectively summoned, concentrated, evoked, extended, intensified and hopefully shared through religious forms — through performing, plastic and social arts.

My religion is Reform Judaism, but my religion-behind-the-religion is radical liberalism, which I believe grew out of Judaism, and in fact developed from the unceasing active reforming of the tradition.

Some people sneer at liberal religions, and view them as watered-down, lukewarm, modernistically-compromised versions of religion in pure form. From the perspective of the religion-behind-the-religion called Fundamentalism and its antithetical opposite Atheism, it is impossible to see liberal religions any other way than dilutions of pure religion, but from the perspective of religious liberalism, religion reduced to its forms and to passions about those forms has ceased to live as real religion and has devolved into something more about beliefs than relationships with God.

Jesus as Jewish missionary

A friend of mine said “…so basically, Jesus converted you to Judaism.”

Yes. My attempts to understand Jesus’s teaching without the overwhelming influence of Paul’s interpretation led me to sharing Jesus’s faith, which precludes idolizing him as a god, a mistake which I am certain Jesus would have found alarming and abhorrent.

It also precludes any notion of Jesus descending from heaven to radically interrupt or to complete or perfect the Jewish tradition. The tradition was always and still is constituted of disruptions, breaks, repentance, atonement, redemption, rebirth — and it takes a highly partial (and in my opinion, grossly distorted) view of Judaism to pick out one episode from this long story and view it as a radically new first chapter of a new story.

That being said, I do feel that I share a degree of faith with some Christians I know. But that is despite their beliefs, and most of all the belief that their beliefs are the crux of their faith.

 

George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.

 

 

What isn’t religion’s purpose?

What isn’t religion’s purpose? Here is a partial list:

  • Religion’s purpose is not to give us true beliefs.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to get us to act some particular way.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to make us feel some particular way.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to comfort us.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to help us form a personal relationship with God.
  • Religions’s purpose is not to put us in contact or communion with higher being or beings.
  • Religions’s purpose is not to bring us to a different state of consciousness.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to inspire us to serve our needy neighbors.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to provide us a supportive community.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to give us a sense of meaning.

These things are all means to another end, another purpose.

Tragedy-fortified process theology

I think my view of life is more tragic than the process philosophies I’ve encountered so far. I’ve found myself writing “lacks tragedy” in the margins of passages such as this one, from Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy:

It is vital to emphasize again and again that God’s power is not omnipotent unilateral or coercive power. Quite the opposite. God cannot coerce any creature. Every creature has its own freedom. Rather God is the persuasive ground of freedom. So God knows what we may choose and are likely to choose, but not what we will choose. God is omniscient (all knowing) in the sense that God knows everything there is to know, but since the future does not exist it is not there to be known. Only the possibilities for the future can be known perfectly. Nor can God remain unaffected by the world: God is the only one who has the strength, the ability, to be open to every single experience in the world. God is the only one who can take every thing in, integrate it with God’s own infinitely ancient wisdom, and create God’s self out of that relationship in each moment. God is the only one who can then feed back to every creature in the world a lure and call toward those possibilities that are best for it. All the possibilities are there, good and bad, but they come to us, Whitehead says, with God’s call toward the better.

I see no reason why God should always offer a win-win for both the participant and the whole in which it participates. In fact, I think the role of religion is to help us affirm the whole even when it requires us to make sacrifices or even be sacrificed. Attempts at claiming that there’s a possibility of individual benefit built into every crisis lacks credibility and sublimity.

I do believe in “the lure”, and in fact it is the basis for my own belief in God, but I believe this lure demands transcending love from us, and is not itself an act of love of our individual selves. The lure demands that we live from ourselves toward that which includes and exceeds us. 

Myth of the Rise

If you believe Earth was created as a paradise meant to remain perfect, but made imperfect by human wickedness, every flaw will be viewed as an example of corruption that should never have happened.

If you believe Earth was created brutal but has over time raised itself out of brutality in a semi-steady process of development toward something better, every flaw can be viewed as a project for improvement.

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Some people look at the United States of America as a place where the Civil Rights Movement was able to happen, and this is one more reason to honor and love it.

Some people look at the United States of America as a place where the Civil Rights Movement was needed to rectify inexcusable injustices, and this is one more reason to despise and condemn it.

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I have always instinctively disliked the myth of the Fall.

Last week’s pasha was Bereshit. (Happy Simchat Torah.) The rabbi who facilitated Torah Study commented that Judaism has never read the story of the Edenic exile as a catastrophe or a matter of regret. For Judaism, the book of Genesis is stage setting for the main act, Exodus: a story of liberation from bondage, a cause for perpetual celebration.

Two points of departure: an Exile and an Exodus. Two trajectories: a Fall and a Rise.