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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

In a fascinating interpretation of Moby Dick in the book All Things Shining (1), Ahab is seen as a representation of a kind of Christianity that seeks closed-ness through completion, a view of the world where Truth is already known, so all other possibilities are cut off and where seeking other or more truth is foreclosed. In the story, Ahab can only see the white whale as the object of desire and of aversion, the singular truth of his universe is to avenge himself upon the whale’s body. But Ishmael represents a different orientation to the whale, upon whose head he sees a blankness, an emptiness devoid of any meaning at all, which then opens Ishmael up to a different kind of truth, joy, and meaning. Further, Dreyfus and Kelly, the two philosophers who wrote the book, read Ishmael’s relationship with the pagan Queequeg as an implicit critique of Christianity, where “Christianity goes astray not in its basic religious impulse, but rather in its totalizing turn,” where Christianity becomes all that exists, Truth itself. Ishmael represents a new kind of truth, a new orientation to being, that finds joy and beauty in an embodied, social openness to finding relationship, ritual, truth, beauty, joy in the every-day, in the mundane, in the foreign and exotic as well as the familiar. Ishmael moves easily from his Protestant worship to joining Queequeg in his pagan ritual. Ahab, on the other hand, single-mindedly and blindly pursues the whale as the only truth of his life and is destroyed by it. “Ishmael’s polytheistic view finds in the communal rituals of daily life, contradictory and polysemic and plural as they are, the meanings that can drive away the drizzly November of the soul.”

The book provoked me to seek and to name what I have found most valuable in my own spiritual path, and where I have found meaning over the past 16 years since leaving Mormonism. I found myself reflected in much of the book’s conclusions, in the way I came to redefine the sacred as immanent and joy as embodied and present rather than deferred and transcendent. I had through life’s experiences come to the same conclusions as Ishamael had, at least in Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s reading of Moby Dick. And I found that I loved that about my spiritual life and that I feel like those lessons learned have been useful and meaningful to me over the past decade. [Caveat emptor: The book is receiving some pretty scathing critiques from philosophers (2).]

I read this book at about the same time that I hit a wall in my exploration of Judaism. I find myself asking often, “Why?” Why am I doing this? Why am I exploring a spiritual community that would add yet another outsider status to my already sufficient outsiderness? Why do I need a community at all, especially a deeply traditional one? Why can’t I continue on my individual spiritual path that I’ve been walking since I left Mormonism 16 years ago? What is in Judaism that would make me want to commit to it in a way that I had given up on years ago? Is choosing Judaism a step backwards into Ahab, or can it be a further step into Ishmael?

Whereas everyone in my Choosing Judaism group is exploring conversion because they have married a JBB and are looking for spiritual harmonization and/or exploring the religion of a spouse, I come to Judaism on a rather individual path. As a single gay guy, I have come up hard against the social and communal and familial aspects of Judaism generally (not to mention the somewhat closed relationships at the shul I’ve been attending). There’s a contradiction between my search for spiritual community and the increasingly isolating experience I’ve been having on this path.

The past few days, I have (serendipitously?) stumbled upon expressions by other people of a few of the things that resonate so powerfully for me in Judaism, one in an article about Tuny Kushner and the other in a Conservative rabbi’s articulation of Jewish pluralism.

Last fall, I’d been asked by a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal to write a brief review of a book about representations of Mormons in popular culture (3); and this week, I began reading the book for that purpose. The very first essay in the collection was an engagement with Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle Angels in America, where in the conclusion of the essay, the author lists off a set of congruences between Mormon belief and practice and Jewish belief and practice that account for Kushner’s public statements of sympathy with Mormon belief (despite writing a play wherein the gay Mormon character is the only one in the play who is not redeemed in the play). The writer states:

Elsewhere, Kushner has spoken positively of certain aspects of Mormon theology, particularly those that he thinks reflect Judaism: the emphasis of practice over belief and the de-emphasis on damnation, the centrality of a text, the importance of diasporic experience in forming identity, and the positive theology of the body. (4)

Is my attraction to Judaism that simple and obvious? Of course, Mormonism is far more complex than those issues cited above (for example, the emphasis on practice over belief is far from clear, in my opinion), yet there is a kernel of truth there. And these are most of the values that I take from Mormonism that still inform my personal ethics and spirituality, so many years after leaving Mormonism behind. I do not think that I am merely seeking a surrogate or replacement for Mormonism. I’ve been through too much over the past 16 years for that. But as a sociologist who researches the social construction of perception, values, and cognition (i.e., culture), I have to stop and recognize the possible influences that Mormonism may be having on my exploration of Judaism.

Because I do not come to Judaism from a place of belief (I’ve spoken at length about my agnosticism in this blog), but rather in search of spiritual practice, I’m definitely drawn to some key practices in judaism, especially the yearly ritual calendar and the weekly shabbat. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of daily practice through what I think of as humanist prayer; but my buddhist background leads me to continued meditation practice. So far, my daily practice has remained pretty firmly buddhist. Since my favorite Conservative rabbis were also buddhist (even though I’m converting at a reform shul), and since my own teacher also relies heavily on contemporary american buddhism for her teachings, I feel pretty comfortable with that practice for the moment. That said, I find that although Mormonism is an intensely legalistic and socially surveilled system, it still emphasizes belief extensively in a way that I do not find in Judaism. In fact, my current research project at work shows that Mormonism’s efforts to control the beliefs of its adherents is very often what pushes people out, particularly questioning and seeking personalities. The lack of this kind of orthodoxy in Judaism is, for me, is a very good thing.

But the other pieces outlined in the essay about Kushner I hadn’t really connected to my Mormon past before: a positive theology of the body, de-emphasis on damnation, etc. My main concern at this point is that I’m moving through my Jewish experience on its own terms, and not out of habit from my Mormon upbringing. But I’m not sure how to do that.

The second piece that articulated a deep resonance for me was in a book about Jewish social ethics by Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff (5). In a chapter examining the multiple views and movements and ideas and contradictions within Judaism, R. Dorff explains the Jewish approach to Torah as a system of arguments that are “not only rationally but theologically necessary, for all sides bespeak “the words of the living God.'” In my early 20s, I had developed an idea that “truth” was something that emerged out of the spaces between contradictions, that paradoxes where two logically opposed ideas were both true revealed a truer kind of truth, almost like a Zen koan. In graduate school, I encountered William James’ notion of truth as a process, or an emergence out of social, human interaction. James had been studying cultural religious diversity and had come to the almost postmodern conclusion that truth was a culturally conditioned value judgment rather than an essential quality of a pre- or extra-human object. James spoke of truth as a verb, something that we do rather than the quality of something that exists. [Note: In this view, the scientific method produces truth, but it is a socially produced human truth, not an existential or ontological truth; James does not mean to devalue scientific truth, but rather to frame and account for its origins.]

Since the ages of the Pharisees, according to R. Dorff, Jews have turned away from prophecy and toward dialectical scholarly discourse for truth. This brings with it a system of ethics in the discourse, wherein those who disagree with you are accorded dignity and a respectful hearing, and wherein participants are (or should be) always willing to change their positions upon hearing a good argument. Dorff also discusses the notion of learning to read the “white fire”, the empty spaces between the words of Torah as an expansiveness and openness to creativity and novelty in interpretation and exegesis. This Jewish view of Talmudic, midrashic truth seems to be a continuation of my personal efforts to redefine and understand truth that began in my early 20s in college, and the possibilities of finding that intellectual base within a spiritual tradition is more than a little exciting for me.

And so this week, I have re-connected with the why of my Jewish path. But at the same time, those whys have reinforced the alone-ness of my particular journey. Jews and jewish communities seem to function generally more on an ethnic model, which I’ve discussed before. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it means that the highly intellectualized version of Judaism that I’m getting from my reading is not exactly the judaism that I’m encountering in face-to-face interaction with the Jews around me. Just as my academic career can be socially isolating generally, so my path to judaism feels to me like it’s going down a road that puts me yet again on the outside of an already outside group.

I cannot apologize for who I am or what makes me tick. Nor do I regret these things that are so resonant and important to me within Judaism. But it does leave me with the problem I stated up above: that for me, in distinction with everything that Judaism is socially, my Jewishness is for the moment a piece of my alone-ness.

teku

Notes:

(1) Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011).

(2) Gary Wills. “Superficial and Sublime?” in New York Review of Books. Vol. 58 No. 6 (April 7, 2011).

(3) Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010).

(4) Christine Hutchinson-Jones. “Center and Periphery: Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America” in Decker and Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010): 26.

(5) Elliot N. Dorff. To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002).

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There are moments when the psychic and spiritual violence I have experienced in my life reappear. Heart races, adrenaline pumps, emotions explode. I don’t know why this still shocks me when it happens, but I find myself having out-of-body experiences, watching myself react in fear and anger at moments when I had expected to have a good handle on a situation. I had gone into Monday night’s hebrew/judaism class relatively excited for the discussion, because I knew we would be tackling the texts of Leviticus that prohibit sex between men. I had read Rabbi Greenberg’s book, an extended midrash on the text, wherein he argues that the text really forbids penetration of another man; and I’d read Rabbi Noily’s essay on the Hebrew of the passage. So I was coming in confident in my exegetical foundation for the discussion. What I was unprepared for was feeling like I was being assaulted over and over again by the conversation.

As an educator who often discusses difficult topics (e.g., Rwandan genocide; rape within American slavery; etc.), I have a deep ethical awareness and vigilance about the effect that those kinds of conversations can have on students whose own lives or personalities make them vulnerable to a kind of emotional or psychic violence that, although unintended and invisible, is nonetheless real. I found myself on the other side of that problem this week, where it felt like I was being beaten and abused by the conversation. I have complete trust in Rabbi Noily, and do not believe that she or any of my classmates intended any harm. Yet I was harmed, violated by the conversation.

Before tackling the Leviticus pieces, we split into chavrutot to discuss two passages, one from Genesis and one from Judges, that have been used for nearly 2000 years as justification for the murder and repression of homosexual men and as evidence for the sinfulness of homosexuality. The two stories contain much that our modern ethical sensibilities balk at, not least of which is the fact that the two householders in the stories both offer their virgin daughters as substitute offerings for the men the mobs want to rape.

By at least the third century C.E., the sin of Sodom was interpreted by both Christians and Jews as male-male sex, the desire of the mob to have sex with the male guests of the righteous hosts. God’s punishment for that sin was a fiery, sulfury death. From “sodomite” as an epithet for me and my kind, to “sodomy” as a legal designation for acts punishable by death as recently as the mid-19th century, to “sod off” still in common usage in British slang, the power of this myth has moved through time and informs millions of angry religious anti-gay activists in America today, from Focus on the Family to the Orthodox Union to the Mormon church.

In my chavrutah, and in the large group discussion, this history and mythic reading of the text was either ignored or silenced. When I tried to talk about it, I was told curtly that “that’s not what that passage even means”, as if their personal reading of the text magically erases the past 2000 years or the present hatred and fear of gay men. Understandably, the women wanted to talk about the chattel status of the virgin daughters in the text; but seemed unwilling (or unable) to make the connection of sexism and homophobia. In a classroom setting where I’m the teacher, for some reason I am usually able to maintain a bit of distance and guide conversations in certain ways. But in this setting, it felt like I was made invisible, that the evident homophobia of the passages (or at the very least the centuries of homophobic interpretations of the passage) was just swept away as incidental or unimportant. Again, I don’t think the silencing was on purpose; but it was the effect of the conversation.

When we drew back together to discuss Leviticus, the process continued, with people offering their readings of the text and with the elision of the meaning and power of a text that commands that men who lie with men be put to death as mere “misinterpretations.” Although I actually found the Rabbi’s read of the text compelling, listening to people discuss the value and moral insight of a text that calls me and people like me ‘abominations’ worthy of death to be nearly unbearable. And not one person—not a single one—condemned the obvious message of the text or the 2000 years of violence that flowed from it.

An acquaintance of mine from an online ex-mormon community I used to participate in became so livid with me a few years ago that she left the community for nearly two years. The argument was about the nature of child molestation, age, and sexual attraction; my argument was from an intellectual parsing of the social rules of sexuality and the biology of attraction. It had the effect on her of affirming her worst experiences of patriarchy and religious abuse. I do not think to this day that the substance of my arguments was bad, nor do I think that my intentions were wrong; but that really doesn’t matter when the person in front of me was suffering because the content of the conversation was doing violence to her. I do not know how to negotiate such troubled ethical waters, and I do not blame or condemn the people in my class for the discussion they were having. Yet I cannot and will not deny or elide the pain and excruciating memories that the conversation evoked.

Rationally speaking, the Rabbi’s reading offered an interesting perspective. She argued that the cultural context of Leviticus was a world in which penetration was always an act of domination and was by definition unwanted; therefore, penetration was seen as an act of violence by definition. Given that the most likely direct meaning of the two Leviticus verses are prohibitions against penetrating other males (most likely anally, but also perhaps orally), in its context it is reasonable to read the text as part of a larger moral theme in the Holiness Code against harming others. [It must be noted that this is part of a larger patriarchal system where women, in their abject status, are appropriate objects of penetration; so by extension, the Holiness code is actually forbidding the making of a man into a woman by penetrating him. Again, the interrelationship of homophobia and sexism.]

The apex of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 contains a core of ethical commands that resonate powerfully with me, and which most historians agree formed the basis of both Pharisaical teachings and the teachings of Jesus: protect the weak against the powerful and love other humans as you love yourself. So Rabbi Noily’s read is that for Jews of the post-return Mediterranean world, not penetrating another male (i.e., not making him into a woman) would be a law against domination and unethical power.

Although rationally (and ethically) I like the ideas and ethics of that reading, my experience of her reading was of having been erased from the text and from history. How easy it is for the process of midrash and interpretation to disconnect from history and context of the teachers and students. One student was excited to use this reading as amunition against her fundamentalist family; but without understanding of the dominant and dominating interpretations of Leviticus within Christianity, without the full understanding that this is a complex and somewhat of a hopeful reinterpretation that flies in the face of the self-evident meaning of the text (male-male sex is an abomination and you are commanded to kill anyone who perpetrates it), there is simply no way that that reading can work in the political-religious context of today’s homophobic America (including the thousands of dollars the Orthodox Union raised for Prop 8).

Paul Ricoeur defines myth as

…not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men [sic] today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man [sic] understands himself in the world. (quoted in Idel, 21).

As a former literary guy (two bachelors degrees in literature), I am completely down with interpreting and reinterpreting texts. I love the long tradition of many ancient religions of various peoples in different times and places remaking the myth to meet its own needs. It is, in a great sense, why my friend Mira says that Hebrew and Torah are alive, not dead traditions. But my experience of trying to understand and interpret these key (for me) texts in Tanakh highlighted a major problem: Sometimes the myth cannot be salvaged. Sometimes the current needs, current understandings, current desires are just too different; the past’s myth too starkly unethical, too potentially violent for restoration.

If myth provides the foundations for thought and action in the world, what do you do with a myth so tainted by the patriarchy of its inception and so burdened by 2000 years of use to violent ends that it seems irredeemable? Is reinterpretation of a relatively reified text enough to get us out from under the weight of its origins or past? If our modern ethics have put us in a place where seeing people as they are, outside of halakhic, priestly requirements, is the foundational imperative, if protecting the weak against the powerful is really the ethical center, what do we do with a myth whose very core creates the social system that produces the weak in the first place?

For now for me, re-reading, reinterpreting this passage is insufficient. My wrestling with Torah and tanakh will have to include the ability to insist that the text can simply be wrong on its face. A mature spiritual life must allow (perhaps it even demands) making strong moral stances against tradition. Perhaps part of the holiness of Torah is that challenge to be a moral person in contradisctintion to the Book itself.

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Of course the Enlightenment would impact the Jewish communities of Europe along with its Christian majorities, but it had never occurred to me to see Jews (and Jewishness) as the original test of Enlightenment universalism and an ongoing case study of the interaction between the ascendant individual of modernity and a minority (often abject) population. The Haskalah movement in Jewish philosophy revealed 300 years ago the problems and ruptures in Enlightenment thinking long before post-modenrist critiques of the 1960s, as a group that had been resident outsiders was suddenly, if only in theory, thrust into the universal mainstream of democratic citizenship. Although the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe progressed in starts and fits starting more or less when the French Revolution voted to make Jews full citizens of the secular French state, the idea that Jews were in some sense Europeans and Jews at the same time seems to have pushed the contradictions of the Enlightenment to its limits, both within Judaism and among non-Jews, who were confronted with the prospect of tolerating a people that had been loathed for nearly two thousand years. The emergence of the “Jewish Question” in the early 19th century—how to be both a citizen of a European (or American) nation and a Jew at the same time—foreshadows the debates about multiple identities and pluralism of cultures of the past 40 years.

My reading in this area is new and admittedly only from a very brief overview of Jewish history of the past 300 years (see Robinson Chs. 8-9), and so this post here clearly is not thorough or even knowledgeable. But I found in the reading about this history an odd sense of understanding. On one level, I had yet again the realization that post-modernism is often little more than modernism dressed up in French clothing. On a deeper level, I appreciated the ways in which this question has been confronted head-on as part of the experience of modernity within Judaism, indeed, as constitutive of a Jewish modernity.

Whereas many Enlightenment thinkers saw a world built on rational universalism, modernity in practice and in history has been a far messier human affair of the non-rational experiences of belonging, identity, affect, local practice, and difference in a delicate dance with the universalizing pressures of nation building and democratizing. (The dance between the poles of particularity and universality has only intensified since WWII as the reach and power of global social and economic power has expanded into every-day life of billions of people.) The Jewish Question—can you be a rational citizen and a Jew at the same time?—and the various and contradictory ways that Jews have attempted to answer that question since the early maskilim attempted to remake Judaism in local vernaculars (e.g., Moses Mendelssohn) and to rationalize Jewish practice offer for us a picture of what is not a tension to be relieved, but a constituent feature of modernity itself.

What the development of rational orthodoxy (a real movement, although it seems contradictory) and the Reform movement, not to mention the secular philosophy and art movements within Jewish communities starting in the mid-18th century (including a revival of Yiddish as a philosophical and literary language in eastern Europe) brought about was the disarticulation of the individual from the group, but seeing Jews as individuals with a religion rather than religious groups outside of society. Jews became individuals who could choose a religion, and ultimately starting in the 19th century, western Jews have been working to understand what it means to choose to be Jewish.

This existential choice—Jew or citizen—is a sign of Weberian demystification of everyday life. It is the new context of modernity pushing in on Judaism, forcing it to adapt to a new “emancipated” context. (Nazism can be seen as the bloody extreme of the dominant culture dealing with tolerance of difference, through a mass-produced death.) And it is both the opening of religious and ethnic groups to scrutiny and their rebirth in new forms. Unfortunately in practice over the past 200 years or so, dominant cultures (majorities) in any given democratic nation-state become an unspoken, assumed, often hidden ethnicity that comes to stand for the Universal. It is this phenomenon that all minority groups within pluralistic democracies have had to fight against, the presumed universality of the majority culture. I think what made Christian and secular Europeans so uncomfortable with Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., The Dreyfus Affair) was precisely that the presence of difference within a culture supposedly built on the universalist-rational claims of the Enlightenment forces the hidden ethnic pseudo-Universal (i.e., the dominant culture) to see itself as one among many rather than as Human.

Judaism as a whole demonstrates both the possibilities and the losses of balancing between citizen and “other”, as Jews have become fully participating, fully enfranchised members of various democratic societies, but have simultaneously fragmented and splintered in their attempts to maintain group cohesion and distinctiveness.

teku

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