30 April 2017

For Dan, whom I loved very much; To Dan whom I will very much miss


I have been thinking about the significance of study, an enterprise in which I have spent my life and which I daily advocate to students. And I have been wondering (perhaps have always been pondering) what it is I do? Charles Hamilton Houston said that “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society …” that is, a person studies law to solve the problems that local communities and constituencies suffer and who works to improve the conditions of those most oppressed by society’s structures, or that lawyer merely feeds off an therefore, depletes society’s resources. Finally the parasite will destroy the host. And what about the scholar? Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson, 1929) says “The joy of knowledge, the late discovery that the veil which hid all things from him is really transparent, transparent everywhere to pure eyes, and the heart of trust which every perfection justifies¾renew life for him. He finds that events spring from the same root as persons; the universe understands itself, and all parts play with a sure harmony” (1225). In his essay “Prayer Without Demand,” Emmanuel Levinas’ explication of Nefesh haHayyim, the posthumously published volume written by Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner (1759-1821), Levinas addresses this subject in his discussion of the Volozhiner Rabbi’s book. According to Sean Hand, who wrote the introductory paragraph to the essay (apparently one in a collection of essays) Nefesh haHayyim “elevates the study of Torah to the highest degree in terms of understanding rather than mystical ecstasy, and thus lays emphasis on textual criticism.” Colloquially, study is not to offer release from the world but rather, attachment to it; study is text-bound and text binding. Rabbi concerns himself not with the wisdom that derives from even prophetic vision but that which comes from devoted textual study. This Rabbi began a Yeshiva to educate students in the practice of text criticism: in this case, the Torah and the Talmud.
      The question occurs to me: what resides in textual study that is so critical to the Volozhiner Rabbi and to Levinas. Levinas suggests that Nefesh ha’Hayyim offers an exploration of the metaphysical dimensions of the study of Torah: of the significance of the study of Torah to the very nature of Selfhood. Levinas states that not only does the study of Torah represent a ‘vocation’ of Judaism, something that must occupy the time of the studious Jew, but it also can be understood as “the foundation of the very Being of reality.” Study is not only what I must do, but study also constitutes the very foundation of by Being: my existence.
     An explanation: if God spoke and the world came into being (God said, “Let there be light, and there was light!”)  then Being derives from the expression of word. What the Hebrews did was to conceptualize a God who did not require creation, that is, the God of the Hebrews was not created but rather, this singular God created. This God preceded history but it is to God to whom can be attributed the existence of history. There was evening and morning, the first day. Intellectual activity requires the acknowledgement of history. The darkness was called night and the light was called day! Called. Named. With Words.
     Levinas says that the God of the Hebrews is a transcendent, non-objectifiable presence. Maimonides teaches, any attempt to embody God is an error; indeed, Maimonides suggests that God can be only by by negative attributes: what God is not!  By any image we can conceive of God reduces God to the possibilities of the human imagination, but God surpasses the capacities of the human imagination. Torah says that God said, “Let us make man in our image,” but God in fact has neither image nor voice. Thus, God’s image exists in the word that Torah says was spoken (but indeed was first written: God’s blueprint for the World existed already in Torah) and the world became. Being that comes from God derives from the Closeness to God that means to be close to the words: exegesis lies at the heart of Judaism. In the Sh’ma we read “and these words that I command you this day shall be in your heart . . .” We are words.  As the later scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson declares, “By how much we know, so much we are.”
     So, if Being derives from the word, then our relationship to the word determines our being. And the study of the means of following or departing from the commandments of the Torah, that text that Talmud teaches served as the blueprint by which God created the world, an act of creation that derived from (and out of) words¾ commands our responsibility to the other and therefore, establishes for each his/her own stance in the world. Thus, in study¾our exegetical engagement with words¾we ensure creation. And in study, we become for ourselves through our awareness of our obligation for others. As Levinas says, ethics precedes Being. In a sense this reverses Hillel’s statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be; if I am only for myself, what am I; if not now, when?” And because God’s word was placed in man’s mouth and heart—then study of the word (Torah) ensures the continued existence of Being. Study is creation. And the ethical directive essential to Torah¾the command appears at least 36 times in the text¾demands that the stranger in our midst be cared for, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Those who possess the least resources and capacities to care for themselves.
     How does study create being? It puts us in connection with the word, and the word created! Doesn’t it all depend on what I study? What if I study Mein Kampf? Or do I say¾as perhaps Levinas suggests¾that Torah is the ur-text? Can there be an Ur-text? If God spoke and the world came into being, then God’s word is the Ur-text and the Torah pre-exists God’s word.
     But what if I don’t think that the world was created by God’s word? Can the word still be an Ur-text. And can the study of ‘the word’ create being?? Outside of Torah study, how would that be possible?  

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