Friday, February 22, 2008

On the Question of Meaning

Littlefoxling wrote a recent post on the issue of meaning and I've been giving it some thought of late. (Not that I have the time for this and it is eating away at my studying, but that help explains why I'm writing this post at 2 am.)

Essentially you have two general approaches to finding meaning in life. The first is for meaning to be found in something bigger than oneself. This includes the classic religious approach where meaning is found in being a part of God's master plan and each of us have a mission in life for which we were specifically created. We also see this in the more secular nationalism or humanism where the good for society or humanity in toto is the good to which one's life is given meaning. It is in service to the public good to which our life is worthwhile. These two aspects are not incompatible and indeed we often see political leaders (Republicans typically) who invoke their belief that their public service is their place in God's plan or that they sought to serve the public because they believed they could further God's plan.

The second approach for meaning seekers is introverted and is the classic view of existential philosophy. They say that the rest of the world is impossible to value objectively and therefore obtaining a sense of meaning from a valueless externality is hopeless - vanity, as it were. So the Existentialists seek to understand themselves as subjective beings and best authenticate their lives with integrity. I am who I am and being true to myself is the meaning of my existence.

It's interesting how both of these paths are essentially non-materialistic, if well applied. Seeking God's will or the common good obviously transcends the immediate desires for creature comforts, but even existential authentication retreats from "selling out" or becoming an empty cog in the machine. If you are familiar with the movie Fight Club or Randian protagonists, you may recognize this theme. But I'm not trying to intimate that one path leads to global prosperity and the other to violent anarchy, but that both depends on the underlying ideas behind these theories. If God is good then finding meaning through God will lead to good. If you find your authentic existence is to be a good person then it too will lead to good. These may both be reversed if you're contemplating joining Al Qaeda.

Anyway, it could be that both of these approaches have their places and that some synthesis can be made of them. To put the meaning of one's life completely on the other empties one's personal experience, but to lean wholly on the subjective leaves one contextless and lost. Classically: "If I am only for myself, then what am I?"

So I would encourage self-investigation and being true to oneself because ultimately we each walk down life alone and it is only through that path that one can find out who they are and what matters to them. This is the soul of man. But I also say that some faith in the meaningfulness of our surroundings and the human condition is not out of place. Although some are skeptical, I do not believe that our existence is an accident. And from that realization comes the conclusion that we hold some honored place in the grand scheme of things. Whether there's a mindful Schemer or a non-conscious Orderer is not so important as much as our place in the order of things. From this follows the valuation of human beings and human interests generally.

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

>Whether there's a mindful Schemer or a non-conscious Orderer is not so important as much as our place in the order of things.

I can just see this conversation:

That's what you think...

Sincerely, God.


BHB

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

Unless you're willing to make specific assertions about God's will or posit any consequences for a conscious Creator then the distinction is of no matter.

If God is transcendent and inscrutable then His specific characteristics are unknowable and without consequence as compared to the order and value inherent to His creation.

Baal Habos said...

>Unless you're willing to make specific assertions about God's will or posit any consequences for a conscious Creator then the distinction is of no matter.


Just for the sake of argument, that's not true. Even if we don't "know" what God's will is, the mere existence of a God with a will would seem to me to inject more meaning into life than a mindless Orderer.

BHB

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

Only if that will involved us specifically and if it was in our favor. If God willfully made the universe but we play no significant part in it, then that actually defies any meaning you could get from God. If God willfully made the universe to cause suffering to humanity then few people would find their existence meaningful.

The point is to not see the our environment as wholly adversarial and to see our place as significant. And that can successfully be accomplished without asserting a conscious will. If there's a conscious will backing that up then all the better. Though in that case then we run into "Problem of Evil" issues.

frumskeptic said...

thought provoking post.

It is definitely complicated to figure out what our role is, or even if we have a role. And "self-investigation...ultimately we each walk down life alone" seems so scary and complicated and sometimes selfish. There are so many things going on in life it seems almost ridiculous to think about really being able to figure oneself out. But it does need to be done.

I don't think I properly conveyed my thoughts, but I felt this post needed a comment!

Orthoprax said...

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

-Alexander Pope

Anonymous said...

OP,

I was just nitpcicking about a single point. You had said "Whether there's a mindful Schemer or a non-conscious Orderer is not so important as much as our place in the order of things."

and I can't fully agree with that. If we know there's a mindful schemer, the whole equation shifts even if we don't know wether its schemes involve us or not.

BHB

Anonymous said...

Get some sleep! BHB

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

"and I can't fully agree with that. If we know there's a mindful schemer, the whole equation shifts even if we don't know wether its schemes involve us or not."

I understand that, but I still maintain that what I said is true. Practically speaking it doesn't matter. You have to add a lot more ideas before a willful creation becomes, in itself, a meaningful concept for us.

"Get some sleep!"

Sleep is but one-sixtieth the taste of death.

Miri said...

I'm a little unclear on the point being discussed. It's all being couched in very vague theoretical terms. Are we talking about these things making a difference in terms of people's behavior? Or are we talking about these things making a difference in terms of people finding more meaning in existence?

If it's the latter, I think I have to agree with Orthoprax on this one; there may be a mindful schemer, and he may have the whole of the universe and infinity all worked out to the very last detail. But still, in the end, so what? The futility of existence is not explained away, even if this is true.

evanstonjew said...

Though I agree with your summary of the historical philosophical positions, I am not quite sure it captures our situation. We are caught between an individualism and secular rationality on the one hand, (with or without the Protestant romantic twist of authenticity and being true to oneself) & being a self conscious member of the Jewish people.

How after Auschwitz can any Jew desert his people? How can one walk away when today the existence of Israel and even the Jewish people is in danger? I would suggest that very few Jews raised on a diet of Torah and yiddishkeit are ready to just intermarry, forget their families and history and walk into the dream of a world where there is no Jew or Greek, where we all are just citizens of a liberal democracy.

So once we recognize we are part of a larger whole simply because of our own history, we must now find a way to live this idea of being a Jew. While no stripe has a monopoly, the idea on the table is to find a way of combining secular rationality inside a broad Orthodox framework.

It is unfair to burden this rather modest quest with answering such large and unanswerable questions as the meaning of existence and history uberhaupt, i.e. outside any framework of meaning and thought.

Baal Habos said...

RG & MIri, I just don't see it that way. By it's very nature, a willful creator imbues purpose.

EJ,
.... the idea on the table is to find a way of combining secular rationality inside a broad Orthodox framework.

Other than our personal preference, why must it be Orthodox?

evanstonjew said...

I thought that Orthodoxy is a given because everyone that has participated in these conversations on the various blogs is Orthodox.

Other denominations do not have the same problem. For Reform the issue is how a particular way of life or people can stand for something universal. Orthodox Jews don't have the same sort of issue about not instantiating universal values. They are comfortable standing alone and not fitting into the mainstream.

Our problem is how to live with archaic mitzvot and also be modern,rational, etc.

Rabban Gamliel said...

"Baal Habos said...
RG & MIri, I just don't see it that way. By it's very nature, a willful creator imbues purpose."

Well I didn't actually comment but now that I have been invoked I shall. I don't think that a willful creator automatically imbues purpose. We can find subjective meaning but only religion can lay claim to a "real" meaning "out there." The G-d of Aristotle may be all great and glorious but He doesn't make life objectively meaningful. Aristotle's G-d is great and glorious but He doesn't care for us. Only when Yafet lived in the tents of Shem as predicted by Noach, did Aristotle's G-d give us meaning.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Or are we talking about these things making a difference in terms of people finding more meaning in existence?"

Yes, that's what I meant.


EJ,

"Though I agree with your summary of the historical philosophical positions, I am not quite sure it captures our situation."

If you are a living human being then this describes your situation. Where Judaism, the Jewish people and traditional observance works into all that I've written is complicated and sometimes unclear. Why indeed ought we struggle for the existence of Israel? What does it mean to be a Jew? Why is this identity worthwhile? Is all of this of just provincial concern or does it link up to higher ideas?

Can we really just accept all of this as a given?


Baal,

"By it's very nature, a willful creator imbues purpose."

As I said earlier, and what if that purpose has nothing to do with us?

Miri said...

"RG & MIri, I just don't see it that way. By it's very nature, a willful creator imbues purpose."

First of all, no it doesn't. If G-d decided to create the world one day because He was bored and thought it would be a fun little experiment, how does that imbue anything with any sort of meaning at all?

Which is beside my point anyway, and that was the following:
Even supposing there is an omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent, all inclusive Creator who started everything;
even supposing that He created it all with some grand master plan in which we all play very specific roles, and which will become clear to us all eventually, at the end of time, or when we die, or whenever -
someday that purpose, whatever it may be, will be fulfilled. And once it has - what then?

Forget the fact that we have no idea what the "purpose" actually is and that maybe it isn't as signifigant as we assume it is; no matter how hard you try, once you get to the end of everything there is still that eternal "SO WHAT???" that remains unanswered.

Orthoprax-
"Why indeed ought we struggle for the existence of Israel? What does it mean to be a Jew? Why is this identity worthwhile?"

Why is anyone's identity worthwhile? Why are black people, and Hispanic people, and Asian people, and Native Americans, and Indians, and the list goes on and on, so proud of their heritage and their history and their roots, without having to connect to some larger existential Meaning, but as soon as a Jew becomes disenchanted with the myth that his genes hold some mystical key to the secrets of the Universe, he sees absolutely no value in retaining that identity at all? Why can't we be Jewish just because we're Jewish? Why shouldn't we have a homeland, like all the nations I mentioned above do? (Except for the Native Americans,but that wasn't our fault.)

The fact of the matter is, Jews never manage to shed their identity no matter what happens. You can try to deny it, but in spending all your time denying you will in fact be reconfirming it. That's what identity is. For everyone, but especially for Jews bc we've got the crazy guilt. The fact that there may or may not be a larger meaning in it is not really all that relevant.

evanstonjew said...

"If you are a living human being then this describes your situation." Assuming 'this' refers to the binary choice presented in your post I don’t think I agree. All of us, the entire community are a living example of being inside some meaning structures, Orthodoxy, Zionism and simultaneously outside. The sort of total immersion that creates clarity of purpose may have existed in a pre modern and medieval world. It doesn’t exist today. Charedim are trying to march back into such a space but even they are finding ruptures in their sense of self. The self to which we are supposed to be true was not created in a vacuum outside of family, community and society, not for us, not for Sartre or Kierkegaard not even for Genet.

I agree with the second half of your comment with reservations. A complete philosophy would have to answer the questions you raise. But 1) to live rationally and well we need much less than a comprehensive philosophy.2) Rationality does not require we stop our lives and examine every possible alternative. Part of rationality requires us to consider the costs of searching and transportation. 3) An adequate answer would give an account of why we value Jewish life; so that it can be said we have reason to live this way. It need not show why we MUST value Jewish life.I think why questions can come to an end without a 'must'.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Why is anyone's identity worthwhile?"

I don't know. Perhaps they are not. It could easily be argued that we'd be better off paying less attention to our divisive histories and concern ourselves with our common identity as human beings.

Why should there be such concepts as Jewish land and Arab land and English land and African land? What if there was just human land? I understand the idea is impractical at best, but why should we so fiercely maintain identities and territories that have no lasting significance? What are we fighting for exactly?

"You can try to deny it, but in spending all your time denying you will in fact be reconfirming it. That's what identity is."

Many Jews don't go out denying it, they just don't care much about it. That's what assimilation does.


EJ,

"Assuming 'this' refers to the binary choice presented in your post I don’t think I agree."

I gave a binary choice? I don't think so. I'm just presenting the issue of meaning and general approaches to solving it - or at least alleviating it.

"The self to which we are supposed to be true was not created in a vacuum outside of family, community and society, not for us, not for Sartre or Kierkegaard not even for Genet."

True, but so what? Why should we pay such overwhelming attention to those things in the first place?

"3) An adequate answer would give an account of why we value Jewish life; so that it can be said we have reason to live this way. It need not show why we MUST value Jewish life."

Yes, but I would offer that we might want to have an *ought* rather than just taking the whole construct as a given.

Ultimately, what are we struggling for here?

evanstonjew said...

One last time for me... A self is dominated by ambitions and ideals. We have life plans,goals and values. You acknowledge that initially they are shaped by family and community. Why do we pay attention to these ambitions and ideals...well because they are our ambitions and ideals. They push us forward and pull us toward.What is the puzzle? An identity is broader than a self...it's the feeling of participation is a group or class of people. Why place any value on any identity? I guess because the identity selects certain features of the world that help us to explain to ourselves who we are, i.e. why we have the selves we do.

P.S. In a long discussion towards the end of XGH, my correspondent arama raised a similar question, and was unhappy with the sort of reduction to self psychology I just now proposed. This is part of a wider discussion whether we can speak meaningfully of selves as authors of one's life.

Baal Habos said...

RG & Miri, I was going to cry uncle, but after thinking about it all day, I still feel that a conscious creator would by definition impart more meaning. Sure, it's possible that a God might be creating for some capricious reason, but it seems to me unlikely. I realize that is built upon my image of a creator that is "perfect" and maybe that's not the case. But it's at least possible and I'd venture to say probable, that we're here for some purpose.

But in the end, you're right. We don't know that there is a God and certainly can't aver that we have any purpose other than what we make out of it.

Therefore, It becomes very difficult to attach our purpose to Judaism other than "we might as well" because we're born into it.

Imagine yourself an unborn soul, unencumbered by any pre-existing religion, and being able to pick the religion that provides the "best message for humanity". I hate to say it, but Judaism would not be the top choice.

BTW, Ever read Steven J. Gould's book about purpose?

Orthoprax said...

EJ,

"One last time for me... A self is dominated by ambitions and ideals. We have life plans,goals and values. You acknowledge that initially they are shaped by family and community. Why do we pay attention to these ambitions and ideals...well because they are our ambitions and ideals."

I'm sorry, but this sounds like psychological fatalistic claptrap. Our origins do not force us to embrace our origins.

"This is part of a wider discussion whether we can speak meaningfully of selves as authors of one's life."

I believe we can, but this is hardly relevant since we have plenty of real life examples where people have rejected a previously held - even cherished - identity.

evanstonjew said...

You keep on shifting from why must I maintain an identity or a self ,(answer..you need not) to do I have a reason to maintain an identity (answer...of course, it's your identity).

Consider ...why must I love my children rather than any old children vs. why is it ok for me to love my children rather than any old children.

Depending which question is asked the burden of proof shifts.

Orthoprax said...

EJ,

"You keep on shifting from why must I maintain an identity or a self ,(answer..you need not) to do I have a reason to maintain an identity (answer...of course, it's your identity)."

I haven't shifted at all. I have consistently asked you why we ought to maintain this particular identity. I never asked you whether one must maintain an identity.

This isn't an "of course." You can choose to be the kind of person you want to be. You can choose to pursue goals a different value-set may apply. There's no "of course" to being a Jew. A fact of birth doesn't wholly determine a course of life.

Rabban Gamliel said...

"I realize that is built upon my image of a creator that is "perfect" and maybe that's not the case. But it's at least possible and I'd venture to say probable, that we're here for some purpose."

But a perfect G-d doesn't mean by definition meaning.

"Imagine yourself an unborn soul, unencumbered by any pre-existing religion, and being able to pick the religion that provides the "best message for humanity". I hate to say it, but Judaism would not be the top choice."

And what would be? I would venture to say Judaism is the best. You have to be born to some people with some values and every value system is arbitrary.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"Why should there be such concepts as Jewish land and Arab land and English land and African land? What if there was just human land?"

Or, in other words, "Why can't we all just get along?"
I'm sorry, but I resent you accusing others of using "pshycological claptrap" as an argument while you cull yours from hippy psuedo-anthems. Please.

"I gave a binary choice? I don't think so. I'm just presenting the issue of meaning and general approaches to solving it - or at least alleviating it."

No, you're destroying it. Forgive me, but as a history major, I'm taking this extremely personally. People are nothing without a context. History is who we are. Remember the phrase "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it?" It's bc you've lost your sense of place in the procession of time and space. How can you know anything about yourself if you don't pay some homage to where you came from? That is, in my personal opinion, patently ridiculous.

"A fact of birth doesn't wholly determine a course of life."

Of course it doesn't determine anything. But neither is it ever irrelevant. It always has some impact in one form or another. To deny this is to ignore a basic tenet of reality and identity.
The fact that you were born a Jew, for example, means that you were born related to Jews, that you won't celebrate Christian or Muslim holidays, that you were educated within a certain system.... what you're trying to do is remove the issue of identity from it's sociological context, thus making said context irrelevant. That's all very well and good in theory. It's just that in practice, you know, it's kind of meaningless.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Or, in other words, "Why can't we all just get along?"
I'm sorry, but I resent you accusing others of using "pshycological claptrap" as an argument while you cull yours from hippy psuedo-anthems. Please."

Hardly. My point was not that we could practically all just drop national identities here and now, but if indeed we do hope one day to "all just get along" why should we so fiercely protect a provincial interest? Is Jewish identity to last eternity?

"How can you know anything about yourself if you don't pay some homage to where you came from? That is, in my personal opinion, patently ridiculous."

Ok, but "some homage" doesn't lend itself to adherence to daily Halachic observance or to ensuring a Jewish identity to one's children. It doesn't keep one from intermarrying. You pay "some homage" by going to Temple on Yom Kippur.

"Forgive me, but as a history major, I'm taking this extremely personally. People are nothing without a context. History is who we are."

Am I not a human being? Do I not share blood and history with all of humanity? Why should I overwhelmingly focus on this one particular strand of human heritage?

"It always has some impact in one form or another. To deny this is to ignore a basic tenet of reality and identity."

I don't deny it, but I also don't see why one ought to kowtow to it. If an Austrian like Arnold Schwarzenegger can effectively ignore his Austrian heritage in exchange for a wider general American identity - why can't Jews? Indeed, Jews do exactly this in great numbers. Why is this bad?

evanstonjew said...

Orthoprax...I agree the question can't be dismissed. I maintain that in life you either want to be Jewish or not, either you gut says hang in there and do your share or leave and look for greener pastures, and that is more or less the end of it.A philosophical account of the value in being Jewish is just that, more philosophy. Ten books, six readers. My gut doesn't need philosophy and philosophy doesn't require approval of everyone.

For me philosophy doesn't coerce. There no knock down answers to the why be Jewish question. It is a narrative of how it looks to the writer. The reader finds the vision true for him or not.

I agree with your last paragraph. People intermarry all the time. Some people even create totally new identities. I have seen this many times. I don't feel it is the task of a philosophy of Judaism to show that such constructed characters will be miserable.

B. Spinoza said...

>but I also don't see why one ought to kowtow to it. If an Austrian like Arnold Schwarzenegger can effectively ignore his Austrian heritage in exchange for a wider general American identity - why can't Jews?

OP,

are you changing your tune or are you playing devil's advocate? Because I remember having discussions with you in the past where you took the opposite side of the debate

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

I'm being provocative. Obviously I feel a very strong connection to Jewish history and the Jewish people and therefore my personal choice is easy to embrace my identity. But this feeling is not something easily transmitted to others.

Must Judaism rely on the ongoing purely subjective choices of its adherents? Or is there an objective *ought* here that could convince even the hardened assimilationist to give Judaism a chance?

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"Why should I overwhelmingly focus on this one particular strand of human heritage?"

Bc it happens to be yours.

"Or is there an objective *ought* here that could convince even the hardened assimilationist to give Judaism a chance?"

Are you asking whether issues of identity should involve moral imperatives or not? I suppose there's no moral imperative, strictly speaking....but it seems unhealthy to deny pieces of who one is...

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Bc it happens to be yours."

I'm also a 4th generation American and a native New Yorker. My grandparents were all an ocean away from the Holocaust and none were bodily present at the key events of Israel's history. My connection to all of these things are lateral not vertical.

It could easily be argued that my founding fathers have names that sound more like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin than like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

"Are you asking whether issues of identity should involve moral imperatives or not?"

Not necessarily. Maybe if keeping the identity is to one's benefit, or has something to offer, or whether there's a duty unrelated to ethics - something beyond a choice like chocolate vs vanilla.

If a person says that he doesn't like keeping shabbos - do you have anything to answer him?

alex said...

"I am who I am and being true to myself is the meaning of my existence.
...
So I would encourage self-investigation and being true to oneself ..."

Did you explain how to be true to oneself, (and how you know you've done it) and I simply missed it?

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Did you explain how to be true to oneself, (and how you know you've done it) and I simply missed it?"

I didn't really go into it, but I did briefly refer to Randian protagonists, by which Objectivism was implied. There are other ideas on the issue coming from folks like Sarte and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It's basically the program of Existentialism and open to discussion. There's no one answer to it anymore than there's one extroverted source of meaning.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"'m also a 4th generation American and a native New Yorker. My grandparents were all an ocean away from the Holocaust and none were bodily present at the key events of Israel's history."

All these things apply to me too - except for the native New Yorker bit- but so what? Fourth generation American means that either your great-grandparents or your great-great-grandparents weren't. That's not that far away. It's about 100 years away. That's not really close enough a connection to Washington and Jefferson to justify them in a replacement heritage, in my personal opinion. But regardless of that, you at least have a connection to the American, particularly New York, JEWISH world, bc you grew up in it. What about that?

(Incidentally, there is a little more to Jewish history than just the Holocaust and the establishment of the state, you know...)

"Maybe if keeping the identity is to one's benefit, or has something to offer, or whether there's a duty unrelated to ethics "

So then, you deny that people have an inherent, unchanging identity that is intrinsically linked to their essence as well as their personality?

"If a person says that he doesn't like keeping shabbos - do you have anything to answer him?"

Why should I have anything to answer him? Whether or not someone enjoys Shabbat is entirely their own business. Besides, one doesn't necessarily have to keep Shabbat to maintain a Jewish identity. We're actually a pretty varied culture.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"That's not that far away. It's about 100 years away. That's not really close enough a connection to Washington and Jefferson to justify them in a replacement heritage, in my personal opinion."

Says you. It's almost half of all of US history. It's only ~100 years from Jefferson. The vast majority of 4th generation Americans see America as their primary identity.

"But regardless of that, you at least have a connection to the American, particularly New York, JEWISH world, bc you grew up in it. What about that?"

What about it? How does that claim my permanent allegiance?

"(Incidentally, there is a little more to Jewish history than just the Holocaust and the establishment of the state, you know...)"

Correct, but then, by your count, should my identity be absent a Yom Haatzmaut and Yom HaShoah? After all, neither is ingrained in my personal background or experience.

"So then, you deny that people have an inherent, unchanging identity that is intrinsically linked to their essence as well as their personality?"

Of course. People change identities, conceptions of themselves all the time. Naturally people have a personal history that impacts greatly on their lives but that doesn't determine how they think about themselves or how they live their lives.

"Why should I have anything to answer him? Whether or not someone enjoys Shabbat is entirely their own business. Besides, one doesn't necessarily have to keep Shabbat to maintain a Jewish identity. We're actually a pretty varied culture."

The question was a figurative one. The point was that if someone doesn't like being Jewish why should he stick around?

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"The vast majority of 4th generation Americans see America as their primary identity."

I'm not saying you shouldn't identify yourself as an American Jew; I'm just saying that the fact that you've been there awhile doesn't negate the rest of your history.

"What about it? How does that claim my permanent allegiance?"

I'm not sure what you mean by allegiance - after all, no one is obligated to stay in a community they don't like - but you can't ignore the fact that a huge piece of your personal history was shaped by that community. Even if you never live in it again, that isn't exactly irrelevant to the person you became.

"should my identity be absent a Yom Haatzmaut and Yom HaShoah? After all, neither is ingrained in my personal background or experience.
"

I can't see how it matters, really. I mean, whether your identity includes these things or not. They aren't what make you Jewish, and they're not how you identify with Jews. So, why should it?

"People change identities, conceptions of themselves all the time."

Are you then defining identity solely as self-perception? I'm not sure I agree with that definition, but that would be another point.


"if someone doesn't like being Jewish why should he stick around?"

I would say that he owes it to himself and to his heritage. But I'm not really saying that anyone needs to live in the frum world bc they're Jewish. I am saying that history, roots, and heritage is an important piece of a whole person. People can choose to ignore that, of course, I just don't think it's a good idea, especially not if you're truly interested in being the best, most complete person you can be.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"I'm not saying you shouldn't identify yourself as an American Jew; I'm just saying that the fact that you've been there awhile doesn't negate the rest of your history."

I've been here my whole life. How many generations until it is appropriate to lose the identities of the past? Should the guy from Texas for 10 generations still call himself an American German? Need he observe Oktoberfest, wear lederhosen and eat brotworst?

"Even if you never live in it again, that isn't exactly irrelevant to the person you became."

Yes, but so what? I can acknowledge it and simply not care about it.

"I can't see how it matters, really. I mean, whether your identity includes these things or not. They aren't what make you Jewish, and they're not how you identify with Jews. So, why should it?"

The point is that these are key aspects of the common Jewish heritage. Even if it didn't happen to me personally, it is the collective Jewish perspective that remains. I cannot understand how you could separate Israel and the Holocaust from the mentality of any modern Jew.

"Are you then defining identity solely as self-perception? I'm not sure I agree with that definition, but that would be another point."

For the purposes of this discussion it is the only important definition. I'm asking the question: "Why be Jewish?" Answering blithely with a "'Cause you are Jewish" is missing the point.

"I would say that he owes it to himself and to his heritage."

Ok, so that's duty. Owes how? Owes what? Does that guy from Texas still owe something to his German heritage?

"People can choose to ignore that, of course, I just don't think it's a good idea, especially not if you're truly interested in being the best, most complete person you can be."

Why isn't it a good idea? Do you think Americans who limit their identities as Americans are living an incomplete existence? Is the Texan missing something?

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"How many generations until it is appropriate to lose the identities of the past? Should the guy from Texas for 10 generations still call himself an American German?"

I believe that to truly do oneself justice in terms of knowing their own history you should go back as far as you can. Realistically speaking of course, most people don't get much farther than 100 years prior to their own existence, if that far; I suppose for the conscientious 200 yrs is a good enough cut off. Just bc, really, who has time for more than that and still have a life? So, ten generations is maybe a little more than 200 years....I guess the 10th generation Texan doesn't have to go all the way back to Germany, but if his grandfather had any sense of history, he would've. The grandfather, I mean.

"Yes, but so what? I can acknowledge it and simply not care about it."

My point with that was that the environment one is raised in has a much stronger effect on us than we may realize, in terms of shaping who we are. In your case, that environment was directly linked to your Heritage. That fact in and of itself means that your heritage had some sort of direct effect on who you are as a person. You could deny all that, I just don't think it's all that healthy, psychologically and emotionally speaking.

"I cannot understand how you could separate Israel and the Holocaust from the mentality of any modern Jew."

Who's doing that? The Holacaust and Israel were signifigant parts of the modern Jewish mentality before the establishment of the state, and also before the establishment of Yom HaShoa. The fact that some people decided to pick these days and memorialize them is not what makes them vital pieces of Jewish culture. I never really celebrated either one of them until I got to Israel. That doesn't mean that the Holocaust, or Israel, were not already a very deep piece of my modern Jewish mentality.

"Do you think Americans who limit their identities as Americans are living an incomplete existence? "

Again, it isn't about limitation, it's about history. Your Texan, for example, does sufficient justice to his heritage knowing only that his grandfather and great-grandfather lived and died as proud Texans. It would seem to me that the parallel in your case would be to know that your grandparents and great-grandparents lived as proud Jews. Granted, I suppose this dilutes things as the generations go on, but I guess that's the free will piece of things.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"I believe that to truly do oneself justice in terms of knowing their own history you should go back as far as you can. Realistically speaking of course, most people don't get much farther than 100 years prior to their own existence, if that far; I suppose for the conscientious 200 yrs is a good enough cut off."

This is all completely arbitrary. I say one generation is a good enough cut off. A different Texan says, "My parents were immigrants from Germany, but I'm just an American!" Born and raised in Houston he wants nothing to do with the old world. You're gonna tell him he's wrong? That he's incomplete? Feh.

"You could deny all that, I just don't think it's all that healthy, psychologically and emotionally speaking."

How many times must I say it? There's no denial here, but there's apathy and rejection. You can't wave your hands and magically call this psychologically unhealthy. People do it all the time and live perfectly fine.

"The fact that some people decided to pick these days and memorialize them is not what makes them vital pieces of Jewish culture. I never really celebrated either one of them until I got to Israel."

Again, I was using the holidays figuratively. The point was about the Holocaust and Israel.

"It would seem to me that the parallel in your case would be to know that your grandparents and great-grandparents lived as proud Jews."

Hooray? This all adds up to a big "so what?" I can acknowledge that fact and then have nothing to do with it.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"You're gonna tell him he's wrong? That he's incomplete? Feh."

Well, yeah, I would. Bc America is still a country in which free speech is allowed. He, of course, has the right to ignore me. I still think he's wrong.

"There's no denial here, but there's apathy and rejection. "

When I say denial, I don't mean you're pretending that your ancestors weren't Jewish. I mean you're rejecting a piece of yourself. It sounds a bit like denial to me.

"People do it all the time and live perfectly fine."

Talk about completely arbitrary! How do you know they're fine? People can be completely functional, productive human beings their entire lives and still not necessarily be "fine."

"The point was about the Holocaust and Israel."

Yes, which was why I addressed that piece of it by saying that both the Holocaust and Israel are huge parts of the modern Jewish consciousness, even in the Chareidi world.

"I can acknowledge that fact and then have nothing to do with it."

Sure. But accepting it as a piece of personal history integrates that information into who you are. Even if it never really effects you, other than sometimes you think about it, or maybe talk about it. That's not nothing.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"I still think he's wrong."

That's nice. But beyond your say-so why should he take you seriously?

"When I say denial, I don't mean you're pretending that your ancestors weren't Jewish. I mean you're rejecting a piece of yourself. It sounds a bit like denial to me."

Then you're using the word in an unusual way. It's rejecting a piece of one's extended history. Do you know how many former Catholics went to Catholic school? They acknowledge that they went to those schools but then not care at all about Catholicism and do not consider themselves Catholic.

Are they supposed to consider themselves Catholic forevermore because their parents were so affiliated?

"Talk about completely arbitrary! How do you know they're fine?"

Because they don't show any signs of not being fine. It is your burden, Mr. Freud, to show that they are somehow damaged. You cannot just declare it so.

"Yes, which was why I addressed that piece of it by saying that both the Holocaust and Israel are huge parts of the modern Jewish consciousness, even in the Chareidi world."

Ok, but then why isn't it alright for one who has no direct connection to these events to consider them foreign history?

"Sure. But accepting it as a piece of personal history integrates that information into who you are. Even if it never really effects you, other than sometimes you think about it, or maybe talk about it. That's not nothing."

Virtually nothing. To bear Judaism's future on vague reminiscence or even nostalgia is a dead end. Gone in one generation.

Anonymous said...

>>If God is transcendent and inscrutable then His specific characteristics are unknowable and without consequence as compared to the order and value inherent to His creation.

Respectfully,
I think that you misunderstand the idea of God's traits or characteristics. According to the teachings of the Arizal, which is for all intense and purposes, the sum of all Toras Nistar and accepted by Klal Yisrael across the board, God has no characteristics, no traits, because He is One and that means no divisions or aspects, not a collection of traits. He created traits like kindness and mercy and choses to reveal Himself IN THOSE traits. He acts in ways that we call and recognize as being kind or merciful and thus we learn from them to be the same. But not that He HAS those traits. You're correct, whatever trait He is is unknowable and unperceivable.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

For what it's worth I do respect the Arizal but his ideas can hardly be said to be universally accepted by all Jews - they aren't even accepted by all Orthodox Jews or even all Hasidic Jews. And even with that said, I think he sometimes spoke out of turn. I'm tempted to agree that God is "traitless" but to claim mystical knowledge of this is unreasonable. Also, to say that God is "traitless" and concomitantly say that God *willed* xyz appears to be a contradiction since it would necessarily involve a being with the characteristic of being willful. To say that God "acts" means that God is a being with the characteristic of being able to act.

Ultimately though, this is all ivory tower hairsplitting and the practical point is that God's transcendence prevents us from direct understanding and evaluation.

Baal Habos said...

>Ultimately though, this is all ivory tower hairsplitting and the practical point is that God's transcendence prevents us from direct understanding and evaluation.

Well said. I find that statements such as Anon's are often used in an attempt to persuade one that just as that topic is incomprehensible, so is the basic topic of revelation, etc.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"That's nice. But beyond your say-so why should he take you seriously?"

I never said he should. What I said was that he'd probably ignore me. And that's his right.

"It's rejecting a piece of one's extended history. Do you know how many former Catholics went to Catholic school? "

I would guess many. But the ones I've spoken to all seem to agree that it more or less scarred them for life.

"Are they supposed to consider themselves Catholic forevermore because their parents were so affiliated?"

It isn't about affiliation. I think this is the point where we keep getting stuck. Bc someone was raised in a Catholic home means that a certain amount of that culture was embedded in them. Even if it wasn't though - even if only one parent was Catholic and they didn't make the rest of the family get involved - the fact that said parent was a Catholic will always be a piece of that person's personal history. And that makes it a piece of themselves. That is, really, my only and entire point.

"Ok, but then why isn't it alright for one who has no direct connection to these events to consider them foreign history?"

Maybe bc they don't think of you as having no direct connection. You've still got a Right of Return, whether you want it or not. Of course, if something means nothing to you, then it means nothing to you, and there's really not too much anyone can do about that. But I know there are people who consider it sort of mind blowing that a nation to which they have never had any connection at all wants them enough to create laws which would encourage them to come live there. It's kind of an unusual phenomenon.

"Virtually nothing. To bear Judaism's future on vague reminiscence or even nostalgia is a dead end. Gone in one generation"

Sure. Unless the next generation has a sense of history, in which case, maybe not.

Rabban Gamliel said...

"Baal Habos said...
>Ultimately though, this is all ivory tower hairsplitting and the practical point is that God's transcendence prevents us from direct understanding and evaluation.

Well said. I find that statements such as Anon's are often used in an attempt to persuade one that just as that topic is incomprehensible, so is the basic topic of revelation, etc."

Baal transcendence doesn't mean incomprehensibility. The universe taken as an entity is unpicturable but that doesn't make it is incomprehensible.