Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I and Thou.......A lack of clarity is indispensable !

I suppose it is by no accident that I just dusted off my tattered copy of I and Thou by Martin Buber (translated by Walter Kaufmann) and reread these words:

"At that time I wrote what I wrote under the spell of an irresistible enthusiasm. And the inspirations of such enthusiasm one may not change any more, not even for the sake of exactness. For one-can only estimate what one would gain, but not what would be lost."

I find it ironic that this is the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah - that eight-day festival of light celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality. (It almost sounds like another exuberant Celtic holiday channeled by Holy lunar gravitas.)

I admit that I have never knowingly celebrated Chanukah, but will certainly do so beginning tonight.

Apparently more than 21 centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks ?) who were forcefully Hellenizing the tribe of Israel. And of course, against all odds the Jewish rag tag army defeated one of the strongest armies on earth at the time. They drove the Greeks out, reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem and once again dedicating it to G-d.

With only a single days supply of olive oil they were miraculously able to light the Temple's candelabrum for eight days, until more sacred oil could be ritually prepared. And of course the rest is history - to commemorate this miracle the wise men instituted the festival of Chanukah.

Let me get back to Buber for a moment. He too, wrestled with a desire to get back to the roots of Judaism - back beyond the roots of Christianity. Away from the subversive Greeks.

The Greeks were profoundly visual people, glorified in visual arts. The Hebrews at the other end of the continuum entertained a strict prohibition against the visual arts. The Greeks visualized their gods in marble and intricate vase paintings. The Hebrews expressly forbade these types of images as their G-d was not to be seen.

Rather He was to be heard and obeyed. He wasn't an It but an I - or a You.

Post-modern Christians also attempt to get back to a pre-Hellenistic primal Christianity. The problem is that there never was a pre-Hellenistic Christianity. The Christian faith was nursed in Hellenism for over three centuries.

Paul was a Hellenistic Jew and wrote in Greek. The gospels were also written in Greek probably sometime after Paul's epistles. Although Christianity didn't deny its roots in Judaism, it was "born of the denial that God could not possibly be seen." And as Walter Kaufmann goes on to remind us..."Christians were those who believed that God could become visible, an object of sight and experience, of knowledge and belief."

Christianity and Judaism both emphasize trust and confidence in G-d. Christian faith however, seemed to always land in the Greek territory of very specific articles of faith that had to be believed. This naturally led to ongoing disputes about what had to believed by those wanting to be saved.

As the Reformation shied away from visual images, it came to rely more firmly on the purity of doctrines that led to salvation. This eventually led to bloodbaths and further divisions as each group of splintering Protestants believed they had a corner on the particular truth necessary for salvation

Buber highlights the Jewish doctrine which holds that people can at any time return to God and be forgiven. Judaism stresses the action, the repentance, not merely the state of mind or intellectual belief in forgiveness.

Thus, the book of Jonah is read aloud on the highest Jewish holiday every year. Remember that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians who conquered Israel. How could God ever forgive them without demanding some conversion? "When God saw what they did, how they returned from their evil way, God repented of the evil that he had said he would do to them and did it not."

The 'return' has always been at the center of Judaism. For Buber, man stands in a direct relationship with G-d and he is not focused on what we believe as much as how we believe what we believe.

In Kaufmann's translation of I and Thou he states that, "Among the most important things that one can learn from Buber is how to read.....we must learn to feel addressed by a book, by the human being behind it, as if a person spoke directly to us. A good book or essay or poem is not primarily an object to be put to use, or an object of experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response."

I close with some Buber passages that encourage a return to G-d, a true Jewish celebration of faith indeed. Amen. Enjoy the challenge!

"The I of the basic word I-It, the I that is not bodily confronted by a You but surrounded by a multitude of "contents," has only a past and no present. In other words: insofar as a human being makes do with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no presence. He has nothing but objects; but objects consist in having been.

Presence is not what is evanescent and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence. What is essential is lived in the present, objects in the past."


"Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it; and the feelings that accompany it can be very different. Jesus' feeling for the possessed man is different from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is one. Feelings one "has"; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its "content" or object: it is between I and You.

Love is responsibility of an I for a You: in this consists what cannot consist in any feeling - the equality of all lovers, for the smallest to the greatest and from the blissfully secure whose life is circumscribed by the life of one beloved human being to him that is nailed his life long to the cross of the world, capable of what is immense and bold enough to risk it: to love man."


"Relation is reciprocity. My You acts on me as I act on it. Our students teach us, our works form us. The "wicked" become a revelation when they are touched by the sacred basic word. How are we educated by children, by animals! Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity."


"Hatred remains blind by its very nature; one can hate only part of a being. Whoever sees a whole being and must reject it, is no longer in the dominion of hatred but in the human limitation of the capacity to say You. It does happen to men that a human being confronts them and they are unable to address him with the basic word that always involves an affirmation of the being one addresses, and then they have to reject either the other person or themselves: when entering-into-relationship comes to this barrier, it recognizes its own relativity which disappears only when this barrier is removed. Yet whoever hates directly is closer to a relation than those who are without love and hate."


"Man becomes an I through a You. What confronts us comes and vanishes, relational events take shape and scatter, and through these changes crystallizes, more and more each time, the consciousness of the constant partner, the I-consciousness. To be sure, for a long time it appears only woven into the relation to a You, discernible as that which reaches for but is not a You; but it comes closer and closer to the bursting point until one day the bonds are broken and the I confronts its detached self for a moment like a You - and then it takes possession of itself and henceforth enters into relations in full consciousness."


Tonight I am going to light one candle and enjoy Chanukah and the celebratory Jewish traditions of eating foods friend in oil, topped off with sufganiot (doughnuts).


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