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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Shiva and Separation

My month of guest blogging in July started with a series of e-mails between Dan and me in which I warned him I was going to be teasing him about his Canadian niceness in the context of certainty.  It ended (before Howard's kind offer to stick around for a while) coincidentally with the end of a shiva, the seven days of mourning following a funeral.

If this hasn't been a month of deep reflection, there will never be one.  Nothing provokes my most unsettling contemplation more than the loss of someone close to me.  (I wasn't an intimate friend, but close enough that I could banter publicly and privately with him, and I am indeed the person who dubbed him the "Johnny Carson of law professors" in a published article that popped up on his Google Scholar alert, and which he called the strangest citation he had ever received.)   He was a nuanced and unpredictable thinker, i.e., not one of those people for whom you can expect views on issues X, Y, and Z as a result of a view of issue A.  And being Jewish was something central to Dan's life, his personality, and his outlook.  So I offer here some reflections (stored up over the last few weeks and provoked by the most dichotomous thing we experience as human beings - life and death) about being smart, being reasoned, being Jewish, and being sufficiently humble, epistemically speaking, to reconsider over and over during the course of one's life those things about which one is certain and one is not.  

And as one more tribute to Dan, and consistent with a theme of this post, I'm going place the page separator after this third paragraph.  This is something about which those who blogged here knew Dan was unyielding.  You may have noticed from time to time that somebody (even Paul Horwitz) would post something very, very long, and shortly thereafter a page break would appear.  That was Dan's intervention, and I learned way back in 2006 to control my own destiny by putting it there myself.  Hence, continue below the break, and think of Dan when you do.

Shiva and separation.

In Jewish tradition, there are three periods of mourning, the seven days of shiva (shiva means seven), the thirty days (which include the shiva) of shloshim (shloshim means thirty), and a year.  We are in shloshim.

Why seven?  Why thirty?  Why 365?   The overall structure is one of gradual return to normal life.  But do you really feel any different on the eighth day versus the seventh, or the thirty-first versus the thirtieth?  Maybe a little less numb, a little less surreal, but it's a matter of degree, not a binary cut-off.  The numbers themselves are simply reflections of commonly accepted time periods, the lunar month and the solar year (begging for now the more difficult question for all but biblical fundamentalists why a week is seven days).

In the past month, I've expressed what I called dichotomy skepticism:

I've come to believe more and more that we need to treat analytical dichotomies with a grain of salt.  There are zillions of reasons why we have to set arbitrary lines within continuums or family resemblances, particularly in the law (e.g., to be protected as free exercise, something either is or is not religion).  But those lines tend not to do a great job of cutting reality at the joints, as it were; hence the Munchausen's (or Agrippa's) Trilemma of casuistry in working back and forth across and resetting thoses lines.

Death is the ultimate dichotomy.  Our feelings don't divvy up so easily.  Nevertheless, when it comes to custom and law (and science), we draw the dichotomy-creating lines.   On the morning of the seventh day, you are sitting shiva.  After the morning service (in the tradition), you take a walk around the block, and then you aren't sitting shiva.  You are in shloshim.  It's not time to play, but it is time to go back to work.

The very deep paradox of bright lines and continuities has been at the heart of my resistance, notwithstanding my teenage atheism, to accepting scientific reductionism as the end-all of answers to important questions.  That outlook is why, as a freshman at Michigan, I chose not to be a philosophy major after confronting the fact that I didn't have the horsepower to be a theoretical mathematician - the introductory philosophy courses at Michigan in the early 1970s looked like they covered more math, not ultimate issues.

Now as an old guy, I've come to think the deeper you go the more you realize you aren't going to get to the ultimate answer about ultimate mysteries.  Indeed, at some point, you make an intellectual choice in a significantly ironic way.  Either you have faith that human reason will get somebody there someday with a reductive answer (the multiverse? but what if it's multiverses all the way down?), or you reason your way to the conclusion that the final and conclusive answer ain't never gonna happen.  But if you fall into the second category, you keep thinking about the final and conclusive answer anyway.

For those of us in this second category, who nevertheless recoil at the dichotomous certainties either of any human articulation of the "Divine Word" (see: any fundamentalist) or the absence thereof (see: Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris), it's an uneasy intellectual and philosophical place to be.  For me, and I suspect this was true of Dan, one of the nice things about being Jewish is the precisely the lack (except in the most extreme cases) of theological dogma.  Paul Horwitz linked (on Facebook) to Sam Harris's commentary on the Israel-Gaza war, and one of the things about it that struck me most was Harris's seeming naivete about the very lack of Jewish dogmatism for all but a small minority:

I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. 

Yes, Sam, you can indeed grapple with the mysteries and paradoxes, even in the context of religion, and not give up your reason and rationality to a divine dictator.  And it's not just Jews who seem to be able to do that.  You can use your particularities as an avenue for grappling with them, even as you understand that ultimate truths are universal.  I loved this interview John Mortimer (the author of the Rumpole stories) conducted with then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie (in Mortimer's book, In Character):

Mortimer: "One thing worries me about God."

Runcie: "One thing?"

Mortimer: "I mean, is He ours? You have said that if you had happened to have been born in Delhi, you'd probably be a Hindu, or in Iran a Muslim."

Runcie: "Oh yes. I can't believe in a God who only saves people in certain latitudes...."

Mortimer: "So does it matter which religion we have?"

Runcie: "I find the easiest way to enlightenment is through Jesus Christ. I find the greatest fulfillment in Him. But I don't believe in creating a vacuum into which we insert the Christian religion. I went to Rangoon and found a Buddhist priest examining some teenagers. One of the questions was: 'What ethical effect does a belief in the after-life have on our actions?' I thought that was very good. I'm against extravagant claims made for one faith, but of course, as an archbishop, it doesn't do to let the side down." 

Shiva and separation.  There's Jewish liturgical poetry about separation.  Ending shiva means a separation, and you mark it with a walk around the block.  But every week observant Jews (not me) mark a separation.  They end Shabbat with the Havdalah service.  Havdalah means ... separation.  At that moment, you are ending the day of rest, the day meant for contemplation of the holy, and returning to the ordinary and mundane of the physical world.  

The short Havdalah service includes one of my favorite prayers, the one that recognizes and accepts the place of dichotomy in a continuous world, the difficulty of figuring out which ones are natural and which ones are merely the creations of our minds, and the attribution of that particular mystery to whatever in the universe constitutes the source of all such mysteries.  

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִיל בֵּין קֹֽדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחֹֽשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵֽׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי הַמַּבְדִ בֵּין קֹֽדֶשׁ לְחוֹל.

Baruch atah, Adonai, Elohaynu melech ha'olam, hamavdil bayn kodesh lechol bayn or lechoshech bayn Yisrael la'amim bayn yom hashevi'i leshayshet yemay hama'aseh. Baruch atah, Adonai, hamavdil bayn kodesh lechol.

Praise to you, our god who has no name, ruler of the cosmos, who separates between the holy and the ordinary; between the light and dark; between Israel and the other nations; between the seventh day and the six days of the week. Praise to you, our god who has no name, who separates between the holy and the ordinary.

(That's my English translation, and it's not completely literal.  It does, however, express the meaning I take from it, and I believe it is consistent with the sense of the Hebrew.  Even traditionally, there's a lot of license.  This third word from the beginning -  יְיָ - is shorthand for the unpronounceable four-letter representation YHVH, which traditionally gets pronouned as the Adonai of the transliteration - the anthropomorphic "My Lord.") 

See, like the rabbis who surprised Sam Harris, I have no idea if there's a God who hears our prayers.  I suspect there isn't, and I don't personally spend a lot of time praying. That doesn't make the poetry of the prayer any less meaningful.  It says something I think of when I think of Dan.  Take wisdom where you can find it.  Revel in difference, separateness, and separation, but with a good dose of epistemic humility about any bright lines that are human-created.  And realize that the paradox of bright lines and continuities is the best evidence that there's something forever irreducible in our subjective perspective on an objective world - all our efforts to think our way through it to ultimate truth - religiously, philosophically, or scientifically, result in the Munchausen Trilemma of infinite regress, circularity, or brute assumption.

A few paragraphs ago, I said death is the ultimate dichotomy.  Now that I write this, I'm rethinking even that certainty.  I don't mean that in a "eternal soul" way.  Dan is gone and that's a bright line.  But I'm thinking about him and even talking to him right now.   That's a continuity.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on August 5, 2014 at 01:02 PM | Permalink


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