What Are Biblical Commandments: The Teaching of Rabbi Menahem Azaria De Fano

What is the status of moral imperatives whether we find them in traditional sacred books like the Torah, the writings of Confucius, or the Koran, or we put them together from folk wisdom and common sense?  Do we need to believe in a Super Being who wants something from humans and is disappointed and frustrated if He does not get it?  Whatever the status of arguments for the existence of such a Super Being (cf. Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) it seems that such a view can have deleterious psychological consequences in terms of guilt, fear, and shame.  Considering the deleterious effects of the midah of depression on one’s spiritual progress, the strategy of viewing commandments as demands of a possibly disappointed Super Being is a self-defeating one.

For a better strategy consider that of Menahem Azariah da Fano who flourished from 1548-1620 in Mantua, Italy and was, in collaboration with R. Israel Sarug one of primary funders and disseminators of the teachings of the Ari in Europe.  According to Da Fano a command such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not a command, it is a prediction.  The commandment states that you as a human being are the sort of being that naturally loves other human beings.  Your nature is love.

What are the psychological consequences for those times when the commandment does not describe our behavior?  First of all we do not view them, according to R. Fano as breaking anything but as moments of less than perfect flourishing.  So if we say  “But R. Fano, I just stole from my friend!  I invalidated your prediction.” he responds “That was not you.  You were not being what you truly are.”


Expressing the Inexpressible: One More Try

Wittgenstein in the Tractatus maintained that the only sensible propositions were ones that stated facts, and drew the conclusion that the philosophical statements in his work were nonsense, since they did not state facts.  They were only, in a famous image, a ladder that would be thrown away once used.   He ended the work referring to silence: that which we cannot talk about we must remain silent about.

Academic interpreters of Wittgenstein have argued about whether Wittgenstein was somehow trying to get out of playing by his own rules.  When he said we must remain silent about it, was he trying to say something by remaining silent?  Was he claiming to have a special kind of nonsense that somehow communicated important deep things about reality but not by means of meaning?  Was he “showing” something deep which it was impossible to “say”?  Was he, as Frank Ramsey suggested, trying to whistle what it was impossible to say?

The so-called “Resolute” reading of Wittgenstein (James Conant, Cora Diamond, to some extent Stanley Cavell) says no to all.  Wittgenstein has no special kind of nonsense, he is not gesturing at an ineffable truth, like a mystic.  He is just using “garden variety” nonsense to let us know that we shouldn’t use language in illegitimate ways.  When a proposition is senseless it does not have a special sense that is senseless.  It just doesn’t work.

Yet I find myself wondering: how can nonsense let us know that?  And if the “Resolute” readers of Wittgenstein are able to say what Wittgenstein was up to — holding a mirror up to the reader’s illegitimate use of language maybe — how are they able to do that?  In one of Conant’s articles he shares his pain — he wants to say that it’s a mistake to think that Wittgenstein is saying what can’t be said, but he’s worried that (he, Conant) can’t say that either.

(Sometimes people try to clarify this by using spatial metaphors.  Wittgenstein, they say, teaches us that there is no way to stand outside of our language and see its limits.  Wittgenstein, they believe, shows us that we can only see the limits of our language from the inside, by banging our noses against those limits.  If you can make sense of these spatial metaphors as applied to thought and language, bravissimo.  Please let me know in the comments section — to me they seem like nonsense.)

And yet we all know there are millions of things we used to not be able to say and now can.

And we all know that there are lots of people to whom we cannot express what is important to us.

So there should be no problem with accepting that there are now things that we cannot express, and people to whom we cannot express them.

What Wittgenstein and his resolute interpreters seem to be looking for is a clear rule for what can never be said — not that is what cannot be expressed right now to a specific audience but what can Never Successfully Be Said, Ever, to Anybody.   It is as if we find ourselves tempted to talk but upon studying philosophy can examine our temptations and know when it is okay to give in to the temptation and talk, and when we should be “resolute” and be silent.  But it seems to me that they are in error to hope for such a rule or such a procedure of self-disciplining.  They want to punish themselves first so It does not punish them by revealing them to be fools.  For myself I don’t imagine there is any rule or philosophy I could follow to keep myself from being a fool or saying foolish things.  No philosophy other than the scary and exciting Try It and See.

I have said a lot of sensible things in my life and a lot of nonsense, but I don’t see why I should expect myself to ever know which was which.

As for leaving things unsaid, and passing them over in silence, we do that whenever we employ a comma or a period.


Good News for Those Who Want to be Judgmental About the Sex Lives of Others!

Some people think the recent supreme court decision supporting marriage equality is a setback for those of us who want to be judgmental about other people’s sex lives.  This is a misconception.  The supreme court ruling is only a set-back for those who want to use the law to impose their judgments about the sex lives of others, but they deserve to be set back, as they are confused.

The notion of using the law to impose personal morality is a poorly thought out project.  Since what we want when we judge other people’s intimate lives is for them to flourish into creative,autonomous individuals, using legal coercion is not just a blunt instrument for defeating our goals.   It is a self-defeating one. The person for example who has sex in the correct way but only because he fears legal repercussions is not having sex in the right way.

Sex is non-verbal communication.  The desire to be judgmental about the sex lives of others stems from the same desire as the wish to be judgmental about the communicative lives of others.  In both cases it is self-defeating to enlist the government’s monopoly on violence to push one’s agenda.  In both cases though it is overly extreme to stand back from being judgmental.  The first duty of friendship is reproof.  A friend would not let a friend express a thought that was foolish, or express it in a foolish way without communicating that opinion.  Similarly we would not want those we care about to be in sexual relationships that we find objectionable: perhaps because they are boring, or coercive, or spiritually deadening, or somehow conducive to the emotional crippling of one or both partners rather than to their flourishing.

Of course sex differs from many other forms of communication in one key respect: it is private.  So the wish to get on a moral soap-box and lecture people about their sex lives is more akin to the wish to lecture them about their poetry than it is akin to the urge to lecture them about their political or scientific speech.  But that is a far cry from saying we should not take a strong moral stand about our neighbor’s sex lives and share it.  Lovers of poetry have strong opinions about poetry: they have examples they love, examples they accept but think could be better, and examples they actually hate.  Lovers of sex, one would expect, would feel the same way.

Needless to say those willing to indulge in this pastime open themselves up to criticism of our own sex lives at the hands of others.  But for those who are either a)exhibitionists or b)interested in the opinions of others about such an important topic, that is not a bug — it is a feature.


How Complicated is Too Complicated?

7)If it’s too simple it’s boring

6)If it’s too complicated it’s chaotic

5)If it’s the right degree of complicated you see the simple rules behind the complexity but your mind is overwhelmed by multiple ways those simple rules generate forms.

4)Like life itself

3)Wallace Stevens says the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfuly.  This experience of the mind’s power on the brink of being overwhelmed is the only experience of transcendence we ever have.  So we should be happy with it.

2)Like life itself

1)How can you tell the difference between being overwhelmed by complexity and just being confused?

0)If you find that the effort to overcome the complexity outside yourself and reduce it to simple rules creates a functional harmony within yourself, you’re good.


My Ethnic Identity is Grandpa of My Grandchildren Not Grandson of My Grandparents

If my ethnic identity is grandchild of my grandpa Wolf Buchsbaum then my life is defined by the decisions he made, and he lived in a different world. I will never be able to respond to my world as he responded to his world. If I demand of myself that I do so, then I will have a burden of guilt — an unpayable debt to the past.

I think a better way of thinking about it is that I am the grandpa of my as yet unborn grandchildren. That way my current decisions decide who is in my ethnic group and who isn’t and what that group means to me.

So an Indonesian person might turn out to be in my in-group because he or she might also be a grandparent of my future grandchildren, or a great-grandparent of my future great-grandchildren.

Of course that also puts that Indonesian person in the family of my grandpa, Wolf Buchsbaum.

It also gives me the role of linking my descendants to my ancestors, or points out that I have that role.

What is true of my flesh-and-blood children is also true of my mind-children: my thoughts and other creations. I do not tell if my thoughts are true by tracing their ancestry — pointing out how they come from reason or sense data. I tell if my thoughts are true by looking at their descendants: seeing if they lead to a fruitful interaction with the world.


Saint Teresa’s Motto: Aut Pati Aut Mori — Does it Mean Suffer of Die?

The four word motto of Saint Theresa of Jesus is “Aut Pati Aut Mori”.  She is often pictured holding a book with these words.

They are often translated as “Either suffer or die”.  This sounds harsh and punitive, not to mention depressing.  Is she telling us we had better get used to pain or die?  Is she making a pushy bottom’s brag: all I am so into is suffering and if I don’t get it I want to die?  On either interpretation, the sadistic drill sergeant’s or aggressive masochist’s, what kind of motto is that for a saint?

It is mistranslated.

The Latin word “PATI” is related to “PASSION” “PATIENT” and “PATENT”.  The root meaning of all of them is to be part of a process of unfolding.  A passion in it’s original sense is contrasted with an action — when we are in a passion we are subject to an emotion that connects us with something outside ourselves.  A patient undergoes a treatment from a doctor.  When you are “patient” you await the results of a process that is in motion.  When something is “patent” –as in a patent lie, a patent contradiction, a patent fool —  it is no longer folded up and concealed that it is what it is.  What it is now it lies before us to be experienced.

The conjunction “aut…x…aut..y” does not mean “you must do x or y” in the sense of a forced choice, but rather that everything is one or the other, or, better, everything only is to the extent that it is one or the other.  As in the poker expression “if you look around the room and don’t see who the fish is, it’s you” — by the nature of a rigged gambling game you are either the tricker or the trickee.

By the nature of life we are either engaged in “pati” or “mori”.  Either we are part of the unfolding of a process or we are dying.

Every moment we can look within and see what aspect of us is “pati” and what aspect of us is “mori”.

Aut Pati Aut Mori.


The Part of You That Fears Death Is Not Alive

The part of you that fears death is not alive.   It obeys a mechanical law of self-preservation.

The dead: mechanical habits, mindless repetition, heartless attempts to control, reflexes and automatic responses of all kinds.

Only the living will live, while the dead will never live because it was never alive.

Every moment take a moment to be aware: what in me right now is alive and what is dead?

That awareness itself is the green shoot, pushing through the dirt, for no reason at all.


Guest Post by Anna Morello, My Seventh Grade Social Studies Teacher: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cosmos

Brenda’s intelligence was very intriguing but also very disturbing. I often found myself trembling in fear over the breadth and scope of her knowledge. Over the years I had taught so many truly brilliant and creative students but few came close to this feral cat and fewer still had her astounding curiosity.

I came to think of Brenda as a philosopher, a scientist, a theologian and a poet. No field of learning seemed to escape her ken. And so it was not surprising when she said to me as we were having breakfast together, “Did you realize that all matter and all space in the Universe existed in a form much smaller than a sub-atomic particle? This beautiful particle, or Singularity, had zero volume and infinite density, much like all our politicians. This was before the Big Bang.”

What a crazy cat! She has finally gone too far. What she described was a logical impossibility. Of course, as always, Brenda read my mind and began amusing herself about my skepticism. “Anna, do you recall that quote from Woody Allen? “True, the passage was totally incomprehensible to me, but what of it, as long as Kierkegaard was having fun.”

Ah, so she was just having fun with me and playing mind games with a former philosophy teacher. I preserved. “Please do not claim that you know so much about this because you were there at this so-called Singularity.” Bingo” said Brenda, “and so were you. So was everything in the Cosmos, all space, all matter and, therefore, all time.”

Now I had Brenda by her tale! What she ascribed to this so-called Singularity was impossible by all the known laws of physics. Zero volume, impossible! Infinite density. Bah! Infinite compression of everything that is and then the Big Bang and the Universe!

Brenda picked up the New York Times and began reading. She ignored me and I was furious. Finally she turned to me and said, “The great sensational thing about this Singularity is…tada…no chaos. The oneness of it all! And then, yes, Bang, Chaos, Confusion and the fracturing of symmetry and of singularity.. And all this by a force of repulsion.. Do we have a Universe created by a force of Repulsion? Are you are you beginning to realize that the Prime Mover of Aristotle was the greatest of comedians?”


Not a Real Jew Not a Real Black Person Not a Real Woman: The Cases of Rachel Dolezal and Catelyn Jenner

Two recent news stories — the story of Catelyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal —  have drawn attention to an interesting interaction between anti-essentialism in philosophy and politics. One was about an activist for African American rights who identified herself as black despite, seemingly, not having any recent African ancestors — not more than every human being has dating back to Olduvai Gorge.  The other was about a famous athlete and reality television star who identified as a woman despite being born a man.

Both cases provide interesting test cases for a philosophy of anti-essentialism.  In essence, this philosophy says that for certain important categories reality does not provide us with hard and fixed rules for deciding what belongs to the category and what doesn’t.  So for example a chair.  Is a bench a chair?  A tree stump?  Three people’s interlocked arms?  The anti-essentialist (and Wittgenstein in the Anglo-American world gets a lot of the credit here) argues that these questions do not really have answers.  There are many unambiguous cases of chairs which have a family resemblance to each other.  Whether or not a difficult case — the tree stump for example — is a chair or isn’t one is up to us.

But who exactly is us?  If us is each of us individually then there is no question that the black woman without black ancestors is black and the post-operative trans-woman is a woman.  This is adverted too in Dolezal’s claim to “identify” as black, which implies the essence of belonging to a category is a willingness to perform the speech act “I hereby identify as a member of that category” — perhaps with the attendant responsibilities of behavior and comportment.

But not all categories function this way. If I identify as Bill Gates and try to withdraw money from his account, he will try to prevent me.

In this case the issue of the response to others to an individual’s act of self-identification has raised questions.  What about other black people who don’t want to be represented by the possibly black possibly not black activist?  What about the men who don’t want to sleep with the trans woman or the women who don’t want to view her as a sister in a political struggle?

A comparative case (one that has a family resemblance) is member of the Jewish religion.  To some Jews a Jew who has a non-Jewish father and has not converted is not a Jew.  To some Jews a Jew with two Jewish parents who thinks Jesus Christ was the Messiah is not a Jew.  To some Jews a Jew who does not follow the rules of kashruth and family purity and does not intend to is not a member of the Jewish religion, although he or she may be ethnically or metaphysically a Jew.  (To some Orthodox Jews by the way I fall into this category).

The solution may be that we replace the question “Is he black” “Is she a woman” to “Is she black to whom?” “Is she a woman to whom?”  Just as Judaism splits into communities based in part upon how they identify and police identity, gender and race could split similarly.  One could imagine blacks for whom descent from slaves is important.  For them Barack Obama would not be black.

Given social media we could each keep quite accurate tabs upon who is what to whom, and perhaps to what extent.  Upon meeting someone I would have the option (perhaps for a fee service) to learn whether that person is black to every other person who subscribes to that service, or perhaps to every other person on Earth.   Black to Somporn Pranatchibol in Thailand but white to George Hopegood in Kenya perhaps.  And since race is not a binary this could actually let me know to what degree each person is black to every other person on Earth.  I could learn that Flip Wilson is 99% black to Stokely Carmichael but only 45% black to Louis CK perhaps.

And the same with gender.

This need not preclude the possibility of experts.  Just as I may defer to the judgment of Harold Bloom on the question of whether Henry VIII is a real Shakespeare I could defer to the judgment of Charlie Sheen on the issue of whether or not Catelyn Jenner is a woman.

Of course that leaves open the question of why I, or anyone, should care.