Thursday, March 19, 2009

Relationships and Rationality (Speech at Sheva Brachot)

Elad and I met properly in the context of a fortnightly Tel Aviv Shiur that our lovely hostess Susie organized a couple of years ago. That shiur – in which each member of the small group of people would present on a Jewish topic of interest while the others sipped wine and interjected in generally relevant places – is actually still going strong two and a half years later.

In fact, I’m missing it tonight to be here.

So in memory of this relationship grounded in Jewish theology, I’m glad I have the opportunity to share some ideas based on the thought the people we spent many an evening in Susie’s old apartment discussing.

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Martin Buber is a famous Jewish theologian of the past century who is perhaps best known for his ‘I-Thou’ (I – You singular for the less posh) thesis. Its main proposition is that we may address existence or relationships in two ways:

The first he calls ‘I-It’ which is when one relates to an object (or person) functionally, in the context of its output or what it ‘gives’ us. It could be anything from our relationship to a table or a bank clerk (or a spouse). These relationships aren’t necessarily bad, often they are even necessary. But they are a lower form of relationship.

The second type Buber terms ‘I-Thou’ which refers to placing ourselves completely into a relationship, truly being with another person, without masks or pretenses. It’s the genuine sharing of our truest selves without masks or pretenses.

This is what we should all be striving for with the people we genuinely love and care for.

Buber explains that these I-Thou relationships help to bring us into relationship with the ‘Eternal Thou’ i.e. God.

If this reading is correct, then it seems Buber believes that we should use our experience with people to better understand the relationship we’re supposed to create with the Divine.

But I wonder if perhaps things are supposed to be the other way round – that our relationship with God and Torah ultimately helps us to achieve a better relationship with people.


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Last week we read about the red heifer, a law whose logic even King Solomon couldn’t fathom. The ashes of this heifer are used to purify, but they simultaneously make the Cohen performing the action impure.

The law seems completely irrational and non-sensical. In Jewish sources, it’s known as the ultimate chok, a biblical law for which there is no apparent reason.

And it reminds me of a beautiful passage by
Abraham Joshua Heschel on rationality (more than any other Jewish thinker, Heschel helps me to pray, and sometimes even helps to believe that my prayers are heard);

He writes that “The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.”

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Elad – one of the things I always liked about you in our discussions was that we were both very rational (we were the guys after all). We value intellect and logic; we trust things we can measure. Maybe we even feel that if reason and emotion clash, then reason comes out trumps. But I wonder if at a certain stage, perhaps when it comes to trying to create an ‘I-Thou’ love with another individual we may need to de-emphasize it.

I wonder whether love is ineffable, part of the immense expanse beyond the shore of reason which can’t be weighed or measured.

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And I wonder whether the concept of an illogical or irrational command we simply can’t fathom is highly relevant not just when serving God, but in loving people.

Because some things (like relationships) simply ‘are,’ without being logically measurable or easily classified.

And what’s fantastic about your relationship is that even though 2 years ago no one would have put you two together (on paper), in practice, your relationship just ‘works,’ and everyone who meets you sees how much it works.

And it’s very very wonderful to see…

Mazal Tov

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

With any good friend or girlfriend, you love the package deal. You don’t add and subtract, divvy up the positive and negative traits so as to determine whether or not, at the end of the day, on balance, after careful evaluation, they ought to properly be considered a ‘mate’ or not. You don’t quantitively analyse your old friends – that’s the equation for those you hate, or new people. Those who have to qualify. Are they are worth it? Is this person likely to be a good investment?

Conversely I don’t love her because of the way she laughs, her beauty, her brains, her shiny dark hair or the way she bites her lip when she’s concentrating. I love just her. Just her, not bits of her, even in spite of bits of her, the whole caboodle, the way she Is- with a capital I.

Yellow Boy

rina said...

love this! it's beautiful...