On Myth and Progress

Yoni A. Dahlen
November 8, 2012
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In their definitive work on the demythification of thought and experience, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer warn of a pragmatic future void of meaning.  In the critique, the workers of the modern age are compared to the crew members in the Odysseus myth, their ears blocked and their heads lowered while the sirens sing their haunting song.  This song, according to the metaphor, is meant to divert the course of progress and revert the post-modern world to the superstition and magic of an age pre-enlightenment.  The danger of emulating this neo-Odysseus tactic, the philosophers argue, is a sacrifice of the essence of work – the vital sense of meaning intrinsic to labor, the beauty that myth and magic provide the modern individual.

Indeed the wonder of labor has faded dramatically from the Jewish ethos.  The idolatry of technology and enlightenment have wrestled away the awe and amazement found in human hands.  While the pulse of Judaism beats in books and study, the nefesh, the soul of the Jewish people, rests in the transcendent moments of every day.  It is impossible to imagine the wisdom of Judaism’s greatest sages divorced from their private worlds – Rashi plucking ripe grapes from his vines, Maimonides treating one of his ailing patients, the Hasidim of the Eastern European shtetlach selling salted fish and warm bread or retreating to the Russian forests for a moment of tranquility and prayer.

The “destructive nature” of myth is, in reality, the illumined lighthouse to the tumultuous sea of progress.  While the ocean may offer transport to new insights, it is the flashing beacon on the horizon that guides the ships home.  The waves have created efficiency, the light, hope.

Rationalists rest assured that the sirens wish to destroy the world.  The dreamer knows that the world cannot exist without their song.  The challenge of labor to the Jewish present is a balancing act between two truths.  How can the impossible be achieved without progress?  How can the impossible be imagined without wonder?  Perhaps the compromise of Odysseus can provide insight into this complex harmonization.

As the hero of the story, Odysseus, knowing very well that his ship will pass by the island of the sirens, commands his crew to tether him tightly to the ship’s mast.  Upon doing so, the crew is told to stuff their ears with beeswax and to push ahead until it is certain that the song will be impossible to hear.  As the ship approaches the island, Odysseus hears the siren’s song and pleads desperately for his mates to untie him so that he may join the sirens in absolute bliss.  Deaf to his cries and the beauty of the intoxicating melody, the crew rows on and brings the ship out of the danger of the sirens’ wake.

In the contemporary model of labor, the worker’s ears are forcibly plugged.  So long has this wax been lodged in the ears of the proletariat, that the reason for its insertion has long been forgotten.  The promise of authentic progress necessitates straddling the line of myth and enlightenment, to bind oneself to the highest point of the ship while hearing the songs of awe and wonder.  Before the worker can be tethered to the mast, the wax must be removed, the song must be remembered.  Without recalling the myth, the ship can have no true direction.  The sails are set to an endless cycle, where meaning is deemed obtrusive and progress remains out of reach.

From the mast, the worker may once again hear the memory of home.  Then and only then will the lighthouse flash brightly, directing the ship to its rightful course while a song of hope fills its sails.

A Jewish future demands a Jewish past.  The question of labor cannot and must not be left to the realm of progress while neglecting the myth that constructed its significance.  The nature of myth, let us not be mistaken, is not to give fallacious meaning to the unknown.  The nature of myth is to awaken the heart to a truth greater than ourselves.  Myth is not synonymous with fable.  Rationalism is not synonymous with truth.  To be authentic, Judaism must cleave to the mast.  It must yearn for the song of the sirens while constantly moving forward – forward to the glimmer of light on the horizon, directing us home.

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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