Transcending the Binary: Sketches and Aphorisms

February 1, 2013
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Ira F. Stone

The question “Whom do I face?” elicits another question: “Who faces me?” The difference between the questions is crucial and sheds light on both the nature of classical religious perspectives (that is, biblical and rabbinic traditions) and the nature of the alienation from those perspectives and traditions in the modern period. It may also shed light on how the Jewish community needs to orient itself as the modern epoch draws to a close and is succeeded by the as yet unnamed future that we can call postmodernity as a temporary measure. Or perhaps we should indeed go further and in light of this old/new question, “Who faces me?” offer a name for this emerging epoch that is neither premodern nor modern nor any longer merely postmodern, but rather Tekufat Panecha, the Era of Your Face.

What is inside me is both fullness and emptiness. I will learn to call that fullness “myself” or “me.” The emptiness cries out to be filled; it is indigenous to my consciousness but it is not “me.” Who then could it be? Who is the emptiness? Either we flee from this question, ignoring the emptiness within us, or we fill it with our self. Our “me” becomes the totality of our consciousness. Or we realize that the space within us that is us, but not “me,” might be “you.” And “I,” in the fullest sense, is precisely “me and you.”

Anochi Adonai (I am the Lord): My “I” is “other” — that is, my true nature is plural; a plural unity composed of “me” and “you.”

Kedoshim tehiu ki kadosh ani Adonai Elohechem, You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy. That is, I, the Lord your God, am the “other” that makes you holy (whole, complete, joined, beloved) and you are the other that makes me God.

The binary thinking that divides the world into you and me denies the reality that “me and you” are the “I” of personality.

It is the transcendence of binary thinking that yields the poetic or aphoristic or mystical — not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of allowing us to be called to our authentic nature, our “I,” by the “other” who inhabits us beyond all simple logic and language. This “other” fills the emptiness within and combines with our self, our “I,” to make us fully human. That transcendence
transforms us from mere selves into souls — beings into whom the breath of the other has been breathed.

Modernity is characterized by the sovereignty
of the self. Premodernity was characterized
by submission of the self to the “other.” Postmodernity is emerging as the recognition of the “other” as the completion of the self. It recognizes that in order to fulfill myself, I must live in combination with the other — not merging with or overshadowing the other, but rather living with a kind of interior mutuality. This mutuality begins in the recognition of an obligation, a commandment: “You shall love the other as yourself.” Suddenly, that long enigmatic verse is made clear. It is the other who is “as” yourself in the embrace of consciousness.

Whom do I face? I face the other person: my neighbor, my friend, my lover, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. All beg to be taken into my consciousness so that I might fill the space that is empty from the moment I entered this world in anticipation of the infinite encounters I would have — encounters that would afford me the opportunity to form an infinite  “me and you” that would yield an Infinite “I” — Anochi, “I.”

How does a person prepare herself or himself to become a soul, someone who has been breathed into existence by the “other”? Judaism has developed a literature and practice to facilitate the process of addressing the question, “Whom do I face?” The process of becoming holy — holiness itself — is understood as acting in the world like Avraham and Sarah. We strive to “make” such souls. This process is called mussar, which means discipline. Mussar is both a theory and a practice of discipline in which the individual actively engages with the traits of character that can either push us away from the “other” or bring the “other” close within us. The self that we identify as the “me” is frightened by the encroachment of the “other,” the other person, and responds defensively out of an impulse that the tradition calls yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination). As a necessary defense of the self, this impulse is appropriate. However, it does not completely fill our consciousness. The space within us that is prepared to receive the “other” (the other person and the next other and the next, infinitely extended) is called yetzer ha-tov (the good inclination). Actively restraining and transforming the yetzer ha-ra and cultivating the yetzer ha-tov “makes” the soul and the person with a soul holy — just as Adonai, God, is holy.

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Ira F. Stone has been rabbi of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City Philadelphia since 1988. He established the Mussar Leadership Program at BZBI in 2003. An adjunct instructor in Jewish thought at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is the author of Seeking the Path To Life : Theological Meditations on God and the Nature of People, Love, Life, and Death (Jewish Lights), Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud: An Introduction (JPS), and A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar (Aviv Press). Most recently, Stone contributed an introduction and commentary to Mesillat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright (JPS) by Moses Hayyim Luzzatto.

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