Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 5/20

I agree we tend to complicate things needlessly. I also agree that the commandment against stealing can be applied to the other commandments as well. Indeed, if we are going to say that we shouldn’t take that which does not belong to us, we should also ask, “What does belong to us?”

The earth doesn’t belong to me, but I to the earth. My body doesn’t belong to me: indeed there may be no “me” separate from the body. Even my thoughts and feelings aren’t really mine either. Most of “my” thoughts and feelings arise seemingly of their own accord and I just notice them and then have to deal with them.

Along the same lines, everything I know I learned from someone else. I am obliged to say I have never had an original thought, though this fact does not preclude others—Isaiah, Buddha, St. Paul, and Einstein to name but four— from having them.

It is this aspect of “You shall not steal” that leads to the rabbinic mandate to honor your teachers by citing your sources. We see this all the time in the rabbinic literature where one rabbi speaks in the name of his teacher, often taking the older teaching in a new direction but never forgetting that his wisdom rests on that of his teachers.

This is the back story to Mark 7:28-29, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus spoke without reference to his teachers, whereas the scribes and Pharisees would always speak in the name of their teachers or the older prophets.

This has always troubled me. I have been told that Jesus spoke this way because his teachings were new, but as a student of first century Judaism and having taught university courses in the historical Jesus, it is clear that while teachings about Jesus were new (though even here there seems to be parallels with if not borrowing from the religions of Greece and even Babylon), the teachings of Jesus were, by and large, not new. Jesus stood largely within Hillel’s liberal wing of Pharisaic Judaism.

I understand that the Gospel writers sought to separate Jesus from his rabbis and Judaism, and I have no problem believing that they simply left out Jesus’ references to his teachers in order to strengthen their argument that Jesus was something new. But in my own mind, I still imagine him building his teaching on the foundation of his rabbis and honoring them by name as he did so.

This tradition of honoring our teachers takes a delightful twist at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where the classroom podiums from which professors taught bore the names of those professors who taught there before them. The seminary was only a bit over one hundred years old, so there were not that many names, and one hundred years in a 4000 year–old tradition is nothing, but I found it moving nonetheless.

Decades later when I received the title “rebbe” from my Rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, he recited the names of his rabbinic lineage beginning with the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of Hasidic Judaism. The recitation followed the metaphor of a chain with each name being a new link. Reb Zalman added his name to the chain and then, in a moment that reduced me to tears, added mine as well.

None of us lives or thinks in isolation. We are all part of a lineage rooted in God. To take anything without permission, to use anything without giving thanks, is to violate the deepest meaning of the Eighth Commandment. When we truly understand the meaning of “You shall not steal” we realize that all we have—indeed all we are— is a gift from God. Humility, it seems to me, is the gift this Commandment brings.


AaronHerschel said...

As an academic in the Humanties, I am extremely familiar with the principal of citation you mention, adn though I rather resent the picadillos of MLA style, I love the principal of acknowledging our debts--intellectual, spiritual etc--to those who came before us. And yet I question this issue of permission. Who can grant me permission to use an idea or turn of phrase? Especially since, when I do so, I typically am taking such things from authors who are long since dead. I can't ask Kafka, for example, if it's ok that I borrow the phrase "like a dog" for use in a poem.

Even more problematic is the issue of ownership you bring up. I cannot legitemately claim to own anything, since consciousness exists as an overlay and only apprehends experience and emotion and thought. These things are not mine either. So who can grant me permission to use them? Who has the authority (pun intended)?

The implication here is two fold. One, we are all inveterate thieves. The mind itself, consciousness, memory, is a thief, taking as its own--without choice or sin--anything given to it by the senses. Two, sensual, spiritual, and intellectual experience, including the language and ideas of others (copyright notwithstanding) are free gifts, availalble to all of us. With that in mind, one might say that only the claim of ownership is truly theft. Take that, capitalism!

AaronHerschel said...

I've been rethinking the question of what I can claim to "own," and I've come up with an answer at odds with my previous claim. Here it is: I own my story. Not my memories, or the events themselves, but the story I tell (and retell)myself about my life. Not that this story is one thing. In fact, it changes constantly. But the process of stringing together experiences and making meaning out of them. That is mine.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami: I love the idea of "owning your story." The elements of the story are givens, but how you arrange them and the meanings you derive from them is yours.

Now, since you own your story, you can change it. I would argue that is what psychotherapy is all about. We can't change the elements of the story, but we can change the story we create from them and the meanings we derive from the story. The task of the therapist is to help you reinvent your story.

And, since you own and can change the story, you can drop the story altogether. This is a question more than an assertion: Can you live without a story? This is the challenge Krishnamurti places before us?

I think that there are moments when the story drops away and we are radically, awesomely, fearsomely, free. My own experience is that that freedom is spontaneous and temporary; an act of fierce grace from outside my egoic mind that is never story-free, and is in fact addicted to story.

I would suggest that if therapy should be about learning how to create more healthy, fearless, loving stories; religion should be about how to live, if only for a moment, without story altogether.