Friday, October 27, 2006

Graven Images and the Law of Anti-Idolatry

An Amish couple in Pittsburgh recently filed a lawsuit (something the Amish don't typically do) against the federal government for requiring them to provide photographs for immigration purposes. (Read it) The husband, a Canadian citizen, wishes to become a permanent resident so that he ultimately can become a citizen. As a result of increasing threats of terrorism, the government has stopped making exceptions based on religion, and so the Amish husband is forced to grapple with this dilemma: provide immigration officials with a photograph of himself or risk deportation.

Why do the Amish have a problem with photographs? Because, according to their beliefs, photographs violate one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Now, of course, I wish that the government could accommodate them in their beliefs, and not force them to provide photographs. But let's say the government says, "No, I'm sorry, sir, you have to provide a photograph, or we will deport you, while your wife and two children remain here, now husband and fatherless."

It seems to me that the ethical decision would be to bear down and smile for the camera -- because the alternative, deportation, inflicts great damage on other people, the family who will be left alone. It becomes a question of what is going to be more upsetting to God -- the fact that you took one photograph, or the fact that you allowed your family to be left without a father and husband?

I have seen this far too often in religious communities -- people privileging the laws and rules over the number one Commandment in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament: Love your Neighbor. In fact, the bible is full of examples of what not to do, examples of what happens when you privilege (or idolize) a commandment over the welfare of another human being.

Take Abraham, the great Patriarch, for example. When faced with the ultimate ethical dilemma -- murder your son at the behest of a voice from heaven in order to prove your love for God, or spare the life of your child, your gift from God -- Abraham would rather listen to voices from heaven, and blindly and unquestioningly follows orders, than actually think critically about what, really, God would want him to do. Abraham idolizes a commandment over the ethical, over the life of his son. And though ultimately Abraham's son Isaac is spared (another voice from heaven stops Abraham), he is forever traumatized, and we see this play out in the dysfunction of Isaac's own family, and his sons' families. Isaac, perhaps the first poster boy for PTSD, never really gets off the sacrificial altar, never really recovers from the pain of realizing that his father could easily have killed him in order to honor an arbitrary commandment.

It's a paradigm that, in many ways, still haunts us even today. But it should be common sense: the lives of your children, and their wellbeing, should come first.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Phenomenology of Eros

Levinas always resonates with me, but tonight as I was finishing Totality and Infinity, I kept coming back to these passages:

"Alongside of the night as anonymous rustling of the there is extends the night of the erotic, behind the night of insomnia the night of the hidden, the clandestine, the mysterious, land of the virgin, simultaneously uncovered by Eros and refusing Eros -- another way of saying: profanation" (258).

"The caress aims at neither a person nor a thing. It loses itself in a being that dissipates as though into an impersonal dream without will and even without resistance, a passivity, an already animal or infantile anonymity, already entirely at death" (259).

"Love is not reducible to a knowledge mixed with affective elements which would open to it an unforeseen plane of being. It grasps nothing, issues in no concept, does not issue, has neither the subject-object structure nor the I-thou structure. Eros is not accomplished as a subject that fixes an object, nor as a pro-jection, toward a possible. Its movement consists in going beyond the possible" (261).

What am I most struck by? The idea of love as profanation. I suppose it feels like that sometimes, does it not? But Levinas does not really, that I can see, propose an alternative to this profanation. This is where I wish I knew more Kierkegaard. And I have another thought: you can only love the person whose face you can see. I think this is the difference between love for another person, and obsession with that same person.

This is so depressing and dark. Looks like I'm back to my old ways of looking at the world.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Eliot Epstein on Halloween

Yes, my dog's name is Eliot Epstein. And, yes, he is going to be a witch for Halloween this year.