Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning in Reverse

Just a few days ago was the end of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which marks the giving of Torah, or commandment, to the people. Shavuot has been--at least for the past 3 or 4 years--my favorite Jewish holiday because it is all about two things: staying up all night (literally) and learning Torah and eating cheesecake. That's pretty much it for me in this life.

But...this notion of Commandment being given to us. These days I can hardly think about Commandment without thinking of Kieslowski's The Decalogue--a 10-part film series that aired on Polish television in the 1980s. We're given the Torah, and we don't know what to do with it. In each of Kieslowski's films, one of the Ten Commandments is explored, but often it is difficult to tell which it is that the film seeks to depict. "Thou shalt not kill" bleeds into "Honor your father and mother," and so on and so forth. Ambiguity, in this postmodern context, seems to trump Halakhic specificity.

And I'm grateful that this is so. Kieslowski paints the world as it is, while, perhaps, the biblical Decalogue gives us the framework for how the world should be--that is, how simple it should be to decipher between "right" and "wrong." Today I spent some time re-reading Franz Rosenzweig's On Jewish Learning, which I hadn't looked at in years:

A new "learning" is about to be born--rather, it has been born. It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time...From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.

Learning in reverse--that's what we're doing. I suppose the question is whether our actions will take us forward instead of back to where started. But let me spin it again, and say that I'm not quite sure whether it isn't backward that we should be moving. I don't know the beginning from the end, the past from the future: they are all continuous with each other, and with me. Because, you see, if we return to our origins, we return to creation and revelation. But we also return to violence, void, and the chaotic: all the rumblings of birth and change. If I could split myself in two, I would move in both directions until I arrived at the place where my two halves would be conjoined again, this time for good.

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