Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fracture for Fracture

I've been working on my presentation for the North American Levinas Society conference, which will be held in Toulouse, France, July 3-9. The conference centers thematically on Levinas's Difficult Freedom--a collection of his essays on Judaism, and a book that gets a reading from me simply because of its magnificent title. It's easier, and cleaner, to long for freedom, rather than experience it. When we have it, we rail against it, knocking our heads against the responsibility that always accompanies it.

My presentation is basically a reading of the photography of both Zion Ozeri--whose work I've been a fan of for many years--and Adi Nes, whose work is interesting but problematic for me. Levinas says that "The face speaks," and when I first encountered the faces in Ozeri's work, I knew that I would one day do a Levinasian reading of his work, which I found so completely and utterly compelling.

But I've been re-reading bits and pieces of Difficult Freedom as I think through this new project. And tonight, as I absentmindedly flipped through the book, I began to read "An Eye for an Eye." Leviticus 24:17 reads:

"He who kills a man shall be put to death. He who kills a beast shall make it good, life for a life. When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured..."

This "eye for an eye" phrase might very well be the most destructive phrase ever, given the way it has enabled and justified vengeance and malice throughout the centuries. We imagine that there's something good about this perverse understanding of balance--that wrongs are somehow righted or obliterated if they are carried out on a parallel plane of some sort. Let's say a man kills my child, and is given a death sentence as a consequence. It still isn't balanced, not with regard to me anyway. He took my child. Who will take his?

What we think is a morality lesson about justice and balance is really a complex moment in Torah that begs another re-reading. Rather than show us how to balance the scale of transgressions, the phrase "an eye for an eye" actually shows us that balance is impossible to obtain.

You blind me, and in turn you are, at my insistence, blinded. Are we equal? Perhaps. But I have now taken something from your lover. I have stolen from her those rare moments when you would gaze on her face--the only moments in which she understood the depth of your love for her. Who will avenge her? Who will give her an eye?

A fracture for a fracture: it ruptures us all to the very core, splitting us wide open.

In a move, near the end of the essay, that sounds dangerously close to the words of the New Testament's Paul, Levinas writes:

We must save the spirit of our codes by modifying their letter. The Bible reminds us of the spirit of kindness. The Bible speeds up the movement that brings us a world without violence, but if money or excuses could repair everything and leave us with a free conscience, the movement would be given a misinterpretation. Yes, eye for eye. Neither all eternity, nor all the money in the world, can heal the outrage done to man. It is a disfigurement or would that bleeds for all time, as though it required a parallel suffering to staunch this eternal haemorrhage ( 148).

There is no balance, no justice, no reparation--not really, anyway. Nothing "can heal the outrage done to man." Perhaps we might look for something other than healing or balance or justice.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

We Are But Replicas

I'm reading Alex Epstein's Blue Has No South:

He never told her that once, he woke up above the ocean without a shred of a memory of who he was. When he landed, he adjusted to local time the watch that he wore on his right hand...passed the border inspection, and began collecting information about his life: his name on a passport under an outdated photo, his unshaven face reflected in the restroom mirror, his address in a telephone book, the gifts for his children in a suitcase...the cigarette he hadn't managed to finish on the sidewalk outside the terminal...His voice was strange to him, but he tried his best to keep it from breaking when he opened the apartment door with the key he said in his coat pocket and said: "I'm here--at that moment he hoped in vain that nobody would be there, and he would have more time to get to know them better--"it's me" ("More on the Return of Odysseus" 17).

Epstein is one of the more interesting young Jewish writers who has recently made his debut in the literary world. He's one of a growing number of immigrants from Russia (to either the US or Israel; Lara Vapnyar, Sana Krasikov, Gary Shteyngart, etc.) who, writing from a post-Soviet perspective, are creating fiction that is vastly different from their contemporary Jewish literary counterparts, and more reminiscent of the likes of Kafka or Babel.

But I also happen to have recently read Etgar Keret's The Girl on the Fridge, which also uses the "flash fiction" format. In other words, both Keret's and Epstein's books are full of 1-2 page stories--entire stories told in just a few sentences. It seems perfect for a generation of people who live for soundbites and brief Internet blurbs.

But that isn't what I really want to talk about.

I happened to read the above passage from Epstein's book just a few days after I had attended a panel on prayer at a local Orthodox shul. During the discussion, one of the rabbis remarked upon the possibility that when we pray, we are merely imitating ourselves. And, of course, in the passage above, we see a man going through the motions of his life, learning to imitate himself, hoping that one day the mimicry becomes the reality.

But what I fear, of course, is that we are always our shadow at best, that reality is but its shadow. We are replicas of something more real than real.

Today, a friend said that he wondered how it would change the behavior of people in a shul, if instead of being made out of concrete or something ornate, a shul was constructed so that it appeared as if we were praying before the Kotel. And then he stopped himself short, taking my thought off of my tongue, and said, "But I know. You don't like replicas."

He's right, of course: I don't like replicas. I find them theoretically and ethically distasteful; they claim to bring us close to something, but really they just drive a wedge in between us and the original. I smiled the kind of smile that only materializes when I feel the intimacy of someone having just read my mind, and I said, "No, I don't."

But I was reminded of Epstein's passage, and of the rabbi's image of men and women davening, struggling to imitate themselves as they pray. And I wondered if I shouldn't learn to love replicas after all.