Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Hillel, Buber – and Debbie Friedman!

August 24, 2015

Hillel said:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Buber said:
To begin with oneself but not to end with oneself.

One question, one statement: each of great importance to me. Reflecting, comparing them, it’s clear Buber (early 20th century) goes further, yet Hillel (around 100 BCE to 10 BCE) is more challenging. Is not the question form, in itself, preferable in teaching and learning?

Hillel insists that charity – caritas – begins at home; Buber assumes it and moves forward.

But this is only the first of three aphorisms from each of them.

Hillel asks another question: If I am only for myself, what am I? 

Here he moves definitively in the same direction as Buber (and, surely, it is hard to imagine that Buber was not influenced by him?)

Again, here also Hillel asks a question causing us to pause and think. As Eugene Heimler suggested, Judaism’s genius resides in posing questions: is not the Talmud essentially based upon them? Though is that not also the Socratic method?

So, where does Buber now go?
To start from oneself but not aim at oneself

Another statement with a nod to Socrates’ “Know thyself!” And here again: the move towards the Other.

Might it be that Hillel’s initial emphasis on the self also presupposes self-awareness, self-knowledge? Are the two men, at this point, though differently, suggesting very similar ways of living? They are not done, however: where next?

Hillel said: And if not now, when?

Another question, with emphasis on the immediate present but what is asked of us: reflection? Action? Whatever it might be: today is the day. Nietzsche’s eternally recurring present: Live as if the present moment were to repeat itself for ever. I Am That I Am.

So what is Buber’s third aphorism? I forgot, I could not remember. I waited with baited breath till I could check. I was so excited. Buber has been my hero for so long. I have never compared Hillel and Buber in this way before. What was Buber’s ‘clincher’ to be? What was he going to add? To comprehend oneself but not be preoccupied with oneself.

I was so disappointed. Where Hillel progresses, stage by stage, from Self, to Other to Now, Buber merely repeats himself in different words. Further, the brilliance of Hillel’s questioning is replaced with the traditional teacher’s statement by Buber.

The only compensation is my added respect for Hillel – not, to be accurate, ‘Rabbi’ Hillel, since Hillel though a teacher (together with his contemporary adversary, Shammai) predates the period of such titles (the first use of the term being about 200 CE – that is ‘Christian Era’: a terminology used by Jews who find it a bit difficult to term the current era “AD”, i.e. the year of our Lord).

That’s it for today. Except, do take the time to listen to Debbie Friedman, the gifted American artist who died so young a couple of years ago. Her setting and exposition of Hillel’s words, her ability to inspire all of us, to make us think and question and act, illuminate the text. While listening or better, even, afterwards, do take a further look at a good article on Hillel:

Oh: and you might look here also I cried as I read it: I remember Debbie so well and value her contribution to Jewish life so highly…


August 22, 2015

I have been thinking about conversations between two or more people and what it is that goes on in them.

This interest has been partly stimulated by Irvin Yalom’s novel, When Nietzsche Wept, which I have just finished reading while holidaying with friends.

Sociability, of course, feeds a human need. Excluding clearly purposive interchanges such as between doctor and patient or teaching, or exchange of recipe information (though even that may in fact fulfil wider conversational needs) conversation occurs in an almost infinite variety of potential ways.

Wikipedia [] helpfully groups them in four categories:

  • Conversations about subjective ideas, which often serve to extend understanding and awareness
  • Conversations about objective facts, which may serve to consolidate a widely held view.
  • Conversations about other people (usually absent), which may be either critical, competitive, or supportive. This includes gossip.
  • Conversations about oneself, which may be attention-seeking or can provide relevant information to participants in the conversation.

Might this blog be a form of conversation? Certainly any number of topics are possible and though one person starts, there is hope for response!

A 2006 article from The Economist [] quotes Cicero’s “On Duties” (44BC). He states that no-one has set down the rules for conversation as they have for Public Speaking and therefore is determined to do so. He is pretty comprehensive in what he covers:

“Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper”

Yalom’s novel delves into the subject rather more deeply. Based upon imaginary meetings between Lou Andreas Salomé, Josef Breuer (Freud’s mentor) and Nietzsche, it emerges from Yallom’s own vast psychotherapeutic knowledge and experience. The plot is well conceived. Nietzsche, at this time in 1882, entirely unknown, wracked by migraines and multiple symptoms is tricked by Lou into consulting with Breuer, Vienna’s leading physician.
The two men are each entrapped in their unrealised sexual fantasies – in Nietzsche’s case to Lou Andreas Salomé and in Breuer’s to Berthe Pappenheim, better known as Anna O.  Nietzsche, however, far from seeking sociability, flees from it. Why

The novel is excellently conceived both as an introduction to the early practice and theory of psychoanalysis and to the developing philosophical ideas and output of Nietzsche. It could be that Yalom’s ability as a story teller is less well developed and the novel seems to drag in places.

On the other hand, it may simply be that I wanted to return to conversation with my friends. In any case, following Cicero, I will not speak too much in case you want your turn…?

Time is given into our keeping.

August 20, 2015

Paradoxically it seems that the fuller and richer the experience of a day or hour, the more intensively it is lived inasmuch as every moment is precious and special, the faster it passes. 

Surely it should be the opposite? We might expect that the emptier, the least satisfying our day, the faster it would go, rather like a deflated balloon without substance. But in such a case, time drags. 

If ‘time is given into our keeping’, we are conflicted. It might appear that the more fully and deeply we live, the more quickly therefore death hurtles towards us. But is an endless, miserable, emotionally poverty-stricken life preferable? 

What, then, is our responsibility or, as Holt (Http:// would have it – responsability, (distinguishing through this spelling judgement from capacity). We are responsible when we take and accept our responsability for our choices and decisions – for how we choose to live. 

‘Time is given into our keeping’, then, means that time is not something that happens to us but something in which we also play our part, every moment of every day. Here we distinguish between the circle of the natural cycle of seasons, where plants and animals live in timelessness and man’s entry into and making of history, especially through stories, the telling of deeds. 

Language, perhaps preceded by music, rhythm and etchings becomes necessary to extend our memory which of itself only stretches back at most three or four generations. Language, like time (the two of course are interwoven) is equally something which is given to us and which we also make. In doing so we both uncover and create our world. We live, therefore, in a world which we both inherit and make.

These days, though my appearance is incontrovertibly ‘Jewish’ (mainly Ashkenazi with Sephardi skin tones), there is little, it seems to me, to suggest that I am a rabbi. Neither my daily life, rituals and practice, nor my choice of language – expressions, quotations – would lead anyone to guess that, someway below the surface, Bible, Talmud, midrash, Jewish thought and practice deeply inform my thinking and action.

Over the past twenty years, the profound issues which face us all, the secular humanism which appears dominant in British society together with the shortsightedness of multiple Israeli governments have led me superficially to loosen the hold of Jewish particularism and plunge myself into the maelstrom of the present, that present in which alone can we meet “I am That I Am”, that eternal Being, the present in which (whom?) we all live. 

Of course, such a plunge carries with it both loss of the past, of ‘tradition’ and therefore the very real possibility of drowning, of losing oneself. To maintain perspective, as Hannah Arendt beautifully observes in her reflection upon Kafka’s parable “He” (see, for example, it is necessary to step out of time and think, which, in itself deepens our observations and enriches our experience. But death?