zaterdag 4 oktober 2008

Kol Nidrei and other illusions

Sometimes it happens that people are open to someone else’s distress, at the moment it becomes clear to them that they injured that other. Such is the central thesis which the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas elaborates in his books.

Among the many injuries which people inflict upon one another, Levinas’s attention is primarily directed towards, what he calls, the ‘violence of thinking’. This violence appears where one person thinks for another and this other doesn’t like it. It is a kind of intrusion, Levinas calls it ‘imperialism’. The thinker can dwell in the euphoric illusion that he helps the other. But the injury which the other incurs because of the thinker’s obtrusiveness can vary from humiliation to the feeling to be pressed into a corner. When the thinker notices this he can be startled by his own illusions and adjust his behaviour.

When I talk with people about this Levinasian thesis, they often recognize the phenomenon and they can point to concrete experiences of it in their own lives. But at the same time they often ask: why are there also people who do nót let themselves be directed by the distress they cause with another; who just keep going their own sovereign way and do as they please with their obtrusive plans? What causes that one person may be sensitive for the injury being done to the Face (as Levinas calls it) and another person is not?

Every time again I find this an intriguing question and I don’t have an answer to it.

Some Levinas-students think you can train this sensitivity. For instance by listening seriously to others and practising this competence. I think this is not a wrong suggestion, because by doing so you develop a kind of alertness regarding illusions in which you may be trotting on and transgressing borders.

Actually, the value of Day of Atonement for me lies precisely in its contribution to that training: to bring to mind, via a specially marked day and an overwhelming liturgy, where and when I lapsed into error. To be able to do so we need a special language and Yom Kippur’s liturgy offers that language. From this perspective Day of Atonement may be regarded as a training in sensitivity, because a whole day long you are immersed in that language.

Yet, I keep being sceptical about the suggestion that we can get rid of our illusions by such training. For illusions are simply inherent to our thinking. So, as long as we don’t give up thinking (and I would not recommend that) illusions will keep popping up and with them the injuries which they cause. I certainly believe that reflection on the effects of our thinking and acting produces progress, also in our thinking. But at the same time I am convinced that we will keep being surprised by our illusions and unwantingly will continue to injure people because of them.

The nice thing is that scepsis as to the possibility of countering illusions also got its place in the liturgy of Yom Kippur. Namely in the Kol Nidrei, where we direct our attention to promises (to conceive of as euphoric intentions or illusions) which in the future we certainly will break.

Far from offering a license for randomly making and breaking promises – as this text has been interpreted by malevolents - the Kol Nidrei herewith testifies of realism and of a deep insight into the treacherous nature of human thinking. From this perspective the pronouncing of the Kol Nidrei is to be seen as a training in sensitivity.

Yom Kippur may be the heaviest training in sensitivity of the Jewish yearcycle. But immediately afterwards it gets a continuation, in a lighter style, with Sukkot. The tent (Sukkah) which is open to all sides, as Abraham’s tent was, according to Levinas is a model of sensitivity and as such, for him, of human conscience.