8/04/2005

Superstructures of Knowledge

There's a concept that I've found very useful in understanding how Judaism can seem to demand consciousness of many things at the same time (examples will be mentioned throughout the post). I first heard this idea from REB of Gush, have applied it to a number of contexts, to the point that I think it relates directly to some of the Torah's overarching goals, yet remains completely neglected.

I'll call the idea 'superstructures of knowledge' because I think it relates to what that term has come to mean in sociology, though this application will be a bit different.

The example that REB used was from the sugya of 'Moda'ah' (disclaimers) in Bava Batra. If a person is forced to give something away, to divorce his wife, to marry a man, etc., he or she may issue a 'disclaimer' beforehand, notifying two witnesses that the transaction that he is about to enter is being affected under duress, and therefore invalid. However, there's such a thing as a 'counter-disclaimer' in which one issues notice that he is not acting under duress. This can get pretty complicated, because a person can also issue a notice that his notice of non-duress is being issued under duress. The Rishonim discuss what happens if a person makes an 'infinite disclaimer' (i.e., "no matter how many times I say I'm not under duress, I'm under duress"), followed by an 'infinite bittul (no matter how many times I said I'm under duress, I reject each and every one of those statements"). Those Rishonim who say that the disclaimer remains intact, REB, used the following logic (I shold really look this back up in the Rishonim and the Gemara; maybe another time):
How are we to understand a moda'ah? Is it a disclaimer of future actions, essentially telling us to disregard later actions? Or is it deeper - instructing us to view everything that ensues through the context that the moda'ah creates. If the former, then words can counterbalance words. If the latter, then anything that's said later is interpreted under the rubric established by the first Moda'ah! All subsequent statements are interpreted through the prism of the moda'ah. It's not coordinate with all other statements. In other words, it becomes part of the 'superstructure of knowledge', whereas all other discourse takes place in a 'substructure of knowledge'.

Another example: There are certain mitzvot, such as matza and tzitzit, whose objects must be created lishmah - for the purpose of that mitzvah.
Anyone who has ever made tzitzit or seen the old ladies bake matzah knows that this requirement is taken very seriously. Regarding Tzitzit, before tying the first know one will inevitably recite the formula of le-shem mitzvat tzitzit and bring the fact that this is for tzitzit to the fore of his consciousness. With matzah, a similar formula is muttered from the time the water hits the dough until it enters the oven.

That's not the requirement. Lishmah doesn't mandate that things must be in the forefront of consciousness, i.e., in the substructures of knowledge. Rather, it should be in the superstructure. I must relate to my current context as one of creating the object of a particular mitzvah. Awareness of the context will generate the appropriate attitude and behavior. Think about driving a car - if I constantly thought, over and over, 'I'm driving my car to go to the supermarket, I'm driving my car to go to the supermarket', I'd probably get into an accident. My knowledge of purpose can fade into the background, but my behavior will continue to actualize that knowledge.

Moving to deeper examples - there's a famous Midrash that refers to Yir'at Shamayim as a 'preservative' of Torah study. The Nefesh Ha-Chaim discusses this at length in Gate 4, as part of the discussion about the lishmah of Torah and its relationship to Yir'at Shamayim. He makes a similar case - Yir'at Shamayim doesn't mean that one must be enraptured in awe of God while studying Torah. Rather, the entire enterprise of Torah study must exist as a substructure within a superstructure of Yir'ah. This is what it means that Yir'ah is the 'Origin of Wisdom (Reishit Chokhmah)'. Torah study within this context is thus no less of an intellectual and critical endeavor than an 'objective' academic study that remains 'untainted' by dogma. The difference is in the context - one is in a religious context, the other is not. One is an act of communion, as it is never divorced from its context of Yir'ah, and the other is not. 'Religion' doesn't affect Torah study at the level of the substructure (i.e., I don't say, well, you can say X, but that would go against dogma Y), rather, if the entire endeavor is within a context of Yir'ah, a certain attitude toward the text is built-in. I would add that superstructures can come in the form of a meta-narrative, which, in this case, can mean that the individual act of Torah study happens in the context of the ever-present script of the Sinaitic Revelation. Again, I don't need to actively think about it in order for it to be a part of that, as long as the Sinai narrative is a superstructure of my knowledge.

Vaiter - what are fundamentals of faith? Are they dogma? Things I must profess belief in to be included in a particualr club? Catechism? I think not.
Rather, they form the over-arching story of who I am and what I'm part of. They're those elements which, if one of them isdenied, then the story of myself no longer makes sense. They form the superstructure of my entire existence, the context in which I can begin to understand myself. Every person has fundamental beliefs, but not all are aware of them. They are not to be formulated, rather discovered. All of my actions are somehow rooted in that preconsciousness that I'm Jewish, part of a group that was selected by God, Who created the world, to fulfill a particular mission, etc... I don't need to recite these beliefs regularly, or memorize them, or check new data against them. They are part and parcel of what makes me me, or what makes us us. I'd say that a 'fundamental' is that which lies at the top of the superstructural hierarchy of religious knowledge - those things that 'knowing' then means that I will not look as the world the same.

We all talk about relationships, and in a religious context especially, about a relationship with God, and it usually involves images of scrunched-up faces or smily, happy people. The Chassidim came up with the innovation of saying special prayers, 'Le-shem Yichud's before every religious act, so that it's celebrated and incorporated into that relationship.
In human relationships, not everything is a candle-light dinner, not should it be. When I take out the garbage or change a smelly diaper, it's an expression of my relationship with the ADDeRebbetzin. I don't dance on the way to the dumpster, singing about how by taking out the trash, I'm actualizing our relationship, waxing all romantic about how this brings our love to a new level, one step closer to the ultimate fulfillment, blah, blah, blah. I don't even think consciously that I'm doing it as part of our relationship, just as I'm sure that she doesn't while she's folding my socks (well, if you've seen my socks, maybe you'd disagree. my undershirts, ok?). Being in a REAL relationship means that you rarely have the opportunity to get starry-eyed, but that it's a very real part of your life and day-to-day existence, informing nearly everything you do. In fact, I'd evaluate a strong marriage based upon the mutuality of living one life, even if one spouse is buying groceries while the other washes dishes. Of copurse, intimacy is a necessary ingredient - romance and lovemaking in a marriage, prayer and Torah study in a relationship with God (those analogies are VERY purposeful), but the relationship only becomes functional when it becomes the backbone of life itself. I think that in our religious world, too much emphasis has been put on the romance - the substructure - and not enough on the 'particulars of rapture' - the superstructure.

Finally, there's one concept, central to Judaism and all other religions, which I believe we make a big mistake about when we relegate it to our substructures of knowledge. The concept is - belief in God. Steg said it well when he defined belief as 'looking at the world through God-colored glasses'. Belief isn't something I hold; it's something I'm held by. Beleif is not binary - an up/down yes/no proposition about whether or not I accept something as true. The more my knowledge of God penetrates the superstructures of my knowledge, the greater is my 'belief'. [How does that happen? Well, Chazal believed that making brachot has a lot to do with it, but that's a topic for another time.] Belief doesn't mean thinking 'God, God, God' all the time. That's not what 'Shvisi' is all about. It means that there is no event for which He is not the context, that all of my knowledge of myself, the world, etc. falls without God-knowledge as its base and context, where doubting God's Reality is one and the same as doubting the reality of anything and everything else. Becoming a greater ma'amin isn't just about being 99.7% sure instead of being 90% sure. It's about transforming the very lenses with which one sees the world into ones which not only see God in everything, but can't conceive of anything without Him, much as we can't see anything without light. This is an avodah. This is Shvisi H' Le-negdi tamid.
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