4/04/2006

Identity and Narrative

A while ago, I tried to set out what I thought would be my own principles of faith. I came up with 12. Upon reflection, I recognized what my own criteria were.

It wasn’t about particular beliefs or important theological presumptions. Taken together, they tell a story. That story has implications for me and the way I live my life. My 12 ‘principles’ aren’t principles at all. They form the ‘plot’ of this story, this ‘meta-narrative’, which is the infrastructure of how I see and understand myself and my world.

Meta-narratives form the very fiber of our perception and identity. For example, as I write this, the ADDeRebbetzin slumbers several feet away. Objectively speaking, we are two distinct people, albeit in close proximity. An event took place several years ago which established a formal relationship between us: our wedding. The memory of that event, in our minds and the minds of others, is what generates the reality that we’re married. All of my relationships – with my kids, my car, my house, my job – are predicated upon the shared memory of certain events. Inside this paramount reality, at present, the truth of the event plays a secondary role to the shared memory of it. The ‘plot’ of each of these stories is very simple. With my car it’s ‘this car rolled off the assembly line in 1998, was purchased by x, who sold it to y, who sold it to me. The story explains my possession and is the basis of my ownership. For further illustration, go learn Chezkas Habatim.

Some things are more complicated. When I say “I’m Jewish” (of ‘I’m American’), what exactly am I saying? Answering, ‘well, I was born to Jewish parents’ really is just giving the last installment of the meta-narrative which really cuts to the very core of my being. Where does this story start?

That’s the essence of what we’re trying to do next Wednesday night: rediscover and relive the cardinal events of our story, and doing it in a way that it becomes our children’s story as well. That’s the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim. We don’t do it to remember the facts; we’re telling our story, the story of Israel and God.

There’s a well-known question: what’s the difference between the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim of Pesach and the daily mitzvah of zecher yetziat mitzrayim? It should be clear by now that this question is the equivalent of ‘What’s the difference between an elephant and spaghetti?’ There’s more to that, but perhaps for another post.

This notion of identity as something which is born in a narrative context and of a persistent memory allows us to escape from Judaism’s version of the ‘Ship of Theseus’ problem. The problem is that if there are so many components of Judaism which are constantly being lost and replaced, then in what sense is it still Judaism? In what sense are we rooted or anchored in anything?

If we attempt to answer this paradox by reductionism, by trying to boil Judaism down to its ‘core’, by trying to find that which is ‘authentically Jewish’, then we’ll be left with a desiccated set of dogmas and truisms, if anything at all. It leaves the definition of Judaism in the hands of the historians and archaeologists who have demonstrated over the past two centuries, if nothing else, that they are unequal to the task. The final chapter of Yerushalmi's Zakhor is perhaps the most honest appraisal of this situation. The great modern reductionist enterprise is ending in a dismal failure.

Fortunately, our identity is rooted in something else. We inherit the ship from our fathers along with an intuitive sense of how to make adjustments for faulty mechanisms and different climates before handing the wheel over to our own children. I doubt that I’ll be telling them the exact same story that my Zaydie told me. But I’m confident that his story is now my story, and that I can find a way to make that story my kids’ story.

[GH- You wanted to know what I thought about your posts on 'the Real Modern Orthodox'. Well, you probably don't want to hear everything that my right brain has to say, but this is the first part of my answer].
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