4/25/2009

Imagining a Conversation with my Former Self

I had Shabbat lunch with a KBY “shana alef” student (as well as several others) today. We ended up engaging in a prolonged and broad discussion about a number of issues, from Rambam’s view of women and R’ Yehuda Halevi’s essentialism to the Brisker Derech to the authorship and structure of classical rabbinic tests. In many ways, I felt like I was having a conversation with a former version of myself (that’s obviously a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point). That’s probably why I was much more patient and understanding of some of the positions this student espoused: I remember my own evolution, how my own worldview evolved during my years at Yavneh (and through the years in YU, Gush, and since; intellectual restlessness is, in my opinion, one of the greatest advantages and disadvantages of having ADD).

I remember latching on to certain ideas that became monoliths in my maturing mind, only to have them replaced at some later date with another. I remember the constant construction and demolition of these conceptual edifices; having a hammer and thinking that the whole world looks like a nail (more yeshivish version: having a chakira and then seeing it in every Tosafos in the mesechta); thinking that it’s really possible to find the unified theory of life/ Torah/ Judaism/ God, that all of halakha, history, and Torah can be somehow merged into a seamless and harmonious whole, and that finding that grand harmony is somehow within reach; stewing in my own juices as I bounced ideas off of Rabbeim and, more importantly, friends.

I know that this kid’s thinking will evolve. There were ideas that I hesitated to present to him because, frankly, I know how I would have reacted to them (i.e., negatively) had I been in his shoes. It will come, but in due time.

This actually got me thinking. What would I have thought of my current self had I met me 15 years ago? Or even 10 years ago? Had I met that later version of myself walking down the street, how long would it have taken for me to realize “Hey, that’s future me!”? Would I have liked what I saw? Would I have been disappointed that many of the grandiose dreams (that we all had in our late teens and early 20s) seemed to have died? Would I have been shocked that I became a baalebos – one who no doubt learns a good amount, often gets to work with Torah on a professional basis, and even maintains an entertaining and well-read religious-themes blog – but a baalebos nonetheless? Would I think that I’m an apikorus? Would I be shocked that I’m living in a bourgeoisie hell (I had the opportunity to make a ha-Tov ve-haMeitiv at lunch today, and before the bracha I made a ‘l’chaim’ to having good friends and neighbors to suffer with in our bourgeoisie hell, so the phrase is on my mind)? Would I be disappointed that I’ve given up the search for the unified theory of everything and become content that certain questions are unanswerable, that dissonance and difference lurk everywhere, that Jewish meaning is constructed in a manner that, to recycle an old saying about women, can be beautiful or faithful, but rarely both?

I’m not going to lose any sleep over these questions. This is a thought experiment – perhaps conditioned on the fact that I’ve recently read both The Time Traveler's Wife
and The Five People You Meet in Heaven
. I ultimately think that, for most of us, to meet an older, fatter, balder, and less passionate version of one’s self would be like a cold shower. I’d want to give myself food for thought, a way to expand horizons, and maybe some good books to read. I would definitely not want to be too dismissive, obnoxious, or condescending (which I totally would have been had it been nearly anyone else, especially a shana alef Gushie).

And I’d tell myself to enjoy the ride.

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