Deconstructing a Biblical Text through Midrash–A Derridean Approach

Studying the philosopher Jacques Derrida is never for the squeamish of heart.  When you read his writings, you have to wonder why he can’t seem to formulate his ideas in a more straight-forward language. Derrida almost  always writes in the idiom of  “doublespeak.”  What exactly is “doublespeak,” you might ask? Doublespeak  is language constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning—it is the language of ambiguity; it is also the language of punsters.

Well, one of my friends thought that Derrida sometimes wrote his ideas while he was under the influence of drugs. But like his friend Emanuel Levinas, both of  their philosophical writing styles invite the reader to think more deeply into what they are attempting to say. Philosophers, since the time of the Greek mystic Heraclitus, love speaking in the language of enigma. Kant and Spinoza are not much different. Sometimes I have to take an Excedrin tablet or two whenever attempting  to plow through  their obtuse ideas.

Derrida’s Spatial Philosophy

Derrida argues that all Western thought is based upon the idea of a center, or an origin, a Truth, and Ideal Form, a Fixed Point, an Immovable Mover or Essence, a God, a Presence, all of which are capitalized. The problem with centers, is that they all tend to exclude, repress and marginalize anything that is Other. Thus, in male-oriented societies, man is central, while the woman is the marginalized “Other”; she is repressed, ignored and pushed to the margins. Deconstruction is a tactic which the center is “decentered” which enables the marginalized to become central thus overthrowing (at least temporarily) the hierarchy. Thus there is no truth, only interpretation — and all interpretations, Derrida asserts, are socially constructed.

I often thought about Derrida’s idiosyncratic  idea whenever I study the Talmud, a work that this full of thousands of rabbinic discussions; it is a pity this great work of Jewish literature almost never included rabbinic dialogues with women within the  margins of the text. Sometimes the boundaries of the Talmudic text almost appear like a fence or hedge. Continue reading “Deconstructing a Biblical Text through Midrash–A Derridean Approach”

Getting Caught in the Web of Desire . . .

The covetous road often entangles numerous other prohibition in its web. Below is a famous medieval parable about the dangers of coveting, and how the covetous person may ultimately get much more than he originally bargained.

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On Shabbat eve, he went and broke down the wall between them, thus transgressing “Remember and observe the Sabbath.” As if that weren’t enough, he then rapes the woman whom he lusted after, and in the process he violated the proscriptions of “Do not covet,’ and “Do not commit adultery.”

Alas, his appetite for the forbidden knew no bounds. After having his way with his neighbor’s wife, he helps himself to the family jewels.  The woman cried out, “Is there no end to your base character?” To silence her, the sinful man murders her, thus violating the law, “You shall not murder.” Continue reading “Getting Caught in the Web of Desire . . .”

Thou Shalt Not Covet: Can a Feeling be Legislated?

Continuing the theme of desire that we introduced in the last posting, Judaic commentaries have often wondered about the famous proscription of the Decalogue: “You shall not covet” (Exod. 20:17). What exactly is Moses speaking about? This question has led many great rabbinic scholars to conclude that the Torah is not legislating a mere feeling; it is actually more concerned about action. Like many fleeting thoughts that come to our conscious mind in the course of a day, coveting is merely one feeling that our unconscious produces. Maimonides spells this point out:

“Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressures him with friends and requests until he agrees to sell it to him, violates a negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it, the Torah states,  “Do not covet” (Exod. 20:14). This is not the kind of commandment that would be subject to corporal punishment, for the thought of coveting does not involve a deed. However, once a person takes possession of the article he covets, “Do not covet the gold and silver on these statues and take it for yourself” (Deut. 7:25), then he has transformed the thought of coveting into a deed . . .

Anyone desiring a home, a wife, utensils, or anything that belongs to another that he can acquire from him, is guilty of violating the biblical proscription regarding coveting–-from the time he thinks in his heart, “How is it possible to acquire this from him?” and his heart is aroused by this matter, as the Torah states “Do not desire” – “desire “ is directed only within the human heart.”

Thus according to Maimonides, there are two prohibitions: the covetous desire and the act that is involved in obtaining his neighbor’s property. Some rabbinic scholars differ. [2]

Maimonides adds, “The moment one entertains the thought how to obtain a neighbor’s possessions, e.g., a  home, a wife, utensils, he violates the injunction against coveting, for the Torah makes it clear: “Do not desire….”  (Deut. 5:18), for desire belongs to feelings of the heart and nothing else. Coveting is so serious because it leads to  robbery. Should an owner refuse to part with his property, the one who covets may act upon his desire and decide to rob his neighbor of his belongings, as it is written, “They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; They cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance” (Micah 2:2). In the event the victim stands up and attempts to rescue his property, the covetous man may decide to murder his victim, as we see in the story of Ahab and Naboth in  1 Kings 21:1-29.” [3]

On the other hand, Ibn Ezra asks a famous question: How can the Torah forbid a person to covet? Actions are surely easier to control, but how can one control a feeling? If one has a desire for something that another person has, is it reasonable to expect him to banish that desire? Continue reading “Thou Shalt Not Covet: Can a Feeling be Legislated?”

A Buddhist Version of the Edenic Fall?

While there are several versions of the Fall narrative in ancient Semitic literature, it is not widely known that a mythic memory of a primordial Fall is also recorded in the Oriental world and this phenomenon is especially interesting when examined from the perspective of Jung’s theory of the archetype; i.e., the common and universal patterns of thought that spontaneously appear in the stories and myths gathered from all around the world.

Although the Buddhist tradition does not speak of a Fall in the Western theological sense, it does speak of a state of Original Ignorance that occurred at the dawn of human creation. From ignorance came greed, anger, jealousy, and pride; and from these emotional energies come misdeeds that lead to suffering. The first sin among the ancients that perpetuated the Fall was the prejudice of appearance—those of brighter skin began to look down on those with darker skin. Ignorance led to the formation of gender, which eventually gave rise to desire and passion. Continue reading “A Buddhist Version of the Edenic Fall?”

Shadow Projections & the Psychology of Scapegoating

Carl G. Jung writes a lot about the nature of “shadow projection” in his writings. Individuals will often project their shadow unto someone else they know well. Just look at any divorce trial, the tendency is to project blame unto the Other, rather than taking personal responsibility for the death of a marriage.

I am reminded of the old story where a marriage therapist was counseling a young couple that were having difficulties in their marriage. The husband says, “She is to blame for everything wrong in our marriage!” The therapist asks the husband, “Do you really believe that SHE is really to blame for EVERYTHING?”  The husband pauses, “Well, not really; her mother is to blame for at least 50% of our problems!”

What happens on the individual level occurs with the collective shadow as well. Typically, it is an ethnic or religious group that is blamed for the woes of society. Men and women often blame the opposite sex for the current state of disarray that we mentioned earlier. It becomes much more dangerous when entire populations become blamed or persecuted because of existing social ills that exist in a society.

Whenever one feels oneself or one’s group superior to another one is engaged in shadow projection. This “other” thus becomes the “scapegoat” to carry away the “sins of the Other.” But do the sins really go away once the scapegoat is destroyed? Not really. The social wrongs or inequities simply go unconscious where they breed more hatred and shadow material. It sets up a vicious cycle. Shadow projection is nothing new to the human race; it’s been practiced in rituals throughout ancient history. Continue reading “Shadow Projections & the Psychology of Scapegoating”