Thoughts on parashat Chayei Sarah and a short lecture on contemporary philosophy. 

The Torah portion this week describes the death of the mother and the father of our nation – Sarah and Abraham. According to Midrash (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 31) Sarah died of despair after learning that Abraham had murdered their only son Isaac by sacrificing him on Mount Moriah:

When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan became infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham.  What did he do?  He went to Sarah and asked: “Did you hear what happened in the world?”  She answered, “No.”  He said, “Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.” Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died.  Abraham came only to find that she had died. From where had he come? From Mount Moriah.

This midrash sees Sarah’s death as tragic: she died of despair after hearing Satans’ lie. While the prohibition of telling falsehoods is not absolute in Judaism (the 9th commandment basically narrows it down to testifying in court) this story is a perfect example of how destructive lies can be. It is interesting, however, that Abraham’s death is quite opposite of Sarah’s: 

This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. (Genesis 25:7-8)

Abraham died at a good ripe age, old and content. This is the kind of death we all desire. Is there Jewish wisdom that would help us to “achieve this goal?”. Yes. Woven into the fabric of Judaism there are many views and values and ideas that help us achieve this contented death. 

While we live in times where we, due to scientific progress, have greatly increased the average lifespan of a human individual, our intellectual culture is constantly at war not only with the majority of religious ideas (only those that align with the current zeitgeist are tolerated) but with the idea of the truth as well. Yes, we still live in the so-called ‘postmodern times’ which is thoughtlessly admired by many intellectual leaders of our Western societies. One may ask what’s wrong with that? Many people believe that intellectual culture of recent decades have brought so many good things, like liberation of women, gay people, all kinds of minorities and at the same time human individuals, which allowed them to contribute to society the way they weren’t allowed before. Yes, I’m in full agreement with all of that, with one caveat: that’s the good part of our philosophy/intellectual culture. The same culture has its dark side that brought, and keeps bringing, falsehoods and destruction. 

Postmodernism is largely a reaction against the intellectual assumptions and values of the modern period in the history of Western philosophy. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period. Postmodern philosophy is then fundamentally a denial of many principles that brought the fundamental ideas of individual freedoms, the scientific and technological progress, namely all the fundamentals that made possible everything we enjoy today, like our individual freedoms, technology we have, instant communication, spread of information etc. This denial can be summarized in several points, respectively to the fundamental principles of the Western philosophy which are the following:    

  1. There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings – of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea; such reality is, according to postmodernists, a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language. According to postmodern thought the only true reality is ‘the feeling that is currently experienced’ by an individual or a group. That’s why our culture is now so preoccupied with feelings.  
  2. The descriptive and explanatory statements of scientists and historians can, in principle, be objectively true or false. Postmodernists reject  this viewpoint – which follows from the rejection of the objective natural reality – which is sometimes expressed by saying that there is no such thing as Truth.
  3. Through the use of reason and logic, and with the more specialized tools provided by science and technology, human beings are likely to change themselves and their societies for the better. It is reasonable to expect that future societies will be more humane, more just, more enlightened, and more prosperous than they are now. While most of us, although critically, still share this faith, postmodernists deny it. Some of them go so far as to say that science and technology – and even reason and logic – are inherently destructive and oppressive, because they have been used by evil people, especially during the 20th century, to destroy and oppress others. The ‘logic’ here is as follows: because the tools have been used for evil purposes by evil people, these tools are evil as well. It’s difficult to find something more ignorant and, frankly, stupid.  
  4. Another Enlightenment principle – reason and logic are universally valid – i.e., their laws are the same for, or apply equally to, any thinker and any domain of knowledge. For postmodernists, reason and logic too are merely conceptual constructs and are therefore valid only within the established intellectual traditions in which they are used. Shallowness, psychological and sociological reductionism of this view is striking but it’s not a surprise because logic has never been a strong suit of those thinkers. They, for example, constantly use words they are not able to define: ‘gender’ is the best example here. 
  5. There is such a thing as human nature; it consists of faculties, aptitudes, or dispositions that are in some sense present in human beings at birth rather than learned or instilled through social forces. Postmodernists insist that all, or nearly all, aspects of human psychology are completely socially determined. The idea of individual responsibility borders on heresy in the context like that. 
  6. Language refers to and represents a reality outside itself. According to postmodernists, language is never such a “mirror of nature.” Postmodernists believe that the meaning of a word is never a static thing nor even an idea in mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words. The problem with this view is that it is, again, too radical. Yes, our language contains a lot of words whose meanings are fluent but there are still a lot of words whose meanings are fixed, like table, chair, cat, dog, sun or planet earth. Here, postmodern thinkers often confuse the meaning of a word with its name (the sign itself) but again, no surprise here because logic has never been their strong suit. 

As a result of all that being taught for a few decades we participate in culture in which there is no objective reality, no truth, where logic and reason are regularly mocked, where the wisdom of religious traditions are ruthlessly ridiculed, where the only reality is ‘the currently felt emotion’ and it is all considered smart, wise, cool and – what is most terrifying – a sign of moral superiority. The only thing that remains is ‘power’ and the marxist oppressed/oppressor narrative. As Michel Foucault expressed in his History of Sexuality: 

There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.  

Truth is therefore a correlate of power, it is created by power, not discovered. Whoever has power ‘owns’ the truth. It does not matter what you believe in, what matters if you are able to impose it on others. If you are able, it becomes the truth. This is the darkest side of postmodern philosophy because it provides the fundamentals and support for one of the most cynical, infamous and reprehensible ideas expressed in the history of politics: if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. I don’t think I need to mention who said that. 

Why are we then surprised that so many young people, who grew up in this intellectual culture, support Hamas by chanting “From the river to the sea…”? They are simply ‘programmed’ to ‘support the oppressed’. They support Hamas because no matter what they do they remain the victims, because they remain the ‘oppressed’ which by definition makes them morally right. Philosophy that uses only one distinction to explain everything – between the oppressed and the oppressors – and does not make any distinction between what is true and what is false (or right and wrong) will overwhelm the world with falsehoods. And there is no reason for any research, no reason to get to the bottom of things because there is no bottom of things – there is no truth, so the only thing that matters is someone’s opinion and rage – because that’s the only reality according to postmodern ontology: the emotion that is currently felt. All these falsehoods quickly become deadly, especially when fueled by emotion.  

All that ‘wisdom’ is actively promoted at American Universities, including the most prominent ones, many other educational institutions and media. It’s our mainstream philosophy now, that has been systematically taught since the 80’s. And we are wondering why so many people are confused? 

This all has to go, completely, because it’s a complete intellectual and moral bankruptcy. This widespread simplistic misrepresentation of reality (it’s literally everywhere) that uses only one notion and divides people only into two categories is literally killing us – our debate, our culture and our society. Of course there are innocent people dying in Gaza but framing everything in such a simplistic binary way completely paralizes Israel and renders her every warfare action as demonic. But it’s going to take decades of collective effort to push back against this simplistic binary logic. By then we will all be dead and our children will have gray hair but I strongly believe they ultimately will, through this confusion, through this binary thinking, acquire wisdom that will mirror in depth the wisdom of our forefathers. As the proverb says: 

Gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness. 

(Proverbs 16:31)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Menachem Mirski

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