The Days of Awe: An Arendtian Reflection10-07-2011
Last week Jews of all stripes crowded into synagogues across the country to welcome the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and will return this weekend for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those of us living the lives of the academically vagrant the High Holidays are accompanied by the challenge of finding a congregation in a new college town. The services I attended this year were held in the basement of a dormitory in the northeast. Fifteen people attended the first day of services, three people the second, excluding the Rabbi, his wife, and their Golden Retriever.
The High Holidays never fail to remind us, me at least, that Hannah Arendt’s thought is so clearly and so elegantly embroidered with Jewish themes, including remembrance, judgment, and forgiveness, not to mention natality, the anchor of much of her writing. However there are two dimensions to the High Holidays that I would like to look at that underpin these themes, both I believe in the practice of Jewish prayer and in Arendt’s work. They help to shed light on why those of us who may not attend synagogue during the year seek both a sanctuary and a congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The first requirement of the reflective work that the High Holidays both affords us the chance to do and demands of us, is of course that we suspend the frenzy of life and turn ourselves over to contemplation, the realm of thought.
Human contemplating begins in many respects with a reveling. Before we can inspect the mind both Arendt and Jewish custom, ask us to marvel at it. Yet, we have in many respects abandoned the art of awe. As Marilynne Robinson argues in her 2010 book Absence of Mind we are in the midst of an era in which the mode of contemplation has been largely discredited since it is founded on the very thing, the singular human self, that threatens to contaminate that treasure of modernity: objectivity.
Robinson provides a critique of what she refers to as “parascientific” literature, faux-science, which she traces from the work of greats such as Malthus and Freud up to contemporaries such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. The chief feature uniting the multiple parascientific movements she examines is their attempt to banish what is both distinct and contingent about persons. She writes: “the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of ‘modern thought’ is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away.”
Robinson’s reference to this experience as that of the “felt mind” echoes Arendt’s account of thinking when she declares, “the only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life the human body is a corpse; without thinking the human mind is dead.” As the Rabbi leading the services I attended this Rosh Hoshannah remarks, and as many High Holiday commentaries draw our attention to, etymologically the word “spirit” is derived in many languages, including Hebrew, from the word for “breath.” Contemplation--whether in a classroom or in a shul--rests on the capacity to treat the mind not as an instrument for computation, or even argumentation, but quite literally as a muscle. Thinking, for Robinson and Arendt is equivalent only to the pulsation of the heart’s chambers, or the inhale and exhalation of the respiring body; phenomenon so staggering and exquisite any attempt to describe them inevitably rusts even our best language.
This notion of thought is derided by the Dawkins of our age, who are suspicious of anything that invites a discourse with the divine. The musculature, and hence the majesty, of the mind threatens both the proofs and the proscriptions they are trying to draw up about the behavioral laws that govern our species, and the direction of its destiny. What could be less absolute and law-bound than individuals’ conception and experience of grace? Yet as Robinson points out this literature often contains a strange contradiction since at the same time that the mind and all its messy subjectivity is banished, it is simultaneously called up and indicted, as, what she calls, a “perjured witness.”
The attempt to oust the individual mind from the palace of objective reason is accompanied by our obsession with its alleged fraudulence. While parascientists aim to eliminate the singular self, they also insist on telescoping in on the mind’s deviations; perhaps in an effort to legitimate their ultimate censuring of it. Stretched out on the shrink’s couch we have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will never be able to decipher our true desires or our criminal cravings. Instead we have come to take our cues for self-renovation from readings of the zodiacs that manage to predict in the same paragraph both the most suitable choice for footwear, and our ultimate fortune.
These too are theses of modernity Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fundamentally refute. The High Holidays reject the claim that because we often become ensnared in the trickeries of the psyche we therefore shouldn’t hold ourselves to account for the injuries we inflict, just as they challenge the idea that the possibilities for healing are out of our human hands. Sinning and atonement, Jews recall each autumn, are inextricable from the human condition, yet, if we engage in an honest consideration of them the process of genuine renewal and rebirth is ours for the making. However this consideration can only occur when we have stilled the panting ego enough to let the mind take its deeper draws.
This first dimension of the High Holidays, that of the self’s experience of its own mind, may initially seem opposed, but is intimately related to, their second essential dimension, public worship. We tend to find that contemplation, akin as we have seen to Arendtian thinking, is generally best performed on one’s own, sheltered from the intrusion of others or from worldy interference. Yet Jewish custom states that certain prayers cannot be recited without a minyan, or ten adults.
There is a kind of thinking we are told we can’t quite do unless we are included within a greater community. Because those assembled at the services I attended this year only tallied in the single digits on the second day, significant portions of the service had to be skipped. What is important about this is less the liturgy that was lost than what it is about the High Holidays that demands we come together in order to think, to pray.
There are various religious explanations for why it is we congregate in order to face our transgressions and ask for forgiveness, however I think Arendt may in fact gives us the best explanation, when she says famously and simply that “men, not Man, inhabit the earth.” Plurality is of course the bedrock of Arendt’s work on political action and while there is a tension between the vita activa and vita contemplativa I would argue that the High Holidays in one sense comes to dissolve it. The aim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is of course not only repair of personal relations but of the world. While the work of thought is each individual’s its subject is explicitly, what Marilynne Robinson calls in an Arendtian turn of phrase, our “tenure on this planet.”
It is the sheer presence of other thinking minds that activates the transformation of self and world and renders it real. This process goes by various names depending on the context in which it’s performed: sometimes we call it prayer, sometimes we call it politics, sometimes we call it poetry. Though we keep calling—and rightly so—transcendent--each of those occasions, in which an awe-filled encounter provokes us towards greater beauty, and greater justice.