October 2011

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Sy Schechtman

Lately I have become impatient with the prosaic, sterile, very mundane greeting “How are you?” While I realize the need for polite, decorous conversational openings I am also painfully aware that my conversational partner really does not desire an involved answer most of the time. Not at the very start of our conversation. One builds a brief verbal bridge before launching into tirades, triumphal stories, or just plain fashionable moaning and groaning about the weather. I guess my current greeting is now some sort of complementing joke about how well they look or how alluring—if a couple or group- they all appear. Some small item on their dress or appearance flattery that will smoothly uplift the spirit then and even later on. Thus avoid the irritating pro-forma nonsense question mentioned above. However, somewhat sadly, I know that I am stepping on somewhat current fairly sacred theosophical territory. That is I am probably ego driven; my need to be strongly remembered by the uniqueness of my greeting. But more importantly by trying to treat my new social partner trivially, in an “I-It” manner. Mere unimportant fluff to be casually brushed off.

That is, if we now enter the almost sacrosanct area of the “I—Thou” relationship, Martin Buber’s vital contribution to mankind’s current “update” of the age old problem of Cain and Abel, and the brotherhood of man and Cain’s “innocent” insolent reply to the Lord about his brother Abel’s whereabouts, whom Cain had just slain. “ Am I my brother’s keeper”?

In some deep sense Buber’s philosophy and religious orientation deals with this question, but perhaps from a more secular aspect. Buber, certainly a devout Jew, broke with Zionism, late in his life, after leaving Germany soon after Hitler came to power. Buber was a prolific essayist and acclaimed teacher both in Germany, and in Israel, after Hitler’s almost manic ascent first in Germany and then in the rest of Europe. Paradoxically, his little book I and Thou has been read widely by both Jew and Gentile, and resonates strongly by people of both faiths. And Buber became a devotee of Chassidim as part of his devotions. And the world wide essence of his “I-Thou” doctrines holds important truths for most of us. And in an most important sense implicates the conscience of all humanity.

Essentially, Buber believes there are two modes that a person can use to engage and encounter the world. The first, and most utilized mode, is the I-It mode, in which we engage the world of experience, as an observer, not a participant, and gather through the senses that data that can be used by reason. Experience, Buber claims is the only mode Western man, has for engaging the world. Objective, observing, data collecting, cool, calm and collected. Obsessed with reason and intellect! Or cool or limply tepid philosophy. Emotionally distant, of course. But even more crucially, manipulative and uncaring, not a true encounter but a “you scratch my back/I’ll scratch your back” episode, mollified but unchanged, satisfied for the moment but still as potentially fallible as before. The I-It encounter is the still way the way of the world for most our human experience. A Good Samaritan in name only, thankful, thoughtful, and caring for the instant only, --thank God!

The second mode of encounter is utterly different. It is a relationship that is an encounter that one enters with one’s whole self; not just an experience that impresses one briefly and while even important in itself, is not transforming. In this second mode ---The I THOU Mode---one is in a startingly different awareness, a startingly radical state in which the whole world seems almost transfixed. Every other person also is a You, someone with the same illustrious God given aspirations for holiness, compassion, and both spiritual and material growth. One transcends one self to a heightened awareness of the individual reality and worth of our fellow human beings, and relates to them them sincerely and utterly. Unfortunately, as Buber ruefully aknowledged, this higher state of human awareness and concern sometimes was hard to achieve or retain. He was well aware that most of life’s dictates and degrees embrace the I-IT relationship greedily as life’s practical route; and we live almost happily ever after. However, according to Buber, man’s soul demands something more, even above and beyond his increased compassion for his fellow human beings,-----an I Thou encounter with God, much as Job and Elijah had in the Hebrew Testament. And even if this exalted relationship is not always in play the encounter is a holy experience of enduring worth for one’s necessary spiritual sustainance.

But,alas, that old devil EGO stands in our way! Way back then—at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, with the Adam and Eve story! All was going well and God pronounced his six days of wordly creation “very good” and on the seventh day he rested. First there was Adam. Then He created Eve, an almost necessary helpmate in the wondrous Garden of Eden to help the shepherd and nurture all the animal creatures that Adam had named with the Lord’s encouragement. But then, alas, they went far beyond, Eve tempting Adam with the forbidden Apple that the seditious snake urged them to eat and not die!-- “but you will be like the divine beings who know right from wrong”. They immediately perceived their nakedness, clothed themselves with loincloths and met the Lord walking through his idyllic garden. A very wrathful God. who knew immediately what their loss of the naivete of nakedness presaged. “and to the woman He said ‘I will make most severe your pangs in childbirth…..and to Adam He said because you ate of the tree which I commanded you, you shall not eat of it. Cursed be the ground because of you.; by toil shall you eat of it, all the days of your life……by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat all the days of your life.”

We see here the broad sweep of the I-It power and its egoistic thrust to gain ascendency in the material world. The refusal of the newly created creature man to remain a mere shepherd of this animal Edenic “paradise”. The manifest need to control and try to dominate or, at least, not be part of the flock. Here we have a sharp---and fascinating--- divergence in biblical interpretation. Normative gentile interpretation treats this defiance of eating this apple of increased sapience to blatant defiance of God’s command, to obvious proof of humanity’s sinfulness and fallibility---and urgent need of God’s grace. And thus the coming of Christ, and His crucifixion, and now, perhaps, for His Second coming.

Jews, however, believe that Adam and Eve’s defiance marked the inevitable beginning of true humanity. The Ego is not defeated or overwhelmed and we do not live happily ever after , and many times we live by the “sweat of our brow” ---and torment---. But a sort of dynamic equilibrium of the psyche is in play, mostly of I/It stuff of course, but still reverenced and hallowed by the increased possibility of brotherhood sisterhood concern. But the unleashing of humanties great intellectual power we have most probably made our planet Earth a veritable material Eden on earth. And hopefully much more “my brethrens’ keeper”! The fallible human ego is also in play too. But it too can “grow old along with me, the best is yet to be!”

And whether mythically, biblically or with the hard nose reality of science and history, humanity has flourished in many ways. But still imperiled by the extreme egocentrism and xenophobia that is also still part of the eternal dynamic equation that is also part of the eternal problem-- now that nuclear weapons are here ----and of a most dubious outcome.