Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
ON THINKING, PRAYER AND THE HEALING OF THE WORLD, by Esther Cameron
A few days ago, someone with whom I had gotten into a slight argument on the ‘Net suggested to me that I ought to “stop being so mental, and get to your core, to your essence, your pure neshamah”. Among other things she prescribed meditation.
At first I thought I wouldn’t answer. I have collected putdowns all my life for thinking too much (I assume that’s what she meant rather than what the Brits sometimes refer to as “mental”); what’s one more? Let my soul be as dust to everyone. But having stewed over it a bit, I thought I would after all try to break a lance for Thinking, with a few notes about what Thinking has meant to me and how it might, at this juncture in human history, come in handy. I ask for patience with the somewhat nonlinear character of these notes. My thinking isn’t always linear. I also ask forbearance for what may be at times a slightly edgy tone. My perception is that people are not Thinking enough and that we are paying a terrible price for that, and that does affect my mood somewhat.
Thinking is something I have always liked to do, for some reason, and have been repeatedly surprised to learn that this is a taste not shared by all. Meditation, which I gather is supposed to help us turn off thoughts, seems to be more popular, at least it’s more often recommended. But meditation has never done much for me. I can’t seem to turn my thoughts off. I brood over things; I stew over them. Every now and then the brooding and stewing precipitates in a Conclusion, which is often formulated in a poem. (Toward the end of this article I shall try to share a few of my Conclusions. For I really do hope my Thinking has arrived at some useful results.)
Thinking isn’t quite the same thing as being an Intellectual, though there was a time when I myself confused them. I come from an academic background and was an insufferable, know-it-all child, unpopular with my peers but able to get good grades. This led me to persuade my parents to send me to Radcliffe, where I spent two years, and doubtless it left a mark on me. Twenty years later someone I had just met said to me, “You look like someone who went to Radcliffe.” I have probably not shed all intellectual affectations to this day, even though Radcliffe disappointed me. What I mostly encountered there was not Thinking but snobbery and the awful amoralism that had infected the elite. My parents hadn’t led me to expect this; they held advanced degrees, but they were good people. Of course, their degrees were in science rather than in the humanities, and science at least does not require you to distort basic truths about human life.
Among the common people (I hope they still exist somewhere and have not been entirely replaced by remote-controlled robots), intellectuals have a reputation for distorting reality. “Intellectual” tends to be an antonym of “wise.” Some years ago, while working as an office manager, I coined a little aphorism: “Wisdom consists in not ignoring the obvious.” Intellectuals, many of them at least, do tend to ignore the obvious, sometimes because they have to be “original,” and sometimes because those who pay their salaries dislike being reminded of the obvious. A very intellectual acquaintance once said to me, “You’re not an intellectual.” When I repeated this remark to someone, they seemed to feel I had been insulted, and perhaps it was partly meant that way. But I felt that it was also a kind of compliment.
So what do I mean by Thinking? I guess I mean just trying to figure out what is going on and, once one has an approximate idea, deciding what to do about it.
The difference between being an intellectual and Thinking may be illustrated by an exchange from a play that I read long ago and that was commented on by someone who influenced me very much. The play is The Death of Danton, by Georg Buechner, and it’s about the French Revolution. One of the early leaders of the revolution, Danton, is about to be arrested and executed, along with his followers, by his bloodthirsty successor, Robespierre. As the scene opens, Danton and one of his followers, Camille, are having an intellectual conversation; Camille’s wife Lucile is also present. Camille gives a long, brilliant diatribe about Art, after which the scene continues:
CAMILLE What do you say, Lucile?
LUCILE Nothing. I love to watch you speak.
CAMILLE Do you hear me, too?
LUCILE Of course!
CAMILLE Am I right? Do you know what I was saying?
LUCILE No, truly not. (Danton comes back)
CAMILLE What was that?
DANTON The Committee on Public Safety has decided to arrest me. That was to warn me and offer me a place of refuge.
They want my head; well, they can have it. I’m sick of all this bungling. What’s the difference? I’ll know how to die bravely; that’s easier than living.
CAMILLE Danton, there’s still time!
DANTON Impossible — yet I wouldn’t have thought…
CAMILLE This sluggishness of yours!
DANTON I’m not sluggish, just tired; the soles of my feet are burning.
CAMILLE Where are you going?
DANTON For a walk, my boy, for a walk. (Exit)
LUCILE Oh, Camille!
CAMILLE Be calm, dear child!
LUCILE When I think that they… that this head…! My Camille! That’s nonsense, tell me I’m crazy!
CAMILLE Be calm, Danton and I are not one.
LUCILE The earth is wide, and there are so many things on it — why just that one? Who would want to take it from me? That would be cruel. What would they do with it?
CAMILLE I tell you, be calm! Yesterday I spoke with Robespierre; he was friendly. There was some tension between us, it’s true; different opinions, nothing more!
LUCILE Go and see him!
CAMILLE We sat on the same bench in school. He was always gloomy and solitary. I was the only one who befriended him and made him laugh sometimes. He’s always been greatly attached to me. I’m going.
LUCILE So quickly, my friend? Go! Come! Just that (she kisses him) and that! Go! Go! (Exit Camille)
This is a wicked time. That is the way things are. Who can get beyond that? One must pull oneself together.
(Sings) Parting, ah parting,
Whoever thought of such a thing?
Why did I happen to think of that? It’s not good that it found the way so, by itself. — When he left it seemed as if he couldn’t turn back but would have to keep on going, farther and farther away from me.
How empty the room is; the windows are open, as if a corpse had lain here. I can’t stay in here! (Exit) (Act II, Scene 3)
Lucile could appear to be a simpleton. The discussion on Art is “over her head.” But when Danton and Camille start talking about matters of life and death, she has no difficulty in catching the drift. She understands that what is important to her is threatened. She thinks of a step to take — “Go and see him!” And she knows what is going to happen. Note that the premonition comes to her in the words of a song that just pops into her mind.
Thinking begins with paying attention to such things, and it keeps them in sight. The minute it loses sight of them it ceases to be Thinking. It substitutes words and ready-made concepts for things and manipulates them at will. A recent example of this that I noted was the enthusiasm of liberal journalists at the prospect of the Joint List in the government — a triumph of “democracy.” Never mind that a state governed by its enemies is not long for this world; “democracy” is such a lovely word. Other examples include the claim of economic “liberals” that they are protecting “individual freedom” from state regulation. Individual freedom, again, is such a beautiful phrase, it can make you forget that the worst threat to freedom these days comes from the corporations, against which state regulation is the individual’s main protection. “Individual freedom” is also invoked against “religious coercion” in order to attack laws that protected people from having to work seven days a week. All these examples are the opposite of Thinking, because they substitute manipulation of concepts for contemplation of what is happening in reality, to real people.
Again: Thinking to be worthy of the name has to keep the obvious before its eyes, has to keep in touch with the premonitions and sinking feelings that one is always under pressure to ignore. Thinking is hard, though not in the way chess is hard. It is hard because it involves an insistence on seeing what one sees, sensing what one senses, not what others want you to see and sense. Of course, Thinking must also, as it develops, take others’ perceptions into account, but that is something altogether different.
While Thinking has to be based on feeling and perception, it is after all something more than these — it also involves the mental effort of learning and setting one’s thoughts and perceptions in order. I have to admit that Radcliffe did give me one thing — it taught me to analyze texts. Textual analysis is just a fancy name for the process of figuring out what is going on, on various levels, in a poem or story or essay, and this process is akin to that of figuring out what is going on in the world. And there is a lot to figure out. There always was, but the sheer numbers of people whose stories have to be figured out, and all the various intellectual disciplines, whether well-founded (like modern medicine, on the whole) or bogus (like a lot of the psychology I encountered before I figured out that thinking did not make you abnormal) that have inflected those stories and their settings in innumerable ways, make this world an entirely different kettle of fish from that which our ancestors had to deal with. It’s no wonder things have gotten out of control.
The need to Think about all this drove me, starting in the 1980’s, to write an epic poem called The Consciousness of Earth. It was an attempt to answer the questions “why is the planet so messed up, and how could we go about fixing it?” I really tried to figure this out, and in this attempt I read a lot of books in fields that seemed to me to possibly hold parts of the answer. Then I had to put all this into some kind of coherent order and come up with a program, which I did. The trouble was that to make it work, other people would have had to put in the mental effort of reading it, and then would have had to take some action based on it. These things, to date, haven’t happened.
So maybe I was just off base, after all? Maybe instead of trying to figure out what was happening and suggest appropriate actions, I should have just concentrated on praying?
I have to confess: I have never been very good at praying. As with meditation and music, the thoughts interfere. I take some comfort in something Rav Ginsburgh said in a lecture some years ago. He said that when a mother thinks about her family members and their problems that is a form of prayer. Since I’ve never had children, perhaps Thinking has become my substitute for motherhood. A form of compensation.
All the same, I wish people, especially in the religious world, would ponder this. After all, HaShem must have intended us to use all of our capacities, and He has certainly put us in a historical situation where we need them. In the last few years I’ve become increasingly conscious that we here, in the Torah world in Israel, live on an island in the midst of a rising flood. There is all that anti-Semitism that has reared its ugly head in the world around us, and is affecting many people here too. The national religious parties have lost almost all political influence, while the hareidi world has suddenly found itself the target of a concentrated hostility coming from secular society, from all those people out there whose children (I heard this from Moshe Feiglin some years ago) can’t finish the sentence “Shm’a Yisrael…” We have a political system that is a mess, an economy that is increasingly oppressive. Shouldn’t figuring out what is going on out there and what could be done about it, be part of religious practice?
Is this perhaps where we, as women, should come in? We are supposed to have some “extra understanding.” I don’t think this need mean rivalry with men or an attempt to take over their role. There are types of intelligence that are seen much more often in men than in women. I don’t know of a woman Torah scholar who has passed the “pin test” (I’ve been told that if you stick a pin in a volume of Gemara, there are men who can tell you which words it passes through). And I don’t imagine that women are underrepresented in science only because of discrimination.
I am no Kabbalist, of course; I have just read a few books on Kabbala, heard some shiurim. But certain ideas gleaned therefrom have resonated with me deeply. One is the relation between Chokhmah and Binah, also referred to as “Abba” and “Imma.” All those path-breaking insights and feats of memory and calculation, seem to be the domain of Chokhmah. But in Binah there is the sense of an articulated whole, of how things fit together. And this connected with the feeling that I have about my Thinking. Binah is closely connected with the last of the Sefirot, Malkhut, aka Knesset Yisrael or the Shekhinah — the community in its earthly situation.
Chokhmah and Binah are sometimes referred to as “the two friends that are never separated.” Unfortunately it sometimes seems to me as if today Chokhmah and Binah are separated, and that is why the world is falling apart. Maybe we need to work on getting them back together.
It’s looking pretty urgent to me. As I write this we are still in the lockdown precipitated by the virus panic. Whether the lockdown is necessary or not, and if not why it is being imposed, are questions Rivka Levy has raised in these pages (“Coronavirus and Lockdown: The Hidden Story in the Statistics”). I guess some people are making the best of it, by spending time with their families and so on. If one doesn’t have a family it is different of course; one has time to think about the price we are going to pay for this enforced spiritual retreat — when we emerge into a world where our favorite restaurants and shops have shut down for good and their owners are lining up at the soup kitchens along with all the workers whose jobs the managers have taken advantage of the time-out to digitize (while the large corporations rake in their generous bailouts, for which all of us will be paying via inflation). A process that was going on gradually — people have been worrying about the power of the corporations and the takeover of human functions by machines for a long time — has taken a sudden leap, and at the same time our routines have been shaken up. And this in the middle of a political crisis too. Perhaps this is a moment when the urgency could be perceived and acted upon?
Could this, possibly, be the moment when the Thinking I have been doing about this for a long time will finally find a hearing? Here is one suggestion I have been trying to make, the central one actually. I believe that the step suggested is a prerequisite for any other type of reform. While it is and will always be true that “we” should do this, that and the other about this, that and the other, nothing will be done about anything unless we constitute that “we.” That is what this suggestion is about.
“On one foot,” I think that people — those of us who keep Shabbat at least — should take on themselves to meet after Shabbat — by Zoom in the summer, if it can’t be done any other way — and talk about what we perceive to be going on, and try to come up with things to do about it. (Motsaei Shabbat is the appropriate time both because it is a time “beyn kodesh ve-chol” and because it is the time people are most likely to have free.) We should try to get people with specialized knowledge to take part in these meetings. The meetings should have a specific form. People should sit in a circle and speak in turn, for five minutes each. No interruptions, no arguments. This way they will have to concentrate and listen. The groups that meet should consist of about 10 people each, and they should be connected in a pyramid like that suggested to Moshe Rabbeinu by Yitro. The Internet could help with this. Each group, at each level, should have its own web page where ideas raised by participants would be posted. This will create an incubator for ideas. It will also help us to identify political leaders whom we personally recognize as sincere, who are not beholden to the media, and who can approach the problems of the community in a spirit of problem-solving rather than as a constant power-struggle.
I have been Thinking about this, and trying to get people to do it, since — I don’t want to say how long, it would sound too discouraging. One problem is that while I can put thoughts and words together, I can’t seem to get people together. I don’t have the attachment for Leadership, just like I don’t have the attachment for chess. Somebody else has got to take that part. Somebody like Mordechai, maybe, who could tell the people to do what Esther says. If you see someone like that, please, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org).