These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Levinas and Lao Tzu

Posted on November 17, 2010 by Michael

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I gave this as a speech to the Social Justice Track a few days ago. People seemed to like it, so I thought I’d post it for everyone to read…

The 29th section of the Tao te Ching:

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it…

When I was a junior in college I was suffering from a lot of anxiety about my future. I was doing fine in school, but I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. I didn’t have a purpose beyond parties and grades. While I had learned how to take care of my body and my intellect, I was basically clueless as to how to take care of my heart and my spirit.

In the darkness of a poor West Philadelphia community I found heart and spirit in Judaism and volunteering. This is because I learned humility.
Judaism taught me to look outside myself; to understand that trying to understand the world through my own intellect was foolishness: that, in order to know Gd, I would have to look within myself to hear the silence, and then step outside to do mitzvoth. Judaism taught me how to begin to live for something other than myself.

Volunteering taught me this lesson in a much more difficult way. While I found community, warmth, and spirit in my new community of Jews; I was faced at first with a lot confusion on my new quest to do social justice.
I began by teaching English and math classes once a week in the Germantown area that was a train ride away from University City in Philadelphia. After departing the train, I would walk to the school down the poor streets filled with a palpable despair; fumes, garbage, nothing but minimum wage jobs. But my heart lit up when I walked through the halls of Germantown Middle School to help with the Breakthrough Philadelphia program.

The kids were quite impressive. They pushed themselves to learn beyond the hours of the normal school day, staying with me to learn Algebra and Shakespeare far after the sun went down on the cold ghetto streets. Many of them seemed sad and tired, and they told me explicitly that they were fed up with a school system that clearly shuffled them through the hallways because of the law rather than because of love or human compassion.

Their struggles were so obvious; I could watch it on their faces, holding back sadness and exhaustion as the events from a broken home life played through their minds, and yet they tried their best to focus on class work, to go above and beyond. Their courage made me feel heartbroken and inspired at the same time. Despite all the cards stacked against them, these kids were doing something about their situation. Their lives were far from perfect, but they tried; they put forth effort.

The volunteer work in Philadelphia led to two summers working with Breakthrough Atlanta as a summertime English teacher for at risk, high potential middle school students from the Atlanta inner city. I loved the work. I loved teaching the kids and getting close with them; learning as much from them as they were hopefully learning from me. The thank you notes they gave me made it all worth it. One student told me that I opened her mind, and she meant it. When I read that I felt like I was in heaven.

So I had stepped outside of my home, my circle of comfort, and Gd stepped closer to me in return. I now had a purpose; Breakthrough Philadelphia led to Breakthrough Atlanta, and I also did good work recruiting for the Breakthrough National Office.

But still the question would gnaw at me, and it used to make me a little crazy: why should I do social justice, when in my lifetime we will still be so far away from reaching a just world? …

Again, Lao Tzu:

“The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.”

Levinas says something similar in the source that we are reading today:

“What is truly human
Is beyond human strength.”

So, how are we supposed to be fully human, to be righteous people, to build a just world, and yet go beyond our limited human strength?
It is easy to see a crumbling community and think that the situation is hopeless. It is even easier and more foolish to wistfully dream about all the ways that we think we can force a situation into peace or prosperity. “Oh, keep the families together and the community will fix itself.” Or, “obviously the fault lies with the way that the government is spending its tax money in a totally unjust way.”

But there is no way that you and I can force families to stay together, or to force the government to change its ways tomorrow at the drop of a hat.
What I learned from my students is that we just have to do the best that we can at every moment. At every turn of opportunity, we slowly allow Gd to heal the world through us by making space and listening to the other person, whether you are the ‘teacher’ or the ‘student’. I genuinely believe that I helped my students more by just listening to them, giving them letters and CD mixes, and finding out about them and making them smile. And I genuinely believe that it took my students an immense amount of courage to distance themselves from the odds stacked against them and to just try in the first place.

In the article we are going to read, Levinas talks a bit about the letter Vov. Just as the employer owes his employee bread and pulse—thus through the variety making it a humane meal and not just functional sustenance—so teachers owe their students dedication and human support—so too we owe everyone civility and total attentiveness.

Meditate on the letter Vov; let it be a principle of conduct for you. It is a connecting letter, like a hook. All of our moments are hooked together, and at each turn we have an opportunity to give everyone the experience of the and. I greet you because that’s proper, and then I ask you something about you, sincerely. I make space for you by going above and beyond my desire focus on what I want.

We are all riding on this ocean of emotion together, on the same boat. Are we going to embody the principle of the Vov in our day-to-day interactions? This is how we can heal the world beyond normal human strength. This is how we can do social justice in every moment without using an undue amount of force and tampering with the balance of the world that is already eternally sacred.

These are the final words of the Tao te Ching, part 81:

True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.

Gd nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads…

In every interaction, instead of trying to be eloquent and prove our piece about how to fix the world, we should know that true eloquence is just listening and having compassion, knowing that by healing a soul with our companionship, we are allowing Gd to heal the world through us. As our moments are hooked together by the vov, Gd presents us with countless opportunities to do small acts of tikkun olam. May we use each moment to connect to the needs of the Other who is before us, Here and Now.