Monday, 13 July 2009

14. The Fringes

I asked someone recently about the health of her faith. She responded with a despondent, but not vanquished, glance, telling me that lately she is “having trouble remembering.”

She did not refer to a weakness in belief or focus or practice, but in the particular area of memory. The philosophically-minded religious person is the perfect prey for this form of memory-attack.

What do we find in memory? From a scientific perspective, the memory is imprecise—a risky tool when it comes to exactitude and reliability. It taunts us, tricks us, aggrandizes here, demoralizes there, this memory is really from that time, that memory really from this time, a fact is ignored, a face is distorted, weather is altered, context is abandoned. In many ways, it is a mystery to us, in a category with God, heaven, the soul, and the like.

But to unconditionally categorize memory in such a way would be inaccurate—the memory is not entirely transcendent. It is a physical part of the human organism. It is no more transcendent, in this sense, than, for example, the fingers or the spleen are transcendent. It is untrue to suggest that the memory is a complete mystery to science. It has been studied and will continue to be studied. It certainly has a provable, this-world component, a characteristic that could not likewise be corroborated by scientists in regard to God or the human soul.

This duality presents us with a recurring challenge: what do we do with a memory that haunts us? What do we do when a memory weakens or vanishes?

If we turn to the scientist, he will put a microscope over the mind and seek an understanding of the corporeal source of the memory. This will forsake the memory’s vital mystery component.

If we turn to the metaphysicist, he will proceed consistent with the contention that the memory originates beyond the physical realm, housed in an unreachable domain, transmitting messages with a specific purpose, heard but not touched. Such an approach will forsake the biological reality of the memory.

Since neither the empiricist nor the mystic will be able to provide adequate assistance, there may arise a desire to abandon memory (as a tool) entirely. It is not manageable and it is not worthy of worship—where does it fit? But God confirms the indispensable nature of memory when He tells us to “remember and do all My commandments and be holy unto your God,” isolating the process of remembering from the action: it is not enough merely to ‘do,’ one must also ‘remember’—this is the key to being ‘holy unto your God.’

From a simplistic religious perspective, the focus on memory seems odd. Why is it not enough to believe in God and do His commandments? What is the purpose of memory?

The question can be asked more specifically in regard to the many other times that we are commanded to remember: Amalek, the creation, the seventh day, the exodus from Egypt (among others). Why are we halachically obligated to engage in the process of remembering? Why are the relevant actions associated with the memory (destroying Amalek, resting on Shabbat, eating matzah, etc.) not sufficient?

The religious lifestyle can lead to a divided existence, comprised of the so-called ‘spiritual’ aspect and the so-called ‘practical’ aspect. When we pray in the morning, we might be involved in a spiritual pursuit. Going to work, then, would be a practical pursuit. Our faith in God, in such a model, exists in an isolated realm. We seek ‘holy’ experiences and then, when that hunger is satiated, we return to the secular. There is nothing connecting the two worlds.

But, unlike scientifically proven and metaphysically speculative entities, memory crosses into both the realm of the ‘spiritual’ (‘I remember feeling uplifted.’) and the realm of the ‘practical’ (‘I remember paying my taxes.’). It can neither be considered entirely a part of this world (it refers to something absent) nor entirely apart from this world (it exists as a biological entity in the brain). Instead, it is a connection between the tangible and the intangible and can act as a bridge between the two worlds.

The bridge functions by virtue of the act of remembering. It is a two-step process: 1) We take something that is non-existent—the past—and we give it form in the present; 2) We take something housed in the body—the physical memory—and we admit its inherent mystery. These two effects work in tandem to create a bridge that goes in both directions simultaneously.

When there is “trouble remembering” (of an existential nature), it means that the bridge between the realm of the mysterious and the realm of the apparent is not functioning effectively. Though there is a sense that there should be constant interaction between the worlds (supported by the Biblical affiliation of memory, action and holiness), the “trouble remembering” makes such interaction difficult. For someone who is comfortable with a divided existence, the lack of memory can actually be relieving. But for someone who cannot accept the divided existence, the trouble infects both realms—making the ‘spiritual’ seem concocted and desperate and the ‘practical’ seem trivial and degrading.

What, then, is one to do when he or she suffers from memory trouble? As Rambam teaches in Shemoneh Perakim (1:4), the source of memory is the imagination. That is why a trouble remembering can be linked with a trouble imagining. In a sense, this can be a somewhat uncomfortable association. It is unappealing to consider that our memories and our fantasies share a common source as it could lead us to lose faith in our memories. But I think the reverse logic is more apt: since we can find reality in our memories—despite the fact that they emerge from the imagination—we should search attentively for reality in our dreams.

The significance of the imagination clarifies the role of the tzitzit as a mnemonic device. Even considering the famous, hidden 613, the fringes do not seem to be the best possible choice for their assigned purpose, namely, “that you may look upon [them] and remember all the commandments of the Lord.” There is nothing inherent in the fringes to convey this message. Without the involvement of the imagination, the memory will not emerge. In a sense, each time we look down at our tzitzit and “remember,” we are affirming the incredible and essential role of the imagination in our daily, religious life—and, perhaps, it is specifically the need for a strong and sharp imagination that is at the heart of the mitzvah of tzitzit. Because whether we were all present at Sinai or not, it requires the imagination—not the scientist’s telescope or the metaphysicist’s meditations—to see Moshe descend the mountain.

So before a person can “remember all the commandments of the Lord,” she has to attain (or regain) a faith in her imagination, as it is the imagination, Rambam explains, that “has the strength to remember impressions of experiences when they have vanished from the senses involved.” Truly, what instrument could be more crucial to the ideal Torah scholar than the photographic imagination?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I look so forward to each of your writings. You are a perfect example of the message you relate in The Fringes: because of the imaginative substance in the longings and articulations of your words, I find that I am recalling the mitzvot in a more vivid and relational way than I ever have.
Thank you.

I am wondering if you believe that an adult with a painfully undeveloped imagination has any hope of developing one -- in light of what you express, it is more than a pleasure it is a fullsome necessity for faith and observance to possess such an imagination. If you believe it is possible, could you describe how it might be done?
Also, could you tell me which Shmona Perakim (translated)you quoted from? Would you recommend this safer as an introduction to the works of Rambam?
Agnon writes: What is an intellectual? An intellectual is a person who can read the psalms without tears.
-- Would you say the imagination takes us to beauty, to the recognition of beauty and to our own breathholding wonder as we face it? To tears?
whenever you have time, with sincere appreciation to a most generous thinker, hanna