Preoccupation with the One Nearest

Dr. Watkins preached on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 this morning–the Shema (Hear O Israel!) and on Jesus’ midrash-in-the-flesh-and-word about it in Mark 12:28-31.  Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the Scriptures don’t hang together, for they do so beyond normal vision and comprehension.  This was a reminder–actually a dawning recognition for me–that whatever the overall Christian analysis and response to the challenges of modernity, the Jewish philosophers of the early twentieth century have more to say to us than most of us have imagined.  They offer at least as trenchant and provocative a challenge to all of us to look at the terrifying realities of our modernity-postmodernity.  They ask us to be honest in our thinking and living.  (No, Wallace didn’t bring that up; but the theme of his sermon made me think about these things.)

Paul Mendes-Flohr gives some insights in an article where he quoted Jacques Derrida in a eulogy for Emmanuel Levinas:

The Torah is transcendent and from heaven by its demands that clash, in final analysis, with the pure ontology of the world. The Torah demands, in opposition to the natural perseverance of each being in his or her own being (a fundamental ontological law), – and Derrida emphasizes [Mendes-Flohr]  – concern for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and preoccupation with the other person.

(These guys are/were philosophers, so forgive the lofted language, but Derrida is simply talking about the “way of being” in the world and the “natural” self-interest of all people.)  Anyhow, I thought immediately of I John 4, particularly verses 7-8.  Beloved, let us love one another, . . . . I have thought of the type of love in I John as a “dynamic other-interestedness” that describes the Spirit-motivated and empowered interest of the believer in the welfare of others.  Derrida’s “preoccupation” rings true in the same way, and against self-preoccupation.  And isn’t that the illness we all share?

Mendes-Flohr actually was discussing a little book that Martin Buber got by the Nazi censors in 1935.  The book was titled “The Neighbor” or “The One Nearest” (Can’t get the umlaut “a” in, so no German title here), but not just in the sense of being close by, but in the sense of persons living in the same space, what you might call an “existential” space.  Buber presented the teaching as it came from Jewish sources.  His book was subtitled “Four Essays on the Conduct of Man to Man (Person to Person–Mensch, “human being”).”  By 1935 Hitler had seized power, and the repression of German Jews suggested greater oppression and persecution to come. So Buber’s appeal was an appeal for humanity in a context where the government seemed to threaten it.

Mendes-Flohr restated Buber’s assertion that “the neighbor is one whom destiny places next to oneself, face to face, as Levinas would later put it; at a particular hour, one is confronted by another human being in need – and the need may not only be defined by material want and political oppression; and to whom one is beholden by biblical decree to love, to love as oneself.”  Mendes-Flohr sums it up, saying that by extension the neighbor represents all of humanity, that the Nazis desperately worked to destroy Enlightenment concepts of humanitarianism, and that Buber, among others, wanted to affirm a “post-modern humanism”.  Its foundations were biblical, Jewish.  That is of interest for Christians, too.

Buber, Mendes-Flohr and many others could tell us that the point has everything to do with the character of our private and public lives.  It is a point that appears in all the “axial” civilizations (those whose great religious and philosophical foundations were set by about 2,500 years ago, and none more so than in the Hebraic/Jewish tradition, and so also in the Christian tradition.  In Mark 12, Jesus prompted the expert in the law to repeat the Shema; the expert affirmed that it was the ultimate commandment.  When the expert did this, he was calling the entire Law back over himself and everyone who was listening.  And so the expert showed everyone that what they thought was contention with Jesus was actually beyond contention.  It was the “one thing,” the central concern of Yahweh and Moses at Sinai, and the core of the Deuteronomic revival.  I believe that goes for the “rest of us” who read and discuss this matter a long time after the encounter in Mark 12.  What do you think?

In my city many people in civic, educational and governmental organizations are serving for the public good, including service to the poor, the orphan, the widow.  Many are church members.  Big-hearted people in many organizations–the Boys and Girls Club, the Lions, Optimists, Kiwanis, Rotarians, and others; and special programs such as Habitat for Humanity, Backpacks for Kids, My Friend’s House, the Twelve-Step Foundation.  They give money, hours, and hard work to help out.  There can be a certain weariness to it all.  But these people don’t quit.  There exists the sense there’s never enough, but servants continue to serve.  These people vary in their “preoccupation” with the welfare of their neighbors, but they are worthy, consistent models.

The model could use some more implementation in our churches–all around–and more broadly in the community.  Isn’t that true across the country?  I am hearing about programs and proposed programs to help kids and families most at risk.  Not with government programs alone — they’re not enough, but with intentional, planned and sustained community “preoccupation” with doing what government can do only in part, besides, that is not the primary purpose of government anyway.

This is one of the things we can do to build our own “human capital,” to build real character and strength into lives where hopelessness and weakness seem to have a stranglehold.  This is what can be done to develop leaders out of the most unlikely candidates in our communities–kids from families that don’t work out well, hungry kids, kids who have no healthy models except by accident, kids who need help beyond what the public schools alone can provide.  Some people discount these kids and their families, failing to see that these people are assets to whole, healthy communities.

I live in one of four Texas cities judged by a recent MIT national study to be “forgotten cities.”  (Galveston, Waco, Marshall, Sherman).  Here’s the link to their report:

http://web.mit.edu/dusp/dusp_extension_unsec/people/faculty/lhoyt/Hoyt_Leroux_FC.pdf They couldn’t study or list them all; surely there are many more.  Industrial and economic development have passed them by for decades.  This kind of study has its uses beyond the original intentions.  It helps us to know the general conditions more clearly and to identify not just specific personal and organizational needs, but how all these fit together in a community.

Paul Mendes-Flohr related the story told by the Hasidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov:

How to love [others] is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn along with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him: ‘Tell me do you love me or don’t you love me?’ The other replied: ‘I love you very much.’ But the first peasant replied: ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’ The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who put the question to him fell silent again. [And Rabbi Moshe Leib adds]: But I understood. To know the needs of [our fellow human beings] and to bear the burden of their sorrow – that is the true love [of others].

I really do not know my neighbors well enough, either literally next door or in other parts of town, preoccupied as I am with other matters, even rightly those of my family.  Somehow I must broaden my preoccupations!

Citations:  Mendes-Flohr was quoting from Martin Buber, The Tales of the Hasidim, 1948.  His article:  Paul Mendes-Flohr, “A Post-Modern Humanism from the Sources of Judaism,” in Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 62:2/4 (Apr. – Dec. 2006): 59-67.  Accessed at stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40419468 .