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‘L’Chaim—To life!’ Good Human Conduct from a Jewish Ethical Perspective

Rachel Banks

2021 Irving and Jeanne Glovin Award Winner

Rachel Banks

Rachel Banks

“All philosophical and political thought of modern times tends to place the human mind on a plane higher than the real, creating an abyss between man and the world. It precludes the application of categories of the physical world to the spirituality of reason and puts the last depth of the mind outside the brutal world and the implacable history of concrete existence.” (Levinas, Some Thoughts on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, p. 15)

There is an entrenched distinction in the western philosophical tradition between moral human conduct directed by reason and self-regarding conduct directed by passions. It is commonly thought that having and acting with a concern for others is incompatible with acting in accord with one’s own needs and desires, and thus a dismissal of one’s own interests is required in order to meet the objective demands of morality. This position is both the product of and the justification for the emphasis on the rational mind as distinct from and independent of the body, that is promoted by the tradition of western idealism. This tradition assumes that moral action requires the subordination of the body under the mind, controlled by the dictates of objective moral principles. The legacy of this tradition has resulted in a rationalized, somatophobic alienation from the body—what I call a rational disembodiment—that limits and distorts our moral sensibility. It also has served to justify, uphold, and defer accountability for destructive social and political projects by obscuring the nature of harms that can be inflicted and experienced, and by categorizing certain groups of beings as mindful and disembodied, or embodied and mindless.

In this essay I will show that contemporary Jewish ethics can provide a critical perspective with which to contest the long-standing moral principles prominent in the western tradition of idealism. Specifically, I will draw on phenomenological analyses by Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber to argue that Jewish ethical theory departs most significantly from the western tradition in its appreciation of and respect for embodiment as our greatest moral responsibility. Accompanied by many feminist thinkers and disabilities scholars, Jewish philosophers distinguish themselves from the western philosophical cannon by centering and taking seriously the material needs of the body, the moral value of passions, the possibility and preventability of suffering, and the intrinsic value of organic life. These primary assumptions shape frameworks for moral action with regards to others, oneself, and to the natural environment. From a Jewish ethical perspective, good human conduct is therefore not exhausted by acceptance, respect, and concern for other humans, but rather encompasses our actions and sentiments regarding any and all forms of life that must be valued in virtue of being alive.

Though many of its principles do have origins in a cultural understanding of the commitments of a relationship with a “Divine Presence”, it would be mistaken to categorize modern Jewish philosophy as merely religious thought that can be meaningful only to Jews (Levy, 2007). Contemporary Jewish philosophy, like the nature of contemporary Judaism itself, is not easily defined, however its interpretation of various social contexts helps to reveal its scope and limitations. Jewish philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Kate Manne, engage and aim to answer modern and post-modern philosophical questions with a Jewish sensibility that can extrapolate from particulars without necessarily expanding them into universals. The Jewish ethical tradition centers Jewish truths that are “intertwined with the problematics of modernity as a whole” (Fackenheim, 1994), and can thus give a unique and relevant perspective on current moral issues.

The devaluation of the body in the western philosophical tradition

The intentional separation of mind from body that has characterized western idealism and rationalist ethical theories can be traced back to, amongst other sources, Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul in the Republic. Plato argues that the soul is divided into three parts, the proportional arrangement of which affects the justness and overall health of the soul. The rational part of the soul, concerned with facts and objective truths, is thought to regulate the other parts of the soul and keep us well-balanced overall. The spirited part of the soul, related to emotions, and the appetitive part of the soul, related to physical urges and desires, are the embodied components on the Platonic soul. The divisions of the Platonic soul correspond to the three classes of society, such that a well-functioning society should mirror what Plato asserts is a well-balanced soul: one in which reason rules over emotion and appetite, or the embodied parts of the soul (Plato, Republic, 435d-end). This requires a separation of and distancing from the embodied aspects of the soul, such that the body which houses them is conceived of as separate from its own faculty of reason. Levinas suggests that this view of the body as other, inferior, and subject to the tyranny of reason produced a “sentiment of the eternal strangeness of the body with regard to ourselves”, which has persisted across intellectual eras in the western tradition to the present (Levinas, 2004).

With the adoption of Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul into the western philosophical cannon came a foreseeable devaluation of the embodied aspects of the soul and their corresponding societal elements. As emotions and desires are thought to be “bathed in reason and subject to reason” at both the individual and societal levels, faults of individual character and of political systems could thus be attributed to an imbalance of the Platonic constituent parts, and fixed by tightening the constraints on our impractical emotions and appetites (Levinas, 2004). While philosophers and academics aspired to reach objective truths precisely through the dismissal of their emotions and material desires (see: Descartes’ rationalistic mind-body dualism), whole political systems became shaped by the philosophical ideal to limit the influence of embodied factors on logical, productive governance. This is most evident in the dominance of capitalist economic systems on the global scale, as the submission of the body’s needs to the control and authority of reason produces the conditions of alienated labour on which capitalist means of production depend (Marx, 1964).

Central to western idealism is also the distinction between instrumental and theoretical thought, or the use of reason as a means to attain practical ends (e.g. practical rationality aimed at self-preservation or self-fulfillment) rather than for its own sake (e.g. rational, philosophical thought for the purpose of reflection). Reasoning that aims for the fulfillment of material needs and desires—What should I do for my own safety? How can I help my vulnerable neighbor? What do I need to do to afford rent this month?—is instrumental, while reasoning that aims to uncover the nature of our highest ideals is ‘purely’ theoretical. The use of instrumental thought is incompatible with the theoretical process as it involves a demotion of the Platonic reason component to the level of the emotional and appetitive components, which reverses the tripartite structure in both the individual and society. This notion has produced two metaphysical categories of humans, the perceived existence of which persists today: disembodied and mindful—typically class-privileged, white men—and embodied and mindless—women and sexual minorities, racialized people, the disabled, and the poor. The inferiority of instrumental thought has and still justifies the sexist, racist, and classist subordination of racialized people, women and sexual minorities, and the working or impoverished classes in society, as well as their exclusion from philosophy and other realms of academia. For in the Platonic paradigm, the needs and desires of the body must be kept subordinate to the mind’s faculty of reason.

In many ways, the consequences of this Platonic ideology are and have been severe. Though dominant philosophical and intellectual narratives promote rational disembodiment, individuals’ emotions and material desires for resources and comfort are not so easily disavowed. After all, the rationalistic meditations in which Descartes and other philosophers engaged are only possible if one has attended to the biological needs of the body—or, rather, has had one’s biological needs attended to—including food, drink, and physical safety. Much of the world’s population is not so fortunate, as we know, and the singular goal of ignoring the needs of the body to achieve philosophical enlightenment remains impossible for a great many who are unfed, unhoused, and uncared for by a sovereign political system. As people struggle against and reject the dominant narratives promoting rational disembodiment, including those individuals who themselves, perhaps paradoxically, ascribe to these ideals, a collective desire to reclaim embodiment emerges. Individuals, having been told that their material needs and emotions have no importance to moral, social, or political functioning, reactively want to reclaim and affirm meaning for their physical experiences. This produces a competition for resources and sociopolitical attention that has historically resulted in immense material suffering inflicted upon and experienced by marginalized, oppressed, and enslaved groups, from the Socratic era to today. Emmanuel Levinas and Karl Marx have both provided predictive and explanatory phenomenological analyses that can be used to understand many of the past and current crises of human conduct, in which the impossible goal of rational disembodiment has driven whole groups to commit atrocities.

Modern responses to the ideology of rational disembodiment

Poignant examples of this phenomenon can be found in the traumatic events during the recent presidential administration in the USA. Much of the support for the Trump regime can and has been compared to the support of Hitlerism and the Nazi regime, though the discursive rationalization for individuals’ belief in the Trump regime has yet to take seriously the effects of rational disembodiment on the American population. As citizens continue to suffer physically and emotionally from the effects of late capitalist economic devastation, including the abandonment by government agencies, the denial of lived, embodied experience as valid and relevant to theories of the sociopolitical ideal becomes particularly repugnant to the embodied individual. In contrast, the Trump administration’s tactful appeal to the white working class included political rhetoric that directly addressed their lived experiences related to perceived changes in the social hierarchical order of the USA. This rhetoric highlighted “moral boundaries that white working-class Americans draw in relation to various groups: the elite; ethno-racial and religious minorities; and women and sexual minorities” (Lamont, Park, & Ayala-Hurtado, 2017), thus focusing attention on embodied aspects of one group in contradistinction to another. This rhetoric therefore provided a reaffirmation of embodiment and its social and political value within a system that privileges certain bodies and capacities, not unlike the re-orientation toward the body (e.g. race, nationality, bloodlines) that Levinas posits as the source of emotional appeal of the Nazi regime (Levinas, 2004).

In particular, the recent US Capitol riot was an example of a violent disruption of the order and system that existed in place to prevent violence and chaos, that was incited and emboldened by Trump’s speech delivered at a rally before the riot, in which Trump appealed directly to the sentiments of the embodied masses. On January 6th, outside the White House, Trump lauded the “hundreds of thousands of American patriots who are committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious republic” and vowed that “we will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen, I’m not going to let it happen” (AP, 2021). This centering of passions and physical expression as morally valuable and politically necessary by the leader of the nation further encouraged the “expansion of a force” from a comparatively smaller political idea (Levinas, 2004). Trump’s words appealed to a collection of white supremacists united either by their shared, embodied identity of whiteness, or by an avowed identification and comfort with white supremacy. In that now infamous speech, Trump’s words reaffirmed the body against the excesses of idealism—personified as the liberal, democratic process—to support mass violence and insurrection.

The idea that there can be a collective backlash against the theoretical and discursive devaluation of the body can help to understand the rise and establishment of the Trump regime, as well as the justification for many of the atrocities committed during the past four years. Though the Trumpist rallying cry reaffirmed embodiment for some, it also weaponized it for others. Deportations, police brutality and mass arrests, systemic anti-Black violence and increased violence against people of Asian descent during the COVID-19 pandemic, abandonment and abuse of impoverished citizens, separation of migrant families and abuse of children in national detention centres, sexualised and transphobic violence and protections for its perpetrators, and largescale destruction of natural environments and their inhabitants, can all be rationalized as long as the harms inflicted on a group who are perceived to be embodied and mindless can be dismissed as distinct from and less significant than harms to reason, structure, or state.

Thus, the consequences of rational disembodiment ideology affect everyone, including those who uphold and project these principles to oppress and subordinate others. Moral or political theories that fail to appreciate this, and fail to account for humans as embodied creatures whose capacity for reason does not exist in isolation from the capacity to experience and feel, are incapable of guiding or evaluating good human conduct. It is for this reason that perspectives in Jewish ethics can offer alternative, accessible, non-reductive approaches to living life in an ethical and meaningful way.

Jewish ethical perspective on the value of corporeal life

In contrast to the Platonic tripartite soul, the Jewish ethical tradition makes no distinction between the embodied components of the soul and the self as organic life, and does not seek to promote the “triumph of mind over body” (Levinas, 2004). Jewish philosophers, like many feminist philosophers, take seriously that we cannot detach ourselves from our needs and emotions in order to achieve a state of pure reason from which to make decisions or to morally evaluate. The body is the locus of reason, emotion, and appetites, making embodiment an inevitable reality of human life—to be human is to be embodied. Levinas frames this unification as an “inescapable adhesion” of the self to the body, with which we are in constant tension as mindful creatures who seek to achieve ultimate freedom (Levinas, 2004). Our corporeal determination sets the limits of human experience, according to Levinas:

“The importance attributed to this sentiment of the body, which never satisfied the Western mind, is the basis of a new notion of man. The biological, with all the fatality it entails, becomes more than an object of spiritual life; it becomes its heart… The essence of man lies no longer in his freedom but in a sort of enslavement. To be truly oneself is… to become aware of the ineluctable original enslavement unique to our bodies; it is, above all, to accept this enslavement.” (Levinas, 2004, p. 18)

Levinas explicitly rejects the rational disembodiment of the idealist western tradition, by locating the source of human essence—reason, spirit, soul, whatever it may be—as the biological body itself. To ‘accept this enslavement’ means to honor both the desire for and impossibility of escape from our embodiment, which we may be especially attentive to in periods of vulnerability (e.g. sickness, injury, child labor, immense psychological trauma). This tension is not inherently negative but rather reveals the intimate relation to our bodies, which in turn helps make us aware of the corporeal determination of other living things.

As an aside, Levinas’ interpretation of the ‘inescapable adhesion’ is particularly apt for promoting understanding and appreciation of disability. Disabled people may know better than anyone that escape from corporeal determination is not possible, but that the body and its needs are the locus of human experience. Being better able to ‘accept this enslavement’, to understand that corporeal determination is both an inescapable reality and a lifelong challenge, may provide disabled individuals with a unique perspective on the relation to the body. Disability reveals that “the body is not simply a fortunate or unfortunate accident that puts us in relation with the relentless world of matter” (Levinas, 2004), and thus that human worth cannot be defined in terms of corporeal concepts alone, but that corporeality is the leitmotiv of human experience.

This concept of inescapable embodiment as inherently valuable and enabling of self-affirming understanding reveals the most significant departure from the Socratic distinction between ‘the good life’ and life itself. The uptake and perpetuation of an ideal of the ‘good life’ has justified the forsaking and destruction of all forms of life perceived as incapable of achieving the ideal, “for the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (Plato, Crito, 48b). The pursuit of an idealistic definition of ‘the good life’, however it may have been constructed by ethical theorists in the western tradition throughout the centuries, precludes the recognition of intrinsic value in embodiment because it is conceived in opposition to the fallible, instinctual, and organic life that we share with other animals. By recognizing and appreciating the value of embodiment and its biological consequences, the Jewish ethical tradition explicitly rejects the Socratic distinction of an idealistic life privileged above all others, and affirms that life is valuable in itself, rather than as a means or vessel with which to achieve ‘the good life’. This commitment to life as inherently valuable applies to all forms of organic life, such that nonhuman animals and living things in the natural environment are as worthy of respect, awe, and protection as humans. The Jewish expression said during a toast—’l’chaim! To life!’—succinctly captures this ethical tradition and reminds us, especially at times of celebration, to appreciate and respect and honor life in all its forms.

Good human conduct: Moral obligations to the other and to oneself

In I and Thou, Martin Buber (1937) provides a phenomenology of the two possible ways of being in relation with other living things that reveal our moral obligations to them. Buber’s phenomenology is thus grounded in an understanding and appreciation of corporeal life—of being alive—as having immense moral worth:

“But look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being… How we are educated by children and by animals! We live our lives inscrutably within the streaming mutual life of the universe.” (Buber, 1937, pp. 15-16)

Buber frames two distinct ways that we can relate to beings we identify as ‘other’ to ourselves, which produce the conditions for different types of regard and moral concern that we can show towards either nature, humans, and “intelligible beings”, within a “world of relation” (Buber, 1937). These modes of relation are described as forms of speech, the I-it and I-thou “primary words”, which characterize very distinct ways of addressing and interacting with life around us. Whereas the “primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation” (p. 6), an ethical dimension from which arise moral obligations, the I-it characterizes an object of human consciousness that is separate from oneself but can only be described and used:

“But whenever the sentence “I see the tree” is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man—I—and the tree—Thou–, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word I-It, the word of separation, has been spoken.” (Buber, 1937, p. 23, emphasis added)

Acting in an I-it relation with another living being relegates the being to the status of object, to be used for one’s purposes but never understood or treated as a being with inherent moral value. This mode of relation limits our moral sensibility towards other human beings and towards other living beings in the natural environment. To treat life as having use value rather than moral value enables the uninhibited exploitation and destruction of life.

In contrast, the I-thou relation invokes a connection of mutual recognition and understanding between two living beings that prevents the regard and treatment of the other being as having merely use value. Buber explains that when we occupy the I placeholder in a relation with a thou, we are acknowledging their unique, irreducible, and indescribable value that commands our respect and concern:

“If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things. This human being is not He or She… nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbor, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens.” (Buber, 1937, p. 8)

Being in an I-thou relation grounds one’s moral relationship with the other because the mutual recognition of moral value necessarily invokes respect and concern, as well as a degree of humility to understand that one can never fully know or understand, experience or describe. In relating to others as thou, in occupying the I in meaningful relation to others, we change and become oriented towards the other’s well-being, which then guides our behaviour. The I-thou relation develops from a feeling of moral sensitivity to the emotional and physical needs of the embodied other, and our actions are then shaped in such a way that we do not inhibit or violate this relation.

Where Buber provides the existential basis for our moral obligations to the other, Levinas specifies in different language that as an I in an ‘inter-human relation’ with a thou, we are able to recognize their susceptibility to suffering due to our shared embodiment as humans (Levinas, 1988). This acknowledgement and understanding produces our specific moral obligation to prevent, attend to, and end the suffering of the Other (people to whom we have no direct connection). In his essay Useless Suffering, a critical reflection on the genocides and destructive authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, Levinas provides a phenomenology of suffering that characterizes suffering as an ultimate evil and the foundation of our ethical obligations to the other. In his analysis, Levinas distinguishes the category of “useless suffering” from the temporary experience of pain or discomfort:

“All evil refers to suffering. It is the impasse of life and being, their absurdity, where pain does not come, somehow innocently, to ‘colour’ consciousness with affectivity… Thus the least one can say about suffering is that in its own phenomenality, intrinsically, it is useless, ‘for nothing’” (Levinas, 1988, p. 157)

The phenomenon of useless suffering reveals the “inter-human order” within which we exist relative to the suffering Other—an I-thou relation with a suffering other—that produces our responsibility for the other, “without concern for reciprocity” (p. 165). It also brings us to regard suffering “in the inter-human perspective”:

“In this perspective a radical difference develops between suffering in the Other, which for me is unpardonable and solicits me and calls me, and suffering in me, my own adventure of suffering, whose constitutional or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning, the only meaning to which suffering is susceptible, in becoming a suffering for the suffering—be it inexorable—of someone else.” (Levinas, 1988, p. 159)

When we intervene and take on the suffering of the other in order to alleviate and end it, as we are commanded to do by virtue of our being in relation with the other, we give the suffering a meaning, a purpose, a use. Suffering is “meaningful in me, useless in the Other” (p. 164). Here, too, Levinas is critical of the tendency to privilege ‘disembodied’ reason at the cost of embodied experience, as any excusing or justificatory narratives around suffering (e.g. appeals to theology or fatalism) only dull our moral sensitivity and defer our moral responsibility to the other. Discursive attempts to justify suffering cannot account for useless suffering because it is precisely unjustifiable, and in the process turn our attention away from the moral call to action. The Levinasian orientation towards suffering and the demand for active responsibility and agency in its prevention can become established ethical principles with which to outline and teach good human conduct.

That said, in the Jewish tradition, principles of ethical human conduct are not exclusively other-regarding. The respect and concern we are called to show to others due to their morally valuable embodiment is equally required towards ourselves. Concern and care for one’s own life therefore have properly moral importance within the Jewish ethical framework. We can think of ourselves as existing in an I-thou relation with the self, and are thus each called to appreciate and respect our own unique and intrinsic value by protecting ourself from harms, prioritizing self-care, and honoring our vulnerability to emotional and physical suffering. In addition to treating acts of self-preservation as morally valuable, ethical conduct from a Jewish perspective includes acting in ways that are acceptable to oneself and engaging in critical self-appraisal and self-correction when one has failed to do so.

While moral obligations are revealed through our relations with the other, moral evaluation is grounded in the relationship to oneself. There is no appeal to a higher authority for verification that one has felt and acted morally; moral judgment rests on one’s ability to consciously and peaceably accept one’s own actions, to live with what one has done. This of course presumes a unification of the rational, emotional, and appetitive parts of the self, as the embodied self—the body that has committed certain actions—cannot be separated from the mindful self. The I-Thou relation thus reveals another dimension of moral responsibility that can be applied on the individual and collective levels: to engage in critical self-evaluation of one’s actions in order to both ensure that the moral obligations to others are being met and to respect one’s intimate relation with the self. In the Canadian and larger North American contexts, fulfilling this moral responsibility is especially important for combatting the culture of complacency, lack of self-criticism, and deferral of accountability that pervades whole groups and governments who are morally dulled by privileged circumstances and pervasive ideals of rational disembodiment.

In this essay I have drawn from the phenomenological analyses of two prominent, contemporary Jewish philosophers in order to show that embodiment produces and reveals the dimensions of our moral obligations. The Jewish ethical tradition provides alternative ways of understanding, evaluating, and honoring what it means to live morally, by departing from the underlying assumptions in the western tradition of idealism. Jewish ethical philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber reject the privileged position of reason above all embodied faculties, a distinction between life and the good life, and the idealistic goal of rational disembodiment. As we face increasingly hostile biopolitics in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, historic and ongoing social and political protection of physically privileged groups at the expense of others, and a devastating environmental crisis that has only just begun to show its effects, it is critical that we reassess and reorient our moral agency away from dominant principles of conduct that seek to deny the moral value of our feelings towards the terms of embodiment. The Jewish ethical mandate calls us to value organic life, to recognize embodiment and its biological consequences and thus to take seriously one’s own fallibility and susceptibility to moral error, and to alleviate and ultimately prevent suffering wherever it occurs. These foundations of good human conduct can help us overcome the entrenched distinction between self-love and love for others that has so divided the western cannon of moral philosophy, by guiding us in showing respect, acceptance, and reverence for all forms of life.

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Rachel Banks is a Black and Jewish woman, currently working on thesis-writing to complete her MA in Philosophy. She also holds a BSc Honours in Neuroscience and Philosophy from Dalhousie, and her future plans include law school. Rachel works with the Black and African Diaspora Studies program committee as a Research Assistant, which includes helping to develop curriculum and coordinate outreach and engagement with community partners, and also sits on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Board as a student reviewer.

 

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‘L’Chaim—To life!’ Good Human Conduct from a Jewish Ethical Perspective by Rachel Banks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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