Embodiment and the No-Thing Beyond Language: Rav Yair Dreifuss’s “Marriage of the Lost”

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Rav Yair Dreifuss’s 2011 book Marriage of the Lost (atunah Shel Avudim in Hebrew) is a fascinating and compelling book. Clocking in at just under 180 pages, it manages to cover a broad range of topics, from history and social hierarchies to marriage, happiness, and song. Perhaps most interesting is the book’s multifaceted exploration of what it means to live an embodied life.

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The book is structured around Rebbe Naman of Bratslav’s “Story of Seven Beggars,” though the chapters often drift far afield from their corresponding beggars. The narrative (through an intricate frame-story) presents seven beggars each possessing a different physical disability.

If we think a little about the order in which Rebbe Naman presents the beggars, we can see a simple structure: There’s a blind beggar, a deaf beggar, a mute beggar, a bent-necked beggar, a hunchbacked beggar, a beggar with no hands, and a beggar with no legs. The order of the physical defects follows the structure of the body, from top to bottom. Eyes, ears, mouth, neck, shoulders, hands, legs. Rebbe Nahman essentially gives us a survey of the limbs of the body, but from the perspective of the physical defects. He investigates the structure of the body through its damaged side, through the deformed body.

I see this as challenging the image of the perfect, aesthetic, normal body to which we are accustomed. The move to the abnormal, the unusual, is not intended to leave it as such, but to change our conception of the body… The perfect, symmetrical body is what keeps us from seeing the true reality.

This is a parody of how we relate to and imagine the body. This depiction calls us to open up to a different way of thinking about the body, to think anew the way we apprehend our own bodies.

Rebbe Naman’s intensity can help us break down the classic ideas about the body that hold us so very captive, and help us see things from a different perspective. Through the images of the beggars… This is an attempt to see the world by way of the margins, to restore the experience of existing in an unusual body and see it as a higher option than the normal body. (68-69)

Rav Dreifuss frames the physical disabilities of the beggars not as distortions of a normal body, but as the true “normal.” Our culturally conditioned image of the perfect body is a phantasm that has little to do with the actual reality of embodied life. Instead of being alienated from our bodies by their “imperfections,” Rebbe Naman can teach us to accept our bodies as they are, which is the way they’re supposed to be.

Unfortunately, Rav Dreifuss does not pursue this line of inquiry much farther, through no fault of his own. Rebbe Naman’s story quickly shifts the focus from the beggars’ bodies to their unique abilities. In fact, it turns out that their disabilities are only apparent, and are actually manifestations of the beggar’s superior abilities. For example, the blind beggar is not really blind, and can in fact see better than anyone else in the entire world. The reason he seems to be blind is that he constantly directs his sight beyond this world into the messianic future, and thus does not see anything in the world in which we live (though Rav Dreifuss doesn’t mention him, the similarity to Rosenzweig’s explanation of the blind “Synagoga” is striking). The end result is that Rebbe Naman ends up giving a very unembodied depiction of the beggars.

Rav Dreifuss often caps his explanations of Rebbe Naman by saying that Rebbe Naman was teaching the Torah of the diaspora, and that in the land of Israel the Torah can be more connected to nature and life. However, he only once fleshes out how the Torah of the land of Israel would differ from Rebbe Naman: Instead of a blind utopianism, waiting for a sudden and apocalyptic messiah, the Torah of the Land of Israel embraces Rav Kook’s idea of progress and human-driven improvement (hishtalmut). Rather than waiting for the messiah, we can all be messianic.

If this was the extent of Rav Dreifuss’s discussion of embodiment, I would be somewhat disappointed; while interesting, it fails to really explore what it is like being an embodied being. However, there is another facet to the book, one that runs from the very first chapter through to the end, that captures an important aspect of this embodiment: the failure of words and rationality to capture every aspect of our existence.

The first chapter is entirely dedicated to this topic, giving a brief survey of different figures (Rebbe Naman, Rav Kook, etc.) and how they related to words, before explaining that Marriage of the Lost is going to attempt to use words to talk about aspects of life that surpass words. While this might seem like a fool’s errand, we have no other choice – words are all we have. This task highlights the nuance of Rav Dreifuss’s approach: he does not reject language or rationality wholesale, but he knows that they are not sufficient. To borrow a phrase from Judith Butler’s “Bodies that Matter,” Rav Dreifuss is “theorizing from the ruins of logos”; from within the ruins, without leaving them behind.

Another really good example of this comes from Rav Dreifuss discussion of happiness and optimism.

This inexplicable optimism is the covenantal moment, the hard point that is not an essence (atsmiut) because you cannot say anything about it. This is the position wherein you recognize the no-thing in the world, the experience of real existence wherein a person is no-thing (lo-klum) even while he still lives. As opposed to the new idolatry, the modern attempts to construct various forms of positive existence onto which we could grasp, this position sheds all handholds in favor of direct contact with the infinitude that underlies existence, with all the emptiness and no-thing contained therein. (43)

Optimism is not a function of logic, it’s about making a covenant with embodied existence, with the existence that precedes and outlasts any logic explanation thereof. It’s not an essence, because essence is a metaphysical idea always understood through words. We’re not optimistic, nor should we be, because of what we can logically determine about the world and our lives. We’re optimistic because our existence precedes any false hopes about how our lives should look. While the book could perhaps have explored embodiment more fully, to me this is a truly valuable contribution.

None of this is to say that the value of the book entirely depends on its explorations of embodiment. Quite the contrary, there’s much else to like about the book besides. The repeated discussion of marriage in the modern era, when marriage is between two individuals rather than between two members of hierarchical families and traditions, is particularly interesting.

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Additionally, readers who are interested in Rav Shagar will be interested to find many of the same ideas in Rav Dreifuss’s words. He explores the meaning of freedom, the necessity of realism as opposed to ideology, a constructivist view of language, and the idea that life is always lived within language (how this fits with the non-linguistic existence is a question worth exploring). He also rejects the idea of a personal, pre-existential essence, explores the problem of reflectivity, and encourages self-acceptance and personal oneness. Strikingly, all of these shared themes appear without the philosophical and psychoanalytic trappings with which Rav Shagar addresses them. For people who find these trappings uninteresting, problematic, or simply outdated, Rav Dreifuss’s words may be a breath of fresh air. For people who do appreciate Rav Shagar’s formulation, Rav Dreifuss’s version raises the question of why Rav Shagar needs those trappings at all. Is it just personal interest? Is there an affective dimension involved? Or does he think it’s necessary on a conceptual or communicative level?

All in all, Marriage of the Lost is a thoughtful and engaging little book, one to which I look forward to returning in the future.

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