Monthly Archives: March 31, 2014

The Fragmentation of Friendship

“Yehoshua ben Perachia said: Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend…” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

If ever there was a teaching from the Rabbis that seems out of touch with the times, this is it.  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia’s sound advice is in the singular – implying that a person should acquire one rabbi, and one friend.  We, however, live in a culture in which people ask questions to multiple rabbis and acquire friends in droves.  It is not unusual for an observant Jew to call one rabbi with questions about Kashrut, another for the laws of Shabbat, and yet another for advice on dating or marriage.  As for friends – the extraordinary multiplication of ‘friends’ on Facebook indicates that we maintain some sort of relationship with an ever larger group of people – at least some of whom we would classify as actual friends.

The multiplication of friendships in modern times is not the only way in which friendship has changed.  George Simmel, an early 20th century sociologist, writes that our friendships, as they have multiplied, have changed in a substantive way; they have become differentiated.
These differentiated friendships which connect us with one individual in terms of affection, with another in terms of intellectual aspects, with a third in terms of religious impulses, and with a fourth in terms of common experiences – all these friendships present a very peculiar synthesis in regard to the question of discretion, of reciprocal revelation and concealment.  They require that the friends do not look into those mutual spheres of interest and feeling which, after all, are not included in the relation and which, if touched upon, would them feel painfully the limits of the their mutual […]

By |March 31, 2014|

Friendship: A Definition

What makes someone a ‘friend’?  Unlike family relationships, which are framed by clear biological roles – father, sister, uncle, etc. – friends come in radically different shapes and sizes.  In the broadest sense, a friend is something more than an acquaintance, somebody that you know but do not intentionally plan to meet; a friend is typically somebody you like and wish to see again.  A quick google search will reveal a definition both heartwarming and vague, such as “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.”  But this definition of friendship, though certainly not wrong, doesn’t seem to capture the essence of the relationship.

The paradigm of biblical friendship is the extraordinary relationship of Jonathan and David.  Jonathan, son of King Saul, was drawn to David, and they certainly developed a platonic bond of ‘mutual affection.’  But their friendship went far deeper than that.  More than once, we are told that Jonathan loved David “as he loved himself” (Samuel 18:1, 20:17) – a phrase that oozes intensity.

Gore Vidal once wrote that “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”  Vidal’s insight, though cynical, nonetheless contains significant truth.  It is human nature to envy our peers; equality is a spur to rivalry.  Friendships, which form most commonly among peers and those in roughly equal stations of life, are potential breeding grounds for jealousy and competition – whether explicit, or more commonly, beneath the surface.  As such, the words of Honoré de Balzac, the 19th century novelist, ring true: “Nothing so fortifies a friendship as a belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other.”

Seen in […]

By |March 25, 2014|

Failure and Radical Reflection

“The most valuable insights into the human situation have been gained not through patient introspection or systematic scrutiny, but rather through surprise and shock of dramatic failures.  Indeed, it is usually, in the wake of frustration, in moments of crisis and self-disillusionment, and rarely out of astonishment at man’s glorious achievements, that radical reflection comes to pass.”  (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man, 14)

We human beings have a troubling tendency to tie our self-image and feelings of self-worth to our accomplishments.  As a result, the degree to which we succeed in our chosen endeavors determines the way in which we feel about ourselves.  When we succeed, our self-esteem rises with every compliment and approving glance.  The problem, of course, arises when we fail, and particularly when we fail consistently or publicly.  More than physical pain or deprivation, man fears, most of all, being a “loser” – a callous word which cuts to the very core of the human psyche.  When we fail, we question our self-worth, and, sooner or later find ourselves mired in self-hatred and depression.

It is possible, however, to use our failures as a way of finding a sturdier locus for our self-esteem.  As Rabbi Heschel writes, failure can bring us to radical reflection, through which we don’t simply reflect upon our actions, but rather reevaluate the very standards by which we measure our self-worth. 

“You should know that God derives glory even from the most insignificant of the children of Israel, even from the sinners of Israel.  Every single one – so long as he is called by the name Israel – gives God a particular glory which no one else can give.” (R Nachman of Breslov, Likutei Moharan 13).  Rebbe […]

By |March 20, 2014|

Certainty in an Uncertain World

Certainty.  Clarity.  It’s what we all want in life!  How often have each of us felt: “If only I knew what I was supposed to do.  If only I could understand what is happening in my life right now!”

According to Oliver Burkeman, it is this powerful, human desire for certainty that drives so much of our decision making in life – and the results aren’t pretty:

“Consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: a relationship you entered despite being dimly aware that it wasn’t for you, or a job you accepted even though, looking back, it’s clear that it was mismatched to your interests or abilities. If it felt like a difficult decision at the time, then it’s likely that, prior to taking it, you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty; afterwards, having made a decision, did those feelings subside? If so, this points to the troubling possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision wasn’t any rational consideration of its rightness for you, but simply the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of uncertainty.” (Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking)

For Burkeman, true happiness entails learning to enjoy uncertainty and to embrace insecurity.  The philosopher Martha Nussbaum goes even further, arguing that an openness to uncertainty is required to live a good life: “To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust […]

By |March 10, 2014|

Measuring Height – with Stilts Off

In 1989, the musician John Mellencamp released a song called Jackie Brown, about a poverty stricken man and his unfortunate family.  After describing the depressing circumstances of Jackie Brown’s life, Mellencamp sings: “What ugly truths freedom brings, and it hasn’t been very kind to you… Going nowhere and nowhere fast, we shame ourselves to watch people like this live.  But who gives a damn about Jackie Brown? Just another lazy man who couldn’t take what was his.”

Since the beginning of time, society has been divided economically, into rich and poor, peasant and nobleman.  Through most of the history of Western civilization, the reason and basis for this division was assumed to be, quite simply, the will of God.  God had willed that certain people be clergy or noblemen, and others peasants.  One’s economic and social status was predetermined; there was no hope of changing one’s position.

Modern times, of course, brought the liberating belief in economic meritocracy – opportunity for all!  With hard work and creativity, any man – and eventually, any woman as well – could reach the highest echelons of society, both politically and economically.  Economic meritocracy transformed the world we live in, and continues to distinguish modern countries from third world countries that languish economically.

Economic mobility has changed our world for the better, but it does not come without cost.  In earlier, more hierarchical societies, struggling individuals could easily blame their sufferings on the accidents of birth.  Life was very hard, but there was nothing they could do about; it wasn’t their fault.  But in our meritocratic, economically mobile world, those who do not succeed are no longer simply ‘unfortunate’; they are deemed failures.  In the modern world, the universal possibility of […]

By |March 2, 2014|