Tuesday, February 05, 2008

On Questions of Identity

No, that's not the name of a class. I'm just being pretentious this time. :) It is however, inspired by a class. So there.

In my Philosophy in Literature class (I know, right? I love being a philosophy major. We take the coolest classes ever,) we've been studying this poem by Zelda called לכל איש יש שם- Every Man Has a Name. (I tried to find the text and failed. Sorry.) The basic gist of the poem is that an individual claims an identity in every aspect of his life, and that all these identities together are what make up the individual. Well, that's my interpretation of it, but I'm pretty sure that's the generally accepted interpretation. Anyway, naturally it started a discussion on the nature of identity - what is the "I" of an individual? And it reminded me of this.

In tenth grade, we had this class once a week called Mechanechet. Essentially, every class was assigned a mechanechet - a teacher who was supposed to be our personal guidance counselor or something. She was supposed to be the one you could go to talk to in case you had an issue. Twice a week she taught us "Machshava" (Or, "how Not to Think") (sorry that was overly bitter; I'm a bad person) and once a week we had a session called "mechanechet" that was supposed to be the whole class together discussing whatever "issues" were on our minds. Like tznius, or....tznius. And then sometimes we discussed tznius. Sorry, really stopping now.

Anyway, this one particular week our Mechanechet wanted to do this activity with us. I came in late and grumpy, bc I always davened too long and never got enough sleep (two completely separate and very long stories) and I was handed this sheet. I don't even remember what was on it, but one of the things we were told to do was to write down what we would miss about a friend of ours if she weren't there. You know, sick or moved away or something, nothing morbid. I spent the entire time staring blankly at the sheet and getting more and more frustrated and upset. I mean, what the hell were we supposed to say? "Her bright and cheery smile." "Her sense of humor." "Her caring nature." "Her intelligent input in daily conversation." I mean, what if she didn't go anywhere, but she got depressed and withdrawn and stopped smiling and laughing and talking to people? Is she no longer the same person? Has she become someone else? Would we still say "Where has Shaindy gone? I miss her!" (I mean one could but that would be obnoxious.) How the hell were we supposed to be defining the essence of a friend in terms of external behaviors? Is that how we were supposed to define people? Is that how we're supposed to define ourselves? And why are we trying to define people anyway?

I tried asking some of these questions and I think exactly no one knew what I was talking about. Which just made it worse, of course. Admittedly I was probably babbling and I think close to tears. (This makes sense to none of you who didn't know me in high school. I was very, very tired. The whole four years.) But the question continued to bother me, and I still haven't figured it out.

What is the essence of a human being? What is the "I?" Is it our mind? But what about when that goes? Our hearts? What does that even mean? Our souls?

I actually had a real problem with that last theory bc if you're operating on the assumption that everyone is a gilgul (which I still was; I was barely two years out of Chabad let's not forget, and Chabbad philosophy tends to be the root of my world view even to this day) then your soul can't be you bc your soul isn't just yours. Oh, right. The reason that's problematic is bc, then what happens at techiyat hametim? Who are you then? What is the eternal, unshifting, unchanging, permanent "I?"

I've only come to a couple of possible very weak and sort of troubling conclusions. The first is that there is no"I." We just think there is bc it's a convenient device for manipulating the world, to think of oneself as having an intrinsic individual selfehood. The second is that we are not one of our characteristics, but the whole mesh of everything together. There is no one single essence, but rather the essence is the sum total of the parts of the individual - all of my qualities, plus my environmental influences, plus my free will. Everything altogether as one. But it doesn't feel right.

Rav Dessler says that man is only his choices - which is to say, only his free will. I can maybe buy that, but it doesn't feel completely right either.

In the nearly six years that I have been pondering this question, that's all I have come up with. Anyone else have any ideas? Cuz at this point, I'm kind of desperate....

24 Comments:

Blogger Yoni said...

I take it you were talking about a specific friend with the depressed and withdrawn thing...

just a hunch.

and on another front, so "talking about what ever issues were on the children's minds" was that just a someone raise their hand and complain in front of class, or was this a teacher lays down the suggestion, or was this someone volenteres a subject and the teacher twists the answer in the being "be more tznius"?

and on the front of the who is the
"I"

I think that the gilgul issue is still truly an answer, and here's why.

A each soul can clearly be cut in half, quarters, whatever and still function completely normaly, and still be fundementaly connected (a person and their besheret have the same neshama) secondly, the whole conciousness thing comes from the nefesh, the neshama just supplies alot of personality qualities, and sometimes I would guess even memories. The Nefesh on the other hand is basicaly a composite of A your biological tendancies (which can be built and influenced by the neshama and ruach) B your experiences (which apperantly can transpose themselves up to the neshama in some or even many cases) and a whole bunch of other things.

I mean, the nefesh never really leaves this world, its bound to one's body, but its just... like weird, but it makes sense, I promise you. I'll email you more about it if you want.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Yoni said...

I suppose its kind of like using a boot up disk to boot up a computer with a hard drive. The boot up disk brings certain qualities, but just as much it interacts with the whole of what came before it.

and yes, I think that the whole comming back again and again thing makes sense, its just that there will be multiple of you and your nefesh represents your conciousness.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I was not talking about a specific friend, although I suppose I had enough personal experience at that point for it to be something which sprang readily to mind.

"Talking about whatever was on our minds" was supposed to be people making suggestions about issues that they felt were pertinent and needed discussion. Occasionally it was bein adam lichaveiro stuff, which we never knew what that was about bc it was never our clique, so we just sort of sat there and watched; occasionally it was emunah; occasionally it was why we should all marry Kollel guys; mostly it was why we got uniform infractions for not wearing knee socks, and how some people wear skirts that really are actualy less tznius than certain kinds of pants. I kid you not, this stuff is practically verbatim.

As to gilgulim; yes, I know, and the flame analogy too, it all works out very well. But the fact is there's basically no textual basis for the concept outside of the Tanya and the Zohar. I'm not saying it's not necessarily true, I'm just saying a) it's problematic and b)it's not really relevant to the consciousness of mainstream OJ.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Yoni said...

actualy it has textual basis, although I'm not familiar with the particulars.

most of the kabalistic metaphysics are based off dyukim on specific verses in the torah, or other textual proofs.

the world being 15 billion years old one is likewise based on several different textual proofs, namely the major one about the jubalie

3:41 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

If you've ever had to deal with people you know who develop brain degenerative diseases, the issue of identity becomes very volatile. You can see people change personalities, though their outside remains the same.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

Sorry I'm so inactive here even though this discussion is right up my alley. Belief it or not, I'm not lying when I say that I'm now worked and underpaid. But one thing about this:

Woah! Are you kidding? Ever read any Gershon Winkler's 'The Soul of the Matter.' What's the Chabad connection?

8:02 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

First of all, let me just say that I'm extremely glad that there are no tanach or talmud sources for gilgul, because otherwise I might have to believe in them.

Secondly, I think that identity is the little bit behind our eyes- to us, the identity is simply the bit that is asking the questions, and the external traits and so forth don't really matter. To others- I think that the identity they perceive is the sum of our actions and words that affect them. When these change, I think it's sort of like the Argonaut paradox: If a ship is replaced by a whole different ship, it's clearly not the same thing. But what if it's replaced one beam at a time? At what point does it cease to be the same ship? It's really a question of gradations- clearly if your friend wakes up with a completely different personality and traits and body, it would be tricky to say that they're the same person. But when it's some and not the other, then we enter into gradations of definition that our minds and/or language are not equipped for.

Ending with a brilliant scene from Terry Pratchett: Two witches (separately) are trapped in a world of mirrors, filled with endless reflections of themselves. Death comes along and says that they can only leave when they find the one that is real. The first one runs screaming down endless halls of reflections, lost forever. The other looks at Death and says, "Is this a trick question?" "No." Then she looks down at herself and says, "it's this one."

12:25 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

And once in Mechanachet, we played a version of the dating game to test how well we knew our friends. I don't remember what the point was, but I remember that it was a little fun.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Yoni said...

dating game?

3:08 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

E-Kvethcer-
That's very much my point. Are they a different person? is the inherent "I" still there? What is the constant that states that this is still the same individual?

Nemo-
I have never read Gershon Winkler. I thought I explained that the Chabbad connection was the gilgulim thing. I was definitely taught in Chabbad schools that everyone is a gilgul of someone else.

Congratulations on getting a job!

Tobie-
I'm not exactly sure how relevant other people's perceptions of us should be in this discussion. Clearly, most of the world only sees external behaviors. But how many people can you say really know the real you, anyway? The ship analogy is a good one, except that people are a little more complex, being as we have minds as well as bodies....

And yeah, what dating game? Did I ever actually attend Mechanechet except for that one time? I mean I know I did; I must have blocked most of it out though....

4:50 AM  
Blogger Yoni said...

miri, don't you know? there are lots of yous!

Theres one for everyone who has ever met you, and most of them are remarkably different! :)

(and I'm reminded about this by a friend whom I knew who was the sweetest and most fun girl ever, but now she's a misserable wreck who yells at me all the time, and finaly finaly I've stopped talking to her. Two different people, the one I liked died.)

5:03 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

"But the fact is there's basically no textual basis for the concept outside of the Tanya and the Zohar"

I was referring more to the above line. And Zohar, despite controversy regarding it's authorship, is pretty centrist Judaism, not Chabad... even Rav Dessler learned Tanya and Zohar.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

Oh, but what I meant to point out, is that I think you've misplaced the role of Gilgulim in Chassidus Chabad and how it plays on identity.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Okay, so I'm bad at pop culture- maybe it's called the Newlywed Game? Where you get asked questions about your partner and you have to give the same answers that they gave? That's a thing, right?

....Right?....

7:08 AM  
Blogger Yoni said...

it was a game show!

didn't you know? so thats what you mean!

(I've seen it only once, and then only in passing, for about 5 minutes. yes my memory for random facts is quite disturbing.)

8:00 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

Nemo-
"and Zohar, despite controversy regarding it's authorship, is pretty centrist Judaism, not Chabad."

I never meant to say it wasn't. Only Chabbad is the only chassidut I know of that quotes it as regularly as it quotes the Rambam. It's an emphasis thing. And I'm sorry, when I said "textual basis" I was thinking of, you know, mainstream stuff that most people have heard of. Who's Gershon Winkler?

"Oh, but what I meant to point out, is that I think you've misplaced the role of Gilgulim in Chassidus Chabad and how it plays on identity."

That would be a very relevant point. But you fail to mention how, so it doesn't help me.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

Don't know who Winkler is, just know he's not Lubavitch. Wasn't using him as an authority, just saying that he's got a whole book about Gilgulim, ghosts and other fun stuff that they don't teach you about in "centrist" schools.

About the relevance of Gilgulim- I'll be honest that I've never really studied it up enough, which might partially be because of it not being a central of a tenet or emphasis, and partially because I probably haven't given it that much deep though it about the same amount of time that you haven't. Well, obviously you're thinking about it, but I mean study...

I would just mention, that souls and identity reincarnation aside, there is definitely mention of some sort of reincarnation, if I'm not mistaken about the source of the line, in the Gemara. It says that a Shochet or butcher that feeds Neveilah to Jewish people will be reincarnated as a dog... with some reasoning about the significance of being a dog. I'll try to get the page number...

5:43 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

Never mind... Sefer Hagilgulim of the Ari Z"L, not gemara.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Lubab No More said...

Great post.

I don't know for certain what the "I" is but I do know that it changes. "I" am not the same "I" I was in high school. Like yourself I no longer believe in gilgul. I don't think there is an "eternal, unshifting, unchanging, permanent 'I'".
People grow and change. But that said I think we each also have our own intrinsic quirks that "flavor" our individual, changing, "I"s.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Nemo-
I' aware that the concept of gilgulim exists in other strains of Judaism. The reason I cite it as a central theme in Chabbad is really just bc I remember hearing a lot of stories built around the concept when I was in the Chabbad system. I don't have any real textual background with it either, although I'm sure the concept is mentioned somewhere in the gemara...maybe not, but I sort of assumed. Also, they liked to tell us that the reason the Rebbe was so special was that he was the first one in millenia born with a "new soul." Either that or he was a gilgul of Moshe Rabbeinu. They told us stuff like that a lot.

LNM-
Thank you!
While I see your point - people definitely do change - I have this inherent sense of a constant essence. I'm not sure how much that counts for anything. But I definitely feel like there was always a core me that at heart is still the same. Older, wiser, influenced by environment and thought and life decisions, etc, but that all of that changed around the core essential "I." I suppose it is that core that's responsible for interpreting life and the world the way we do, which I guess, sounds like free will, but I think there's something more to it than that....I don't know. That's just how I feel about it intuitively.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

"Also, they liked to tell us that the reason the Rebbe was so special was that he was the first one in millenia born with a "new soul." Either that or he was a gilgul of Moshe Rabbeinu."

Correction: ALTER Rebbe (#1) was Neshama Chadasha, not from the 600,000 "general souls"

Then there's the Ispashtusa D'Moshe B'chol Dor, which is a Zoharic reference to the Nosi Hador who sows faith in his generation.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

I'm reasonably sure at least one teacher told us that the Rebbe was Moshe's gilgul. However, on the first point, I will bow to your superior knowledge.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Yoni said...

miri, thats what they told me as well.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

I didn't say otherwise.

10:14 PM  

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