Where Are You?



This simple innocuous query seems to have become one of the most asked questions since we have been using cell phones. Do we really need to know where our interlocutor is, what he/she is doing this very minute?

In his latest book Zeugma, rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin (associate professor at Bar-Ilan university) ponders on the two contemporary floods that are submerging us, namely the physical flood created by climate change and the psychological flood brought about by the the countless snippets of information we are bombarded with every day.

He stresses and questions our need to feel in contact all the time via short text messages, Facebook, our blogs – I could add Twitter. He also points out to the standardization of our culture; people read the same free papers on the tube, consult the same news websites, watch the same tv shows, etc.

His worry is that soon we might no longer be able to confront our own selves, that we won’t be able to find the time to read and to create. Above all the Jewish teacher in him fears that we won’t be able to study. By studying he means, the existential approach that enables us to grasp the real meaning of a text, as it addresses itself to the individual interpreter.

To explain this approach, he quotes this famous text from the Midrash commenting on Deuteronomy 29:15:
It is not with you alone that I make this covenant, as well as this plea, but with whoever is present today with us in the presence of God . . . and with whoever is not here today with us.”

The existential attitude is based on the idea that every era must un derstand the text in its own way. The real meaning of a text, as it addresses itself to the interpreter, does not depend on accidental factors concerning the author and his original audience. Or, at least, these conditions do not exhaust its meaning.
And so one can state that the meaning of a text–if it is a great text–not just occasionally but always escapes its author.

(…) In fact, it is not the text that is understood, but the reader. He understands himself. To understand a text is, from the start, to apply it to ourselves. But this application does not diminish the text, for we know that the text can and must always be understood differently. (Marc-Alain Ouaknin)

As an avid reader I couldn’t help feeling challenged by those words. Do I read less because I blog more? The answer is certainly yes. Do I spend less time studying the way Ouaknin suggests? Maybe. What do you think?

These thoughts were inspired by a radio program I heard yesterday.