Where Are You?

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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.

12 thoughts on “Where Are You?

  1. Thank you for this introduction to Marc-Alain Ouaknin.

    As long as one keeps Shabbat, we will still be reading books instead of absorbing internet posts. I may read a little less due to blogging, but on the other hand, I read some books and essays (including the parsha) more intensely and with more understanding because of blogging.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful analysis of meaning and reading. I agree that we may read books a bit less, but the human mind wants to understand and will search for meaning everywhere. At least those of us inclined in that direction will.

    I like your blog and your photos very much. The cactus dahlia bud is stunning. And thanks for visiting my blog.

  3. Wow, thanks for this great post! Believe it or not but I was thinking about these questions this morning. I have a whole pile of books and articles, both on Jewish topics and history-related material, and I just don’t seem to make time to work with it. It’s true. The internet and other sources of communication consume tons of time that could have been spent in much better ways. I think this is a great Elul post. I want to study and daven more, and this can only be done by turning off that pc. Fortunately we don’t have a tv, so that saves us tons of times already. Again, shkoyach for the post! BTW I was in Antwerp last shabbes and had lunch with our dear friends, it was really nice.

  4. Sra: Thanks for visiting and commenting.
    Frumteacher: I’m glad this post corresponds to someting you were wondering about. I’m actually contemplating getting the book. Thanks for the update on our common friends. 🙂

  5. I love the Internet more than anyone in my family, but we all read A LOT out here. I’m not sure there’s a difference in opening up the pathways in the brain, as long a person is reading somewhere.

    My concern is that nobody seems to get to bed with a good book anymore (with a partner).

    I do think that will change, when people get tired of staring at the white orb and remember how nice that used to be, reading from paper under softer light.

    Great post, important subject.

  6. Leora: It is true that I read more on Shabbat than any other day.
    therapydoc: I read a lot too and greatly enjoy it but I guess one of Ouaknin’s fears is that we might have difficulties being unconnected for a while. I can certainly see that with the younger generation. My students are panick-stricken when their cell phones are confisacted. Thanks for the compliment.

  7. It’s twofold…mixed. I read internet writings that pertain to Judaism, whether it be articles, book reviews, spiritual readings, etc.

    So, in that context, my time online could look as if I devote more time to the internet, but when I do, it is normally related to Jewish culture, in some aspect, including my Jewish genealogy research.

  8. I’ve checked online, and can’t seem to find this book on Amazon, or any of the other book stores I order from. Is it a French edition, only?

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