I had an introspective Shabbat (Sabbath). On the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday afternoon, I was thinking about something Rabbi Lord Sacks said, about cultures of sight versus cultures of sound. He said that the West is a culture of sight. In English, all our ‘thought’ words are based on sight. We talk of hindsight, insight, foresight. When we understand, we say, “I see.” Judaism is a culture of sound. “Shema” (hear/listen) is a key word in Devarim (Deuteronomy) in particular. The Talmud introduces an argument by saying, “Come and hear.” If a rabbi rejects an argument, the Talmud says, “He couldn’t hear it.” Rabbi Sacks sees sight cultures as focused on exteriors and sound cultures as focused on interiors.

It occurred to me that the West is even more sight-focused than when Rabbi Sacks said that (I’m not sure when exactly but probably about fifteen years ago). We talk a lot about how people ‘present’, particularly regarding race and gender. If someone feels a book resonated with her experience, she says, “I felt seen.” If not, she says, “It erased me.” Even the idea that the best moral value is to “be the best you that you can be” seems somehow superficial in the absence of detailed introspection about who you actually are and especially whether there is an objective standard of morality, which it seems to more or less assume doesn’t exist.

This led to thoughts about feeling that the (Western popular) culture around me is very superficial and it’s no wonder I don’t connect with it, leading to wondering whether frum (religious) Jewish culture is any better, because it’s possible to pray, study Torah, perform mitzvot (commandments) and acts of kindness and so on and still be superficial. The Kotzker Rebbe said, “Someone who studies Torah and isn’t moved by it, who sins and forgives himself, who prays today because he prayed yesterday – a completely wicked person is better than him!” It is, however, hard to tell if people are being superficial without knowing them in detail. Non-superficial people, pretty much by definition, can’t be identified from the outside, only by the depths of their souls.

I wondered what authenticity really is. I used to think it was about depth, being passionately into something worthwhile, but I wondered if it was also about breadth, having a balanced outlook and many different interests. If being into one thing, however positive it is in the abstract, is ultimately limiting (e.g. the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) super-focus on Talmud study ahead of things like being economically self-sufficient and serving the country you live in).

There is a saying from the Greek poet Archilochus that, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” I used to think ideal people were foxes (Renaissance men), then I thought that they were hedgehogs (Romantics); now I wonder if they need to be a bit of both. I don’t know where I fall, but I want to be a bit of both.

However, I wonder if this argument moves us away from authenticity. I’m still reading Rabbi Samuel Lebens’ The Principles of Judaism. Today I saw the quote (in the context of what he terms “Extreme Hassidic Idealism,” namely the belief that the universe is just an idea in the mind of God, an idea that he perhaps surprisingly argues forcefully in favour of), “If God tells you that you’re a figment of his imagination, what would your prayer be? “Make it non-fictionally true that I’m a poignant character is your dream,” or “within the story of your dream, give me health, wealth and happiness”? Lebens seems to think everyone would naturally go for the second option, but I really don’t see it (this is assuming that poignancy is related to authenticity, which may be a leap). I’m not saying that I wouldn’t go for that option in the end, but I would really have to think about it, maybe trying to fudge it by saying that I need the latter to be the former (which is basically how Jewish prayer works, where we ask for God to inspire us to be good, but also to give us wisdom, health, wealth, etc. because they make it easier to be good).

Or is poignancy not the same of authenticity either? Maybe authenticity is something instinctive, something that vanishes if you overthink it. I’m not sure. I feel I haven’t really come to a conclusion here, after spending a whole day thinking about this.


Other than this, Shabbat was normal, or “new normal” (i.e. normal from the pandemic onwards). The rabbi led Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and started a circle dance (or “dance,” as the layout of the crowded room and, to be honest, the average age of the congregation means that it’s a slow shuffle around the room in a shape that’s more of a square than a circle, but holding hands, which I don’t like). He tried to drag me into it, which I felt uncomfortable with on multiple levels. I feel he should respect my feelings not to join in, which are mostly autistic with a little COVID fear. But I also wish I could be “normal” and get something out of bonding with people that way and entering into the moment and the emotion (back to authenticity, I guess).

Other than that I didn’t do much: some Torah study, mostly Yehoshua (Joshua) and Rabbi Michael Hattin’s book on it, a little Talmud and more of The Principles of Judaism, which I’m really enjoying and finding meaningful even if I don’t understand all of it. I read a little of The Coming of the Third Reich, but not much, as I fell asleep last night, in my clothes, about 11.30pm. I woke up at 1.00am and quickly changed into pyjamas and went to bed. I felt drowsy after lunch today and drank coffee to stay awake, but I still slept for nearly two hours in the afternoon. I fear I won’t sleep tonight, and also that I’m getting too old to be able to eat a heavy meal without needing to sleep it off.

11 thoughts on “Authenticity

  1. I love the dream idea! That makes a lot more sense than trying to reconcile a supposedly good Gd with all the evil present in the world. We all know the weird paths that dreams can take…

    Never read the seen/heard dichotomy before. Interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not sure where the dichotomy originates. I feel it was probably not something Rabbi Sacks originated, but if I ever knew where it came from, I’ve forgotten. He read a lot in fields like philosophy and social psychology, so it could have come from there.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Now my brain is wrapped around the see-hear thing. My mom always says, “Do you see what I’m saying?” It really should be hear. I’ll be more aware of my own language going forward. Authenticity is a tricky concept because do any of us know ourselves well enough to even be authentic? What about me is real and what is situational? I don’t have the answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Re: the see/hear thing … I think this is just metaphor and wouldn’t get too hung up on it. Both the verbs to see and to hear have two meanings – the first to do with the actual sense, and the second meaning being to perceive. We do this to a lesser extent with the other senses e.g. we might say “ I can smell danger” or “ they have tasted victory.” And the same applies to the sense of touch or feeling which are both used in the literal and the metaphorical sense. Indeed, if we are guilty of anything in the West it is over reliance on subjective feelings. And yes, we are superficial in that we have become obsessed with short term pleasure and the gratification of all the senses. Yet back to vision. It also strikes me that for most people vision is the more valued sense – and there is nothing wrong with this. If you ask people which they would rather be – deaf or blind, most would say deaf. Yet – if you ask a musician this question (as I asked my oldest son who is a musician) – it was most certainly the other way round! Music is very much a language in itself which can best be appreciated with the eyes closed. Which of the two do you value the most bearing in mind that we can more easily hear with our eyes than see with our ears?

    And authenticity, isn’t this just to do with being true to yourself and then hopefully, having the courage to be your true self to the world as well? For me this is most perfectly expressed by Shakespeare in the lines from Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day /Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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  4. I’m not really seeing (pun intended) the connection between see vs. hear and superficiality vs. authenticity here, to be honest. Also, while I’ve never been truly a part of the frum world to comment on this firsthand, based on what I gather from reading on Imamother and hearing about Husband’s (raised RWMO) experience in the shidduch system (pre-meeting me) and so on, there is a lot of superficiality in the frum world too.

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