Rosh Hashanah 5775
By Miriam Elkins
Nearly every morning someone gently presses my front bell. I recognize the sound immediately – two short rings – I have come to expect it; after all, he has done this for several years (I can’t really recall how long it’s been). I open the door to Samuel who bids me good morning and asks what he can do for me today. I assign him a few modest tasks, since he refuses to accept money without as he puts it “being of service to the community.” My husband and I have settled on a daily budget for Samuel which we have from time to time adjusted in accordance with the rise in the cost of living. I usually go outside to hand him the money, but when I fail to do so he rings the bell to inquire whether the job has been done to my satisfaction. He accepts my offering with God Bless You as though it were an unexpected gift, as though his reward lay simply in having relieved us of some routine chores.
Like you, I am no fan of homelessness or poverty. I walk the streets of my neighborhood and am appalled at the level of degradation to which the wealthiest society in the world which claims to adhere to scriptural values has condemned its most powerless members. Like you I support relief agencies dedicated to alleviating their distress as well as public policy that would transform the economic and social conditions that generate unconscionable challenges to human well-being.
Yet, it is not easy for me to identify with Samuel. He is a stranger to me, radically and incomparably different. Not only is he male and African American and homeless. His life-story undoubtedly diverges from my own in ways I can hardly imagine. At the beginning I was curious about him; part of me still is. Where he is from, how it is that he came to own nothing more than the contents of his shopping cart. It was tempting for me, as a self-identified caring person, to somehow feel entitled to interrogate him, to press him for biographical details. Why has he not somehow managed, as I have, to secure for himself a tiny island of certitude in what the philosopher Emanuel Levinas has called the element, that vast spatial infinity of the unknown. I have learned to resist the temptation to inquire because I have come to realize that underlying it is the assumption that because he is on the outside, somehow he owes me an accounting, an explanation of his circumstance, while I, in turn, would consider it an invasion of my privacy to be forced to share the details of my own. Our only egalitarian point of contact is my doorstep where we first saw each other and where we continue to see one another each morning face to face.
According to the philosopher Martin Buber, my relationship with Samuel need not be asymmetrical at all. His concept of I-Thou can be described as a loving reciprocal embrace which may be why he has gained such widespread acceptance among non-Jewish thinkers: I-Thou, a momentary dissolving of our essentially superficial dissimilarities into a fusion of our common humanity. Are we not all kindred spirits under heaven? Do we not all share basic human physical and emotional needs and desires? And with enough generosity of spirit on our part are not these commonalities sufficient to engender feelings of empathy, compassion and charity toward the other? Perhaps.But empathy, compassion and charity do not constitute I-Thou relationships. In the context of the real world, those relationships are almost invariably grounded not in otherness but in affinity, in common experiences or cultural perspectives or class. All other relationships tend by their very nature, to be unequal, the less privileged being less powerful. In the real world Buber’s I-Thou is essentially aspirational, not descriptive.
Levinas grapples with the asymmetrical nature of our relationship with the other, and acknowledges my presumably not-unreasonable, but actually quite presumptuous urge, to appropriate knowledge about him. Since knowledge is power, knowing more about him than he knows about me would put me in a superior position, would give me a tool by which to exercise judgment or pity, uncomfortable as it is for me to admit it. Instead, Levinas performs a radical reversal of conventional behavior regarding those interpersonal relationships which are notoriously unequal. He draws his inspiration from our forefather Abraham, who, heavy with wealth and influence – one might say a Biblical one-percenter – did not wait for weary traveling strangers to come to him, but ran out to meet them in the desert heat, and bowed down to them calling them “my lord,” and who, the Torah seems to tell us, was beholden to them for having granted him permission to care for them. The story begins, And God appeared to Abraham. Rashi interprets this to mean that Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent waiting for needy passers-by who failed to arrive, so God himself took matters into his own hand, as it were, and sent him three angels disguised as men in order to introduce to the world a relationship to the other which Levinas calls the ethics of infinite responsibility.
God, though constantly audible throughout Torah, is reputed to be invisible except on very rare occasions, when someone like Moses is reported to have seen God face-to-face. According to Levinas, that face-to-face is not a private mystical epiphany, but rather a glimpse into the world of the infinitely unknowable – the world of the impoverished widow, orphan and homeless – represented by an infinitely unknowable God. In that face-to-face, God grants his human creatures the unique privilege of fulfilling an ethical obligation which like God himself is infinite.
Lately, between Samuel and me, a subtle shift has been taking place, hardly noticeable. Outwardly nothing has really changed – payment in return for services rendered. But these days when I open my door he informs me that, on his own initiative, he has already swept my walk and watered my garden, and invites me to inspect his work. Over time our roles have become reversed as Levinas predicted and hoped they would be. Samuel is no longer my suppliant whom I have the option to accept or reject, but rather my creditor to whom I am actually, rather than metaphorically, indebted. As Levinas puts it: “To welcome the other is to put into question my freedom; the better I accomplish my duty the fewer rights I have.”
To me Samuel is no sociological abstraction, but a contemporary trace of that face-to-face encounter between Moses, who handed down our basic required legal obligations, and God who opens our consciousness to an infinitely expanded vision of ethical responsibility.