by Philip Boxer
The subtitle of Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s book on ‘Being Jewish Today‘ is “Confronting the Real Issues”. What might ‘the Real’ mean within the context of Lacan’s work?
The diasporic way is referenced early in the book:
“Living in diaspora involves working with the otherness of the other … Difference, disagreement and conflict are essential to growth. The key lies not in avoiding difference but in how it’s managed, openly and creatively … To do so, to work where different systems of meaning meet, is to live at the edge, a place both creative and risky.”
In a sense the whole book is about working with the otherness of the other, the unanswered question being what this might mean for the governance of the State of Israel. Rabbi Bayfield also grappled with this question at Leo Baeck College and during his time as President of the Movement for Reform Judaism.
What is it that underlies the otherness of the other – the differences in systems of meaning? Lacan ends up distinguishing the necessary-Real (the way each of us repeats our particular ways of being in relation to that originating contraction/loss/lack) and the Real-impossible (the liminal limit to the ways in which any one might take up his or her being) . The former enables us to understand attachment to different ways of meaning-making, one particular form of which is elucidated by this book. The latter raises the whole question of what might be constitutive of the covenant and how this is (to be) taken up in the world. This is a double subjection in the sense that both limits are to be questioned, limits both to particular ways of making meaning and to meaning-making per se. In the context of the book, working with the ‘otherness of the other’ only appears to address the first of these.
The importance of separating these two questions is so very apparent in this quote:
“I consider the Jewish question … a national question … We are a people — one people … We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country. The majority decide who the ‘alien’ is.”
The violent exclusions to which the book refers evidence something that goes far beyond a question of differences of meaning, for example in the metaphoric ‘murder’ of otherness in ‘Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge‘ :
“The toxicity of toxic thinking, therefore, must be seen through the experience of the ‘other’ and not through that of the consciousness sustained by the dominant ways of framing wigo. Working forensically, with its use of the concept of a ‘crime scene’ to focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator, is therefore not to start by asking what is toxic, but rather by asking what innovations are getting ‘murdered’ and why. […] Not to betray the ‘other’ involves dying enough to an existing way of holding the relation to the impossible to make room for alternative adaptations, an ethic of living between two deaths, between first dying to an existing way of thinking before, at some later date, actually dying.”
The violent exclusion speaks of a refusal of adaptation, a maladaptation that constitutes an ethical failure engendering unconscious shame when born witness to by whistleblowers. This phenomenon of maladaptation is pervasive across societies. Why this turning of a blind eye?
The book points out the importance of holding both relations to the Real in terms of both the attachment to Land and to the diasporic ethic aka a particular way of being in relation to that originating contraction/loss/lack:
“Despite history, I still believe in Diaspora as well as Land. And my much-resisted inheritance from the Leo Baeck College won’t go away: I’m wedded to the German Liberale tradition and elective affinity. Some years ago, I attended a lecture in Paris by the Jewish historian Diana Pinto. She savaged what she identified as the European Jewish sense of victimhood and retreat into exotic otherness (Haredi Jews lighting hanukkiot in public squares with politicians standing by), arguing that Jews should stop thinking of themselves as ‘victims’ and consider themselves ‘as the full-fledged, integrated and positive actors they are across Europe’. Jews should balance concern for themselves with ‘shared universal principles in the creation of an open, tolerant but value-laden space’. She concluded:
“Jews know what they need, in terms of cultural and religious spaces and respect for multiple identities, in order to be able to live as fulfilled citizens in their respective countries … The most important lesson for the future is that democracies can only exist and prosper if they contain citizens, not a collection of competing victims.” ”
The book questions an attachment to the Land as to the Torah qua “primary text” by questioning the ‘by whose authority’ of authorized interpretations of the Torah (“Judaism’s unique selling point”):
“… I’m not dismissing or downgrading the Torah text nor the infinite number of meanings generations have found and continue to find in it. But I am insisting that even the primary text is an interpretation of our ancestors’ experience of God, not the experience itself. The text of Torah is itself interpretation.”
This brings me to the book’s fourth response to Jewish practice that it points out no movement within Judaism has taken on, including during Rabbi Bayfield’s time as President of the Movement for Reform Judaism:
#4. “’We need to engage in a radical rebuilding of the halakhic edifice, restoring the ethical and spiritual to its determinative position as the raison d’etre for the portable Judaism of the Rabbis.’ Drawing on foundations laid by colleagues in the United States and Israel, no one articulated this more precisely than John Rayner, but it’s not apparent any Movement within Judaism has taken the task on.”
This speaks of the same institutionalized counter-resistance within Judaism that we observe across all institutions. It has at its root the none-of-your-business strategy ceilings created by authorized interpretations underpinned in the Abrahamic Faiths by texts being “literally from God” but elsewhere by the modern power/knowledge equivalents of ‘divine right’:
“We’ve seen the extent to which exegesis, interpretation, lay at the heart of the halakhic enterprise. The process was far from being a free-for-all but was governed by hermeneutics, rules of interpretation. The Oral Torah both included and was developed (or made explicit) by those rules of interpretation stamped with divine authority.”
This #4 can only be addressed by considering the relation to the Real-impossible as distinct from the necessary-Real: God did not ‘hang around’ but ‘contracted’ after the creation. This is not easy to do even in terms of the way an individual takes up his or her being, let alone in religious terms. It was not until Seminar XX On Feminine Sexuality – The Limits of Love and Knowledge (1973) that Lacan began to come down on the side of contraction when he started going fully Borromean. This ‘turn’ by Lacan is the point at which I diverge from Bielik-Robson’s reading of Lacan, raising a questioning of the Lacanians as problematic for them as is #4 above for being Jewish. The book picks up on the ‘contraction’ in the following:
“… The Lurianic creation myth describes how God felt compelled to make room for the world by, as it were, abandoning a region within God’s Self, ‘a kind of mystical primordial space from which He withdrew in order to return to it in the act of creation and revelation’, explains Scholem. Tsimtsum is how the Kabbalists termed this divine contraction.”
Tsimtsum is of huge significance as a theological way of approaching how we take up our being – it is for mankind to act for the good in the sense of mitzvah, the equivalent of a psychoanalytic ethic as distinct from an ‘authorised’ moral code. The book puts it like this:
“The insistence that what we do matters to the outcome of the divine tsimtsum, the adventure of being; that our deeds, as it were, mark the Divine countenance – is provocative and challenging. The intuition that God and humanity are in partnership and need each other takes us back to the Torah itself.”
Bielik Robson addresses this matter of faith in ‘A Matter of Faith: Derrida, Žižek, and the Fourth ‘Overcoming of Gnosis’’ :
“While reacting to the Gnostic tendencies of late modernity, Hannah Arendt wrote:
“Modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence. The alternative to this resentment, which is the psychological basis of contemporary nihilism, would be a fundamental faith in the few elementary things that indeed are invariably given us, such as life itself, the existence of man and the world […] The stubbornness of reality is relative. Reality needs us to protect it.”
But if Arendt is right, then the ‘overcoming of Gnosis’ is ultimately the question of faith to which there is no metaphysical answer. This is the last irremovable ditch of theology in the late-modern world, which, in both Žižek and Derrida, coincides with the subjective remnant as the irreducible possibility to choose between the secure knowledge of nothingness, on the one hand, and the risky faith in being, on the other. The fideistic paradox revealing itself in the midst of the most advanced modern materialism tells us that the material existence is not a matter of fact, but a matter of belief; indeed, it tells us that matter would be nothing if it weren’t a matter of belief, quite literally. And what we do with this diagnosis—whether we go for the Žižekian nihilism of less-than-nothing or whether we lean towards the Derridean pra-affirmation of foi originaire—can only be, and forever remain, the matter of our decision: metaphysical and political alike.”
Having God ‘hanging around’ leaves us with having to have faith in a pleroma underpinned by a ‘knowledge of nothingness’, while God’s contraction leaves us dealing with the ‘matter of faith’ in which we face the necessity of acting as if we know while knowing that we do not – living with an ‘irritation of doubt’ that I wrote of in ‘Working with ‘the irritation of doubt’: the place of metaphor’. To turn a blind eye, then, is to refuse doubt – the key ingredient of maladaptation.
In these terms, anti-Semitism becomes a symptom of the unconscious shame arising from a presumed knowledge of (pleromatic) nothingness faced by a kenomatic challenge to its basis of faith. This makes the radical rebuilding in #4 a challenge that needs to be applied far more widely. The question asked by the last chapter on ‘Life beyond Death’ picks up on the ethical notion of living ‘between two deaths’ in terms of what might come next. The challenge in ‘confronting the Real issues’ is to return to this question repeatedly during the course of a lifetime.
1. Berger, L., et al., We Cannot Justify Israel’s West Bank Annexation, in Haaretz. 2020.
2. The repetition of a radically unconscious relation to the symptom (Lacan’s Seminar XXIV April 19th, 1977) that “does not cease to be written” (Lacan’s Seminar XXV January 10th, 1978).
3. That which “does not cease not to be written” (Lacan’s Seminar XXIV March 8th, 1977 – my emphasis)
4. Boxer, P.J., Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge. Organizational and Social Dynamics, 2017. 17(1): p. 89-110.
5. wigo (what is going on) is contrasted with what is Really going on (wiRgo). While wigo is a description of the reality of a situation, wiRgo is the relation to a beyond of wigo that represents a relation to a ‘more’ that gets repeated aka ‘never ceases to be written’. A dominant way of framing wigo is also an attachment to a particular way of being in relation to wiRgo.
6. Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. 1992 [1959-1960], London: Tavistock/Routledge.
7. Baburoglu, O.N., The Vortical Environment: The Fifth in the Emery-Trist Levels of Organizational Environments. Human Relations, 1988. 41(3): p. 181-210.
8. Stein, M., The Lost Good Self: Why the whistleblower is hated and stigmatized. Organization Studies, 2019: p. 1-20.
9. Boxer, P.J., On becoming edge-driven – working with the Double Subjection of Organizations. 2018, Boxer Research Ltd: Working Paper.
10. Foucault, M., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. C. Gordon. 1980, Brighton, UK: The Narvester Press.
11. Bielik-Robson, A., The Marrano God: Abstraction, Messianicity, and Retreat in Derrida’s “Faith and Knowledge”. Religions, 2019. 10(22).
12. Bielik-Robson, A., Another Infinity: Towards Messianic Psychoanalysis, in Another Finitude: Messianic Vitalism and Philosophy. 2019, Bloomsbury Academic: New York. p. 145-197.
13. Bielik-Robson, A., CHAPTER 4 – A Matter of Faith: Derrida, Žižek, and the Fourth ‘Overcoming of Gnosis’, in Theology and World Politics: Metaphysics, Genealogies, Political Theologies, V. Paipais, Editor. 2020, Springer Nature. p. 75-104.
14. A primordial non-being, “filled with unperturbed peace and infinite jouissance”. See  below.
15. Boxer, P.J., Working with ‘the irritation of doubt’: the place of metaphor. Socioanalysis, 2018. 20: p. 27-50.
16. “The real void, beyond any pretence—and in that sense truly kenomatic—is offered by the act of tsimtsum, the non-sacrificial re-treat of God, which does not leave creation in the state of the ‘infinite grief’, and the necessity to repeat the gesture of self-offering.” Bielik-Robson, A., The Marrano God: Abstraction, Messianicity, and Retreat in Derrida’s “Faith and Knowledge”. Religions, 2019. 10(22).
17. Bielik-Robson, A., “Solid Hatred Addressed to Being”: Lacan’s Gnostic Uses of Judaism, in Esoteric Lacan, M. Tourage and P. Valentini, Editors. 2019, Rowman & Littlefield: London. p. 15-46.
18. The first death is a dying to a way of meaning-making while the second death is facing our mortality.