Affect, Bodies, Virtue Ethics (Jonathan Schofer)


[[Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Jane Doe Killed by Police), 1991]]

Jonathan Schofer’s Confronting Vulnerability: The Body and the Divine in Rabbinic Ethics is a uniquely beautiful and affecting book of Jewish philosophical meditation. The particular emphasis of the book is the ethics of character formation drawn not from the perspective of a powerful sovereign self, but rather through the prism of physical vulnerability and spiritual exercise. As always, in my own reading, I have been alert to the way in which images and pictures guide ethical mediation. Confronting Vulnerability gives ample evidence to the fusion of ethics and aesthetics, and is itself a case study for such. Perhaps because it is so text based, the rabbinic virtue/character ethics on display depends upon the imagination. Its operation depends fixed upon on vivid pictures and graphic images, a sense of body and place, the phenomenon of the gaze, and the working of semblances.

As I have before mentioned about the subject here at the blog, the most basic question regarding Jewish ethics persists in the very scholarly studies devoted to it. Is there such a thing as “Jewish ethics”? Does the thing itself exist? As in so many similar studies, Schofer is forced to begin his study recognizing that there are no indigenous rabbinic terms for ethics in either the modern or ancient sense of the word. A fundamental question arises for the possible source material from which one might derive such a thing. Turning away from legal traditions as a basis on which to construct a model of Jewish character or virtue ethics, Schofer looks to midrashic material and places them in context with Hellenistic sources contemporary to the rabbis (cf. pp.9-14). Were the Bavli brought more consistently into the discussion, it is not sure what would have happened to this project in virtue ethics. While not exclusively, the vast majority of sources drawn upon are Palestinian; especially powerful are ones from Leviticus Rabbah. In choosing these Palestinian sources, Schofer’s model of rabbinic/Jewish virtue ethics has as its philosophical setting a distinctly Roman and stoic milieu.

For Schofer, the ethical focus of character formation revolves around confronting/imagining the human body at its most vulnerable is the key part of this therapeutic pedagogy of the self.  With an emphasis on small acts and virtues, the goal is to integrate self and world through spiritual practices of living well, caught between the competing power of imperial and divine rule (pp.1-4, 190). Full of mini-grotesques, there are chapters on death and the ageing body, defecation, early death, drought, and life-cycles. The rabbinic stoic self is caught up in powerful waves of negative affect triggered by uncontrollable weeping, disgust, and the like. The ethics of character formation built up in terms of common things like table and toilet etiquette, conjugal relations, and so on. Confronting vulnerability and maintaining bodily comportment are the things that matter most, ethically. But rather than nature, which is meant to calm stoic thinking, it is the image of God as king, judge, and creator that provides the orienting fulcrum around which are juxtaposed these pictures of human mortality, the human corpse, and the ordinary life that take place private and social spaces such as bedrooms and dining areas.

The unusually morbid dictum by Akavya ben Mahallel (Schofer calls him a “controversial and contentious sage”) is the starting and guiding point for Schofer’s model of rabbinic character. It reads, “Look upon three things and you will not come into the hands of transgression. Know from where you come, to where you go, and before whom in the future you are to give account and reckoning. From where you come: from a putrid secretion. To where you go: to worm and maggot. Before whom in the future will you give account and reckoning before the King of the king of kings, the Hole One, blessed be He” (Avot 3:1). Starting on page one, Akavya appears throughout the first hundred pages of Confronting Vulnerability as a nearly ever present lodestar.

A more beautiful mediation on human frailty than Akavya’s grim image of human putrefaction, is the reading of the Palestinian rabbis in Leviticus Rabbah 18:1 of Ecclesiastes 12:1-7. Occupying nearly twenty full pages in Schofer’s text (pp.25-44), it stands out as the highest literary moment in this book about Jewish ethics. The text from Ecclesiastes is the intertext with which the midrash reads a passage from the biblical book of Leviticus on impure make bodily discharge. Passage from Ecclesiastes calls upon the listener to remember your Creator while one is still young, before one’s days begin to darken with old age. The figures that populate this sentiment convey a town as it falls silent, the market doors closing, with fear from on high as mourners gather; the snapped silver cord and smashed golden bowl convey the precariousness of life. With its eye on the theme of physical impurity in Leviticus, the midrashic commentary in Leviticus Rabbah begins by citing Akavya on the impure status of human origins and fate. As it turns to the intertext from Ecclesiastes, all that book’s figures, drawn from the social space of the town, are quickly brought to bear upon weeping and other signs of emotional distress, upon the waning of the knees, ribs, forearms, stomach, and teeth, eyes, lungs, and more –all of which are balanced by a remembrance of the purity of God and the divine habitation, and the imperative to return the human soul, which is pure, back to God in its pristine condition.

The problem points are several.

One such problem is what Schofer himself designates as the disjunction between the disproportionate punishment suffered by human beings for very small faults. Examples include young widows whose husbands die for the slightest violation of laws regarding “family purity” that forbid physical contact btween husbands and wives during a woman’s menstrual cycle; or sages put to the torch as martyrs for the slightest lapse of humility. These examples appear in chapter three, on “early death.” Schofer admits that “something seems wrong, disturning, and promelatic” in these equeations between small sin and dire punishment that disrupt the sense of divine order and divine justice (p.106). Instead of stabilizing character (i.e. one’s view of the self and world), the confrontation with human vulnerability can lead to the opposite effect. It might be one thing for the eye to “look” upon such things like age and other de-formations, and quite another to suffer them on the flesh.

Large scale phenomena only magnify the problems that attend the moral calculus of human suffering. As Schofer himself admits, “distinct problems arise” especially when one tries to interpret in terms of divine reward and punishment events like rain or drought. Because they affect large groups of people, their cause is indeterminate. Whose virtue caused God to give rain, whose sin caused God to punish the people with drought? Instead of building community, this ambiguity creates dissent and discord. “How does one assess praise and blame for inciting divine action when some suffer and other do not?” While the Palestinian sources cited by Schofer resolve these conundra on the basis of the humility of charismatic rabbis, he notes, without, unfortunately, developing the point that the Bavli does not put a premium on ethical ideals prescribed by sages. By this, I think what Schofer means, is that it is not the virtue of the sage that is at the center of the discussion in the Bavli as much as it is the honor of God (pp.126-30, cf.134).

About the conundrua surrounding the disproportionate nature of individual suffering or the inability to understand the moral calculus behind collective suffering, one should be of mixed as these relate to virtue/character ethics. To understand that the realization of human vulnerability might lead to opposite effects or contradictory conclusions and even social strife would either refute, totally, such an ethical program of character ethics, or render it truly deep and profound complex. Ethics would then be more of an uncertain gambit than anything fixed, settled, or guaranteed in its desperate confrontation with the human condition. These are the insights drawn out by Schofer in the book’s conclusion. Cognizant of the counter-view that there is no justice in an indifferent cosmos, Schofer insists that a theology of divine justice does not preclude ambiguity, limitation, and uncertainty, that accounts of divine order are “neither easy nor comfortable.” Amounting to an aesthetics of disjunctions, Schofer suggests that, “At the very least, the God of the sages appears to administer justice no mechanistically, but with style.” That is to say, there is an art in God’s way with “man” and the world. While Schofer goes on to suggest that this God acts according to “lively set of communal and individual purposes,” it might be more true to say that, for the rabbis, the phenomenon of divine justice is quite canny in its concept; that is to say, hidden from a single and clear view (186-7, emphasis added).

One last problem addressed by Schofer in the last pages of the conclusion, but perhaps less successfully, concerns the ontology of virtue. Because, as he contends, virtues are not “unequivocally good,” ethical thinking has to “navigate” constantly between “excess and deficiency.” What that means is that virtues “also have problematic semblances and counterfeits” by which a person “appears to be acting well but actually is not” (pp.189-90). Here in the last two pages of the book is a core problem concerning the capacity of philosophical ethics as think through the relation between the real and the apparent. It’s at this point that the virtue begins to disappear, except perhaps as a category of thought, except as a semblance. Perhaps more than the Palestinian sources, the Bavli, I think, better understands the fine line between righteousness and wickedness. Why should this matter if a semblance is nothing less than real? Would it matter, practically, what motivates an ethical action and with what epistemological in-sight could one hope to distinguish between the appearance and the actuality of such an act? It might be the case that thinking about ethical virtue and ethical life involve nothing but semblances. That recognition is only problematic if one insists on a firm and final distinctions between doing and thinking, and between reality and appearance. Rather than undercut morality, such a recognition that ethical reflection depends upon images and the imagination might allow one to better follow the flow of surface appearances, the images that shape and determine ethical life and ethical consciousness, than do more strictly insistent realist accounts of ethical virtue.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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