Friday, August 10, 2018

Choosing Life

I took a class in college called "social constructionism," that ironically ended up being one of my best experiences there. The theme of the class was that the way we relate to what is normal, real, or essential, is determined by social framing and custom. I say "ironically" because the take-away for most of the students was that everything is subjective and relative, and people can't be held responsible by any particular standard.

We watched some of the videos probably everyone with a liberal-arts education has seen - the Stanford Prison Experiment, hidden camera footage of unsuspecting subjects facing socially unsusual situations like people facing the wrong way in the elevator, and other similar footage. We spoke about things like Einstein's theory of relativity (without much scientific understanding of its content), nature and scientific classification, gender and gender roles.

It struck a chord. Subjectivity and social convention really play a central role in the way we relate to everything in our lives. But instead of sherking responsablitiy and casting doubt, I felt that if so much is relative then I'd better be careful about choosing the framework things are relative to. I felt relativism was the beginning of free-will, not the end. For example, if my perception of a prison gaurd will automatically influence me to behave in a certain way in that role, I have to decide carefully what that role means to me. If advertising can get me to think something is cool, I have to decide how I will relate to advertising. But how will I know I'm choosing the way things should be and not just falling into another predetermined kind of fallacy?

Years later, I discovered how the Torah reveals the depth of this question. Rabbenu Yona, a contemporary of Maimonides, wrote in his famous exposition on repentance, The Gates of Teshuva, that free will is among the higher qualities people can reach in spiritual growth. A puzzling statement, considering that free-will is a basic axiom of all Jewish thought. How can there be reward and punishment for average people if free-will is a special higher quality?

The answer is free-will itself is also relative. You can be an average person that mostly follows what is socially constructed, except for a small area that is left ambiguous for you to determine for yourself, or you can be a social constructionist and challenge the frames your society has set up. And  to rise above 'norms' and be an adjent of your own life you have to be more conencted to something which is higher than where you are at.

The way the Torah describes free will is much more than choosing between good and evil. It says "See, I have placed before you life and good, death and evil... Choose life." (Devarim 30, 15-16). Normally we think of "life" as something that just happens to us, not something we choose, and its defined by a period of time between birth and death that we don't control. But as usual, the Torah boldy teaches something we would not fully grasp otherwise.

The Maharal says "life" really means something fresh that constantly renews itself. The term Mayim Chaim, or "living waters" always means a water source which constantly renews itself because it's directly connected to its source. Our life comes from the Source of Life, and its by definition fresh and never just there because it was there before.

But Hashem empowered us to choose: Follow physical instincts and social influences, or choose life, base life on a chosen reality and not a circumstantial, passive one. With free-will you align your personal perspective with a Torah framework and G-d's vision for the world so to speak. And because Torah goes beyond any local paradigms, there's no pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and there are levels upon levels, as infinite as anything.

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